Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

I have to admit that I've had a lifelong fascination with the subject of intelligence, genius, development, etc. I suppose it must have started when I was in grade school and started browsing through my mothers books on child psychology and development... So I was greatly interested to read this article in Scientific American, which I think parents will find eye-opening and practical. The somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion of the article is that parents that praise their children for being intelligent or talented may be misdirecting them to believing that those aspects are fixed rather than developed. This fatalistic view towards their own potential can cause motivation issues in school.

I'd like to relate a story from my own youth that illustrates the point.
I was aware from early in my academic experience that my older sisters were both "smart" and there were expectations that I too would be a good student. Certain things came naturally to me when I was very young and I had no experience with struggle before the age of 8 or so. At that point I had a pivotal moment. It was pivotal in the sense that, without exaggeration, it changed completely my outlook on my own intelligence and probably began a positive feedback loop that continued throughout my primary and secondary education.

When I was in third grade, I transferred classes in my elementary school and my new teacher had moved her class along in mathematics much further than my former teacher. This had a jarring effect on me because it was the first time that I had ever experienced self-doubt, or the feeling of being "dumb" since I was quite far behind the other students and had no idea how to do the work I was assigned. The task for me at the time was to memorize the times table. It sounds silly looking back on it, but before then I had never consciously memorized anything and to say that the problem seemed formidable is an understatement. I was literally in tears, believing that it was impossible for me to know "all those things" at once and I despaired at being relegated to the back of the class forever.

Fortunately, either Kumi or Mom (we're a little vague on who) came to the rescue with a little learning toy that allowed me to push buttons in the times table and helped me with memorizing the math facts. After working on this for awhile (I can only assume I got obsessed with it but I don't actually remember), I learned the times table and ended up being one of the fastest students in the weekly arithmetic drills.

This little event did wonders for my confidence in school and I never really struggled with math (until college at least), because I always believed that no problem was insoluble, it was simply a matter of working it out. In retrospect, I realize that that's an incredibly powerful belief to be able to fall back on.

Well I'm getting a little off topic here with this post, but to bring it back to the subject of chess and go, reading this article made me realize that I should recall my own formative years and guide my children in a way that teaches them the value of hard work. They should know that intelligence and talent are not fixed at birth but rather that mastery is a result of dedication, devotion and hard work. Chess, too, is a skill which is developed through exposure. There's a not insignificant amount of memorization, pattern recognition, and so on that is impossible to be born with. And in Go, there's a proverb or saying that the quickest way to learn the game is to lose 100 games.

I think Alyssa may already have begun to feel that she wasn't going to be good at chess and had begun to shy away from playing. I've been telling her that it's only a matter of time before she starts winning as long as she works at it. Today she contributed her first outright win to her team's victory at the advanced chess class and it was a very happy moment for her.


Kumi said...

It was me.

Koji said...

The debate will rage on for years, I'm sure. I can definitively give you credit for teaching me 2-digit multiplication, though.

By the way, I've commandeered your copy of Logical Chess Move By Move which you left at our house.

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