Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Prodigy Problem: why talented people fail to learn

There is a pervasive undercurrent in Western society -- at least the bits of it I get to see. I think a Sylvan Learning Centre ad put it the most succinctly:

A little girl, probably ten, going flaming red at the front of the classroom as she stutters over reading the word 'island.' Oh, the shame. Then she goes to Sylvan and can read quickly and easily out loud in class.

Oh, my yes... the Sylvan way: learning things and then doing them; instead of the more commonly expected way, which is: know everything because you're talented, without ever having to learn it at all...

The undercurrent about learning is that talented people know things without having to learn them. That actually creates the prodigy problem. Let me describe:

Shirley Temple was an amazing dancer. 

For a three-year-old. 

She was a remarkable dancer for an eight-year-old. 

She was quite an ordinary dancer for a thirteen-year-old. 

As an adult, she was bright enough to do something other than trying to dance. 

You see, being naturally talented at something is a bit of a problem... it stops people from knowing that they need to learn how to get better at things (if that's what they want to do.)

When I was spending a lot of time at the dance studio, as my children were taking classes, the prodigy problem was visible. The children who were good dancers before they were 10 (some of them had been great dancers at 4 or 6) were appalled by how fast my kids learned to dance as well as they could. When they noticed, and it was impossible not to, they either got angry and left dance entirely or got extremely competitive at my kids.

The thing is, having up to that point relied on 'I don't have any idea how I learn this stuff,' when they get to the age with everyone else who's got 12 or 13 years of 'I have figured out how to learn things' they are surpassed and they have no resources for how to deal with that. If they've thought of themselves as 'naturally talented' (which they probably are), they have no idea how to bring 'intentional learning' to the task. herein lies a problem that is dealt with in some detail by Carol Dweck in Mindset: the new psychology of success: the fixed mindset. If someone (or the entire culture they find themselves in) feels that 'this is it' in terms of talent or ability, they will approach any problem or opportunity facing them with a simple response: I can or cannot do this, and there is nothing I can do about that.

The alternative is the 'learning mindset' -- the one that says 'everything people do, they learn to do first, so I can (if I want to, and apply myself, and do what it takes) learn anything people can do.'

Guess which one makes for a happier, more effective, high-self-esteem life?

Friday, 18 April 2008

Sleep: babies and teens and changing needs
My strange, noticing brain noticed something again. 

Parents spend a great deal of time and effort researching and experimenting and seeking advice about how to stop their babies from waking up in the night. Or, more accurately, how to stop babies from waking parents in the night.

Fast-forward 13 or 14 years. Now parents spend a great deal of time and effort researching, experimenting and seeking advice on how to stop their children sleeping so much.

First we teach children how to do things (follow orders, make choices, sleep on command, etc.) and then, in just a few years when the children really get a handle on that, we ask that they stop. Don't take orders, think for yourself. Don't make choices, do what I say. Stop sleeping all the time and get something done.

More cynical parts of my brain make comments that are uncharitable, like: parents really don't seem to like children very much, and; this seems to be about what is expedient for the parent in this moment, not what is best for the child or society. I don't know that I'd go a long way to contradict either of those sentences, but I will create a little more compassion than that:

I understand:
  • there are a squillion pressures, messages and 'experts' about childrearing, most of whom have no more idea what they're doing than the parents who are listening

  • parents never (not once) ever get up in the morning thinking 'how can I screw up my kid today?' (and children never go to bed at night thinking 'how can I piss mom off tonight?')

  • like most other egrigious mistakes, this is about a lack of knowledge and understanding, not foul motives or vile feelings ... even when the mistakes look like they have selfish motives, or the feelings that arise are vile
There seems to be a war going on: parents sleep on one side, what children need in the night on the other. Parents want to meet the child's needs 'now and forever' for the whole night before the child goes to bed. Which is a little like trying to eat 'once and for all'.

