Thursday, August 17, 2006

Interesting Article About How A Person Can Learn To Be An Expert

I found this interesting six page article published on the Scientific American site about what scientists learned from studying chess masters and their learning process. That information informs us about learning in general (and teaching, and of the debate of inborn talent versus learned skill).

Online article
Article Title The Expert Mind

Publication: Scientific American

Publication Date: July 24, 2006

Article Author: Philip E. Ross

This is a long article about learning and the brain, and about in-born talent vs. learned skill. This article may be of interest to scientists, doctors, teachers, homeschooling parents, day care workers, day care owners, grandparents and parents.

This article discusses what was learned in a study about chess experts and learning.

Here are some passages that I found very interesting.

"Another reason why cognitive scientists chose chess as their model--and not billiards, say, or bridge--is the game's reputation as, in German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's words, "the touchstone of the intellect." The feats of chess masters have long been ascribed to nearly magical mental powers. This magic shines brightest in the so-called blindfold games in which the players are not allowed to see the board."

"Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence."

Regarding the above: I remember at a local Classical method homeschool support group meeting (in February 2003, I believe), the support group leader (D.) was telling me of the importance of children being taught and challenged and being repeatedly challenged to do a difficult task as important to experience, vs. the notion to ‘not challenge’ children to learn something that doesn’t come easily. Specifically, I was stating that my older son, then aged 5.5 was not finding learning to read easy. I was debating yet again shelving the phonics curriculum. I was being urged to continue, with very short lessons, perhaps 5-10 minutes in duration, to do these short lessons daily, to plug along and make slow but sure progress.

What that leader was saying is that it is important that a child keep trying, even to get frustrated a bit, then to finally learn it and master that thing. She thought that it is good for a child to experience the ongoing challenge, metered out bit by bit. When the task is mastered, they can be proud of their accomplishment when they realize that it did take hard work but it paid off in the end when the big goal is attained (reading, playing guitar, etc.).

That goes along with the notion that some people hold, some homschoolers also, that learning should always being made to be fun and games--- the point is that ‘fun and games’ may not always a good idea. At the time I thought perhaps it was cruel to force a child to do something that was hard and I was torn about my feelings with how to proceed. I decided to keep plugging away at teaching reading, just 5-10 minutes a day, which I reasoned could not be considered torturous for my child, especially since the entire rest of his day was free play time fun and games.

In the end I found myself agreeing with D., back then, and now it is over three years later and I still agree with what D. said. And so it seems some scientists are on the same wavelength. Bravo, D., it seems you were right! (There are many things in life and in my children’s day that are fun and games but some of their homeschooling lessons may be challenging or not fun, but it is not busywork, it is meaningful work with a real purpose.) And note that D.’s maternal instinct about children and learning and about how to homeschool them is now being supported by scientists!

And homeschooling is mentioned (which was a surprise to me) with an important point

"Although nobody has yet been able to predict who will become a great expert in any field, a notable experiment has shown the possibility of deliberately creating one. László Polgár, an educator in Hungary, homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day, producing one international master and two grandmasters--the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. The youngest Polgár, 30-year-old Judit, is now ranked 14th in the world.

The Polgár experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after László Polgár published a book on chess education. The number of musical prodigies underwent a similar increase after Mozart's father did the equivalent two centuries earlier.

Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation"

That last quote furter underscores what the wise homeschool support group leader told me in 2003.

"Teachers in sports, music and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist's extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training."

And the last paragraph sums it up well.

"The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child q uickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts--on the order of $10 or $20--to those who score well. The early results have been promising. Instead of perpetually pondering the question, "Why can't Johnny read?" perhaps educators should ask, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?" "

To those who wonder how children can know so much so as to complete in a spelling bee or a geography bee, they study and they learn little by little, with persistance, over time.

I recall a Dr. Phil show where a mother of a two year old proclaimed her son was gifted becuase he knew the names of the 50 United States. Come to find out, she had practiced with him, using a wooden jigsaw puzzle for young children, showing the shape of the state and telling the name, over and over and over, helping him put the puzzle together. I felt immediately that the child had memorized the names and shapes of the states, by sight, repeating the name, and by touching the state's shape, hey, that hits the three learning methods (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic!). The mother was convinced her child was gifted. I thought the child was just succeeding at learning what she had taught him. After all, the two year old probably has no concept of the Earth, geography, what a country is, what the United States is, and what the definition of a 'state' is, intellectually, let alone grasping that he is a person, just one person on this planet who lives in a certain place that has a name--that to me indicates a higher intelligence level for a two year old. Dr. Phil's response was to back off and that some children just learn some things earlier than others. The reality is that all two year old's are capable of learning things, they learn what they are exposed to, and if you repeatedly show and tell them the names of the 50 states they will memorize their names, while Johnny and Jane that live down the street memorize the names of all the cartoon characters they sees on TV.

I am happy to read the message of this article. It underscores what I already believe about learning. Children can and do learn, if they are given both the opporunity and the challenge. I also learned something new, that talent is not necessarily just inborn or 'in the genes'.

Children learn what they see and experience, they easily learn what they are exposed to and will rise to a challenge if given the opportunity and gentle support to continue working and learning even if it is challenging for them at times.

Perhaps that is the secret to why homeschooling works---we homeschoooling parents set goals, create an atmosphere rich in learning experiences, we get excited about learning, we immerse ourselves in what we are doing, and we teach our children to persevere when the going gets tough, to not give up, to keep trying, and we have mastery as our goal (we keep working at things until they are mastered rather than stopping the lesson at a certin time or date and moving on to the next assignment).

Does anyone else find this article interesting?

I found this article on my first visit to
(Hat tip to Why Homeschool for enlightening me about in
this blog post "Promoting Your Blog".

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1 comment:

Lobo said...

I read the same article about the expert mind. Lots of us can learn how to develop skills - academic, sports, musical, vocational, etc. It's a matter of - interest, focus & concentration, persistence and repetition, and using good methods.

People's interest may be personal and if they have an interest in something, the will stick to it and it may come a little easier than for others. Focus and conentration are skills we can develop to ignore distractions and look beyond the obvious of what we learn - learn deeper. Persistence and repetition is practice and going back to practice some more until we advance in our ability.

What is often needed is a good or right approach to practice the skill. Doing something over and over the wrong way devlops the wrong skill. Doing it over and over slightly off give you a bad habit. We need to learn to do things correctly and know how to get back to correct ways to be truly successful. We all get off the mark sometimes.

A good resource for home schoolers, Jr. High and High school students to learn to study better is

There are books for parents to help their teens to learn better and very good approaches. Look it over.