A New Take on Genius

By Pamela Chan

In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks presents a tight argument for the old adage “practice makes perfect”.

If you cast your mind back to your school days, you will remember the brightest sparks in your class – the math whizzes, the artistic creatives and the sports titans, for example. As you struggled along in your own way you may have wondered how their talents had so greatly surpassed your own.

In my case, by the time I finished high school I had attended 11 schools in Europe, North America and the Middle East, Eastern and South-East Asia. This meant that I had all kinds of educational experiences under my belt, and plenty of knowledge gaps. After switching to yet another new school, I entered my new math class feeling more than a bit confused. As I struggled to keep myself afloat, I cast my eye about and saw that my friends brought strong math and science skills to the table. Were they gifted students? How did they get to be so talented in these disciplines? I soon understood that the schools they had attended placed a strong focus on these areas and on the need to spend time developing the necessary skills.

As I left my student years behind and reflected on my experiences, I realized that the students who were strongest in grade school also spent more time at their craft in consistent learning environments. While there are the gifted types Рlike my sibling  who could whip up a winning political science essay on the fly Рmost people have to put in the time to get the results.

This became one of my strongest pieces of advice to every kindergarten student entering full day schooling. “If you don’t understand your school work, sit down with your teacher or parent and spend time trying to understand. Work hard and spend time on homework in an organized fashion.” Every time I see the young children in my life I ask them, “SO – are you working hard?¬† Are you taking a serious approach to your homework?” “Oh yes,” they assure me, “I am putting in the time.”

A few years ago research came out suggesting that in recent decades parents have spent too much time praising their children for being geniuses. Unfortunately when these students experienced their first major failures, their sense of self – grounded so heavily in their “genuis-ness” – crumbled. The findings suggest that the focus should not be how clever a child is, but rather on how hard they have worked. This is not the same as saying “don’t worry about how they do – just praise their efforts”. These findings helped me to solidify my own focus. My first instinct is to be thrilled when contemplating the results of a young child’s efforts. “Aren’t you clever!”, would be my first natural response. Now I am more apt to say “look how much effort you have put into this painting. It’s lovely. I like how you…..”.

David Brooks article reminds me that there is always a balance between putting in the time and cracking the whip. One hardly wants to jam a child into endless hours of practice if they are not truly passionate about the piano, tennis or an academic discipline. On the other hand adults can help students to organize their time so that they are putting in a sufficient effort in order to build a strong base. A mother I know follows her daughter’s math curriculum closely. She photocopied the index of her mathematics book, ensures that she understand every concept that was taught that week, provides extra questions for each concept covered and reviews all tests results closely. Additionally, if parents perceive that the child does have an interest in an area, they can help to provide consistent and sustained opportunities to pursue these interests. These considerations must be balanced with the realization that a child’s life should not be over programmed. Free time to be bored, stare at the sky, twirl one’s hair, chat with friends and dream is essential. However this does not amount to “scheduling free time”.

In my own life my mother identified at an early stage that I was keen about artistic pursuits. She took up every opportunity she could find to introduce me to a variety of artistic experiences. Wherever we lived in the world, she took me to classes, arts events and introduced me to adults who shared my passion for the arts. Her resourcefulness in this area was impressive and persistent. Watching how she tracks the pursuits of the young children in her life today, I can see that she is continually putting in the time to support the children in her life, who will in turn also will put time into their emerging interests. I know from experience that this is an approach that worked for me and it is exciting to see the next generation pursue their own unique talents in a focused and rewarding way.

Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendents of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots’ culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math.

“What do Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, and a brain surgeon named Charlie Wilson have in common?”, M. Gladwell, The New Yorker

The Genius Myth: The Danger of Worshipping “Exceptional” Students

Parents and a teacher discuss homework skills

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