A child can't be made 'full for the night' or even 'sleepy for the night' by any means before bedtime. They cannot be made to feel secure for the night, the right temperature for the night, comfortable for the night, or adequately unlonely (what is the opposite of lonely?) for the night.
Those needs can only be met as they arise.
If the child is lonely in the night, there is nothing for it except to assure them, with a parent's presence, that she is not alone. If the child is hungry in the night, nothing will stop the hunger until he is fed. If the child is uncomfortably warm, cold, wet or sticky, leaving it until after the sun comes up will only let the child know which is more important: his needs or the location of the sun.
And, in 13 years, there is nothing except sufficient sleep that will make a rapidly-growing adolescent be well-rested. And, what outside 'expert' is going to know for this child, based on how fast she's growing, how much exercise she got and what kinds of stresses there were today, how much sleep that takes?

Just meet the needs as they present themselves...

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Drug Education for Kids

There is a lot around these days... anti-smoking propaganda, 'Just Say No' campaigns, websites that may be excellent resources or condescending tripe aimed at kids, their parents or, let's be honest, other people who already agree with the position of those writing them. 

YES GHA alum drug abuse by AFS-USA Intercultural...

Recently, we received a web survey asking what the teenager in the house thought of some written materials aimed at teens. Oh, man. Where to start.

The overall tone of the material was, not surprisingly, "You are stupid, we know more than you and you will never understand this well enough to make sensible choices. Just do what we tell you to do, then you too can be 'cool.'"

A Self-proclaimed nerd by leyla.a
Do you remember being a teenager and being faced with one of those adults? You know, the desperate ones who want to be seen to be cool by the teens? Arg! I swear, this material was written by them. You can smell the desperation, the need to be looked up to, right alongside the utter certainty that the adult is right and the teen is a zombie.

My kids, without any difficulty at all, have found out everything they want to know about drugs -- to the point that they can tell me all kinds of interesting things about words I'd never heard of, like ketamine. They found web sources and books and experts they believed in without having to resort to watching a 20 second commercial telling them what to think.

Have you seen the anti-smoking garbage as of late? My goodness, there are so many people dying of the effects of cigarette smoke -- people who haven't been in regular contact with it, or been smokers themselves, sometimes for decades are somehow crammed into the statistics of 'deaths from smoking' and 'deaths from second hand smoke' -- it's almost the #1 worldwide killer, probably above the most basic 'all people will die of something' cause. Sometimes the deranged side of my mind suspects that everyone who isn't shot or run over by a car, who is old enough to have ever been in a restaurant when smoking was allowed, dies of 'smoking-related illness.' It's a simple leap for a propaganda writer, after all... It goes kind of like this:

  1. Tobacco, when burned, released 4000 chemicals (we'll talk about that piece of b.s. in a moment)

  2. Several (between 6 and 200, depending on who you're listening to) are carcinogenic

  3. THEREFORE anyone who has contracted cancer who was ever anywhere near tobacco burning has suffered from the effects of tobacco smoke AND

  4. Heart disease and lung disease are both known to be correlated to smoking and second hand smoke

  5. THEREFORE anyone with lung or heart disease who has ever been around burning tobacco is suffering from the effects of tobacco smoke

  6. ERGO, anyone who dies after having contracted any of those (cancer, heart or lung diseases) can justifiably be said to have 'died from' the effects of tobacco smoke.
Ha ha ha ha. Oh sure.

Back to that '4000 chemicals' bit. I like this part, it's the funny part. 

Just for comparison's sake: anyone have any idea how many chemicals are released into the air when spicy battered fries are fried? Just for comparison, I mean...


Hmm... perhaps 4000 chemicals released is a lot. Perhaps it is not. Who would know, with nothing at all to compare that isolated fact to? But 'chemicals' is a term that comprises... well, everything. Any compound (like gold-silver alloy) is a chemical. So are all vitamins, all minerals that aren't in their pure elemental form. Oh, and all elements. 

