Sunday, February 21, 2010

The power of context

Intelligence can be a very difficult thing to quantify and it can be equally as difficult to properly attribute the cause of such intellect. Why are some people so much better at something than others. The classic argument between nature and nurture is at the heart of this discussion.

Here is an excerpt from Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how.

De Groot, who was born in 1914, was a Dutch psychologist who played chess in his spare time. He experienced his own version of the holy shit effect when a handful of players from his chess club, people just like him in age, experience, and background, nevertheless were able to perform superhuman feats of chess mastery. These were the sort of T.Rex players who could casually destroy ten opponents at once, blindfolded. Like Anders Ericsson decades later, de Groot puzzled over his losses, which led him to ask what exactly made these guys so great. At the time the scientific wisdom on the issue was unquestioned. It held that the best players possessed photographic memories that they used to absorb information and plan strategies. Master players succeeded, the theory went, because they were endowed with the cognitive equivalent of cannons, while the rest of us made do with popguns. But de Groot didn't buy this theory; he wanted to find out more.

To investigate, he set up an experiment involving both master players and more ordinary ones. De Groot placed chess pieces into positions from a real game, gave players a five-second glimpse of the board, and then tested their recall. The results were what one might expect. The master players recalled the pieces and arrangements four to five times better than the ordinary players did. (World-class players neared 100 percent recall.)

Then de Groot did something clever. Instead of using patterns from a real chess game, he set the chess pieces in a random arrangement and reran the test. Suddenly the masters' advantage vanished. They scored no better than lesser players; in one case, a master chess player did worse than a novice. the master players didn't have photographic memories; when the game stopped resembling chess, their skills evaporated.

De Groot went on to show that in the first test, the masters were not seeing individual chess pieces but recognizing patterns. Where novices saw a scattered alphabet of individual piecs, masters were grouping those 'letters' into the chess equivalent of words, sentences and paragraphs. When the pieces became random, the masters were lost - not because they suddenly became dumber but because their grouping strategy was suddenly useless. The holy shit effect vanished. The difference between chess T. Rexes and ordinary players was not the difference between a cannon and popgun. It was a difference of organization, the difference between someone who understood a language and someone who didn't. Or, to put it another way, the difference between an experienced baseball fan (who can take in a game with an ascertaining glance - runner on third, two out, bottom of the seventh inning) adn the same fan at his first cricket match (who spends the game squinting baffedly). Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework. The name psychologists use for such organization is chunking.

Attributing intelligence to a natural ability is a far too simplistic explanation, and equally insulting to those who work so hard to achieve greatness.

Disclaimer: The Talent Code is a schizophrenic book. Please be careful: the first and last third of the book are phenominal - but the middle third is absolutely crap. For some reason, Coyle ends up falling in love with KIPP (knowledge is power program) schools - even though it is common knowledge that KIPP is the equivalent of military boot camp for poor children of colour.


  1. I'm with you on KIPP. Slick advertising, shady marketing and "cherry-picking" have made them into a model people want to follow.

    However, I don't deny that there are a few ideas of KIPP schools that have worked well. I actually agree with an extended school year, for example. I also see that their teachers tend to be actively engaged and many of them using really sound pedagogy. I just don't think you need all the rewards and punishments and behavior plans to pull those off.

    No one seems to point out the track record of the Quality Schools (based on Glasser's model) that exist in public, low-income schools and have produced higher results in student attendance, achievement levels and levels of contentment among students. And they do that without using coercive techniques.

  2. Interesting post. I'll have to look into the book. It seems that Gladwell drank the KIPP cool-aide as well in "Outliers". Good luck in the big Hockey Game tonight. I've got to pull for the yanks.

  3. Using the word "colored" to describe black people, in America at least, is frowned upon.

    Use "black" or "African American" instead. Or even "people of color", but not "colored". It's as bad as "negro".

    Just in case you care...

  4. I recently finished the book and totally agree that it is a great read for educators (and coaches). Daniel Cunningham makes the same argument about the importance of context in "Why Students Don't Like School." It makes me think that it may be important for students to learn and even memorize information that can be easily accessed on the Internet. Otherwise, the chunking may not be possible.

  5. I'm with you on KIPP. I think Ira Socol said it best -

    Let’s go to those “best schools in America” in the wealthiest suburbs of New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles. Why aren’t they run like KIPP Academies? Always ask this when rich people offer “solutions” for poor people which those rich people would never accept for themselves.

    Oh yeah, the rich parents want creativity and flexibility and diverse curricula. They want individualized discipline (if they want discipline at all). They’d have very little patience for chanting in classes and being told what to do with their children at home.

  6. I didn't read this part of Talent Code with as much interest, but I think Coyle was responding to how KIPP incorporated deep practice in the everyday routine of the schools.


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