Some folks have managed to pollute the word 'chemicals' and really mean 'dangerous
chemistry solvents, by Hans Splinter
compounds' but, since the 'list' of 'chemicals' released when tobacco burns includes both carbon and oxygen, the whole thing is just silly.

And that, unfortunately, is where almost all anti-drug stuff goes. In an atmosphere of fear, and lacking any trust in the people receiving the information, the anti-drug folks (including the anti-tobacco crowd) are provoked to propaganda.

What is the difference between propaganda and, say, marketing? Well, for one thing, anti-drug campaigns don't have to meet any standards for 'truth in advertising.' They can tell people that marijuana is a 'gateway' drug without having to restrict that statement to any part of reality or define the term. 
The research is clear: the vast majority of people who use marijuana (like tobacco and alcohol) do not ever progress into 'heavier' drugs, not even for experimentation. 
Dailyshoot~2001 Peak District Oddity by Les Hains
Gateway to nowhere, perhaps? Why is that term used? 

To invoke fear and to maintain ignorance.

Propaganda also has a level of invective that borders on the evangelical. It's not unhealthy to try pot -- it's immoral. It's not illegal for minors to use alcohol, it's an indication of someone's lack of character. Strong, upstanding people don't do these things, weak and amoral people do. And today, with the No Stank You and The Truth ads, people who smoke are ugly, stupid, socially-unacceptable and smell worse than decomposing flesh, apparently.

Propaganda is most obvious, though, when the lack of trust in the truth really shines through. The message is 'don't just tell them the truth -- amplify and adorn the truth with hyperbole and speculation, dire warnings of doom and death.' And lots of exclamation points!! 
Drugs kill. !!!!   
Tobacco kills everyone who ever uses it, and most of the people who are ever near it.    !!!!
When parents are attempting to influence their children's choices, particularly into their 20s, when they are truly 'free' of the supervision we rely on for the first 2 decades, what can they do that will actually work?

What can parents do that will actually work?
The truth. 

In fact, the truth is quite bad enough. 

Meth is highly addictive (true) and causes unsightly skin problems (true), is illegal (true), may be tampered with to make it even more addictive (also true) and distracts users from things that are important to them, like loved ones and feeling like a capable, responsible adult (all true). 

Does everyone who ever tries meth get hooked on it? No. 
Does everyone who gets hooked on it die or contract infectious diseases? Also no. 

Is it possible to have a clean source that is easy to get and won't risk the more revolting side effects? Well, yes, maybe, for a while if no one gets caught and the people involved don't have any difficulty getting the ingredients, and have no nefarious agenda in addition to supplying someone with drugs... That's an awful lot of conditions required to make a happy life hooked to something. Not impossible, but who has time or energy to spend that much time making sure tomorrow's lunch is that safe, much less something illicit that makes 'finding out' even harder?

Another 'fact' about drug use that the anti-campaigners like to gloss over is the self-esteem connection.

People who have high self-esteem may, certainly, try out drugs that are readily available to them (caffeine, alcohol and tobacco being way at the top of the list), but the people who are 'hooked instantly' like the drugs specifically for their ability to stop them from feeling the way they always do (or give them access to feelings they walled off long ago in a desperate attempt to stop feeling all the pain). 

Self-esteem is not about being high on oneself, narcissistic or boastful. High self-esteem is based on feeling capable of accomplishing many of the things necessary in life, and on feeling lovable and loved.

Parents can help with all of those things: 

    Fall Family Photos by Chris Price
  • directing children toward doing things with their strengths
  • making sure they know that their weaknesses don't need to be 'fixed' 
  • weaknesses are no sign of being 'broken,' just an indication of where they're always (probably) going to need other people's assistance -- as is appropriate in a cooperative society.

Make sure children know they are loved... that alone goes a long way to ensuring they do not turn to drugs as a way to live with themselves...when they don't care much if they die.