On nurture versus nature

Regular readers will know that I have a thing about education, and that my dream is to build a school from scratch as and when I have no role to play in traditional enterprise. A school that makes use of social software and Moore and Metcalfe and Gilder; that knows how to create value from “globalisation and disintermediation and the internet” (as Ken Ohmae said a few decades ago in The Borderless World); that works like an efficient charity, with 95% of the income being used for the purpose it was designed for (to teach and to learn) rather than “administration and management”.

I have been extremely impressed with what I have heard and seen about ARK, a meta-charity that treats all the funds it generates as investments with a measured social return and low administrative costs; I believe that something similar can be done in education. A model where we treat school funds as investments with a clearly defined social return (you can call it educational return if you wish) and have a clear basis for keeping administrative costs appreciably low. But I digress.

One of the reasons I have such a passion for education (I have many reasons, but this time I am concentrating on just one) is an out-and-out belief in nurture being more important than nature. I am not a fan of The Bell Curve or related works and ideas.

You can imagine my delight when I chanced across this article in the August issue of Scientific American. [And thank you, Scientific American, for not hiding it behind a DRM wall. And thank you for bothering to ask me, via a simple survey, whether I was a subscriber or not when I looked at it, and if so what I subscribed to. Do share your results when you have them, if only to prove that subscriber recommendations are an incredible marketing process, particularly when unhampered by DRM walls].

The article, headlined The Expert Mind and subtitled Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well, is well worth a read. It goes through why chess could be “the Drosophila of cognitive science” in terms of measurement, synthesis, scope for laboratory experimentation and repeatibility, ease of observation in natural environment, many things. I’m personally also very keen on the fact that it is cognitive and as language- and culture-independent as possible; there’s a lot of good stuff in it that relate to apperception and Gladwellian Blink, on stored-and-recallable knowledge rather than pure analytical power, even on memory and chunking theory.

There’s also some solid backing to the Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration argument, to the importance of perseverance, to the importance of an early and strong motivation.

But what did it for me was the coda to the article. I quote:

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”.

For educator read manager or mentor or whoever. This is not just about schools. But it is about education.


13 thoughts on “On nurture versus nature”

  1. I’ve been lurking your blog for the past few days, and decided to finally comment. I think you’re dream/goal of running a school dedicated to actually teaching and learning, while keeping administrative costs low, in laudable. It should be the case already.

    I also enjoyed the SciAm article. One statement I don’t necessarily agree with though, is that the “history of human expertise begins with hunting.” Though it is a reasonable enough thought, I don’t think we know enough about the origins of human intelligence to make that claim. That’s only a minor gripe. I do agree with the overall gist of expertise having more to do with focused training and experience than with innate abilty. Interestingly, one of the sidebars links physical traits with success (the older, larger soccer players having an advantage, and thus being more motivated). Would kids who are naturally larger for their age enjoy the same advantages?

    I don’t think you can “train” a Mozart, though. You could train a child that already has the musical proclivities to be a proficient composer, but you still would not get the same compositions, or even the same kind of compositions that Mozart accompished. I believe musical composition is very different than musical performance ability. Had Mozart not had his early training though, he may not have been able to articulate his musical visions.

    What do you think about innate motiviation, proclivities, individual personality…how much do you think these play into learning?

    Anyway, good post. I look forward to more.

  2. I’ve always believed that neither nurture nor nature are sufficient… at the root of overachievement is passion (couldn’t think of a synonym beginning with n).

    Passion for your vocation permits you to overcome (to some extent at least) a lack of aptitude (nature) or education (nurture). Anyone who has ever achieved anything of note has done so because they wanted to, not simply because they were able. Obviously the most successful individuals in any field have all three, but neither aptitude nor education guarantee passion for a subject, and without it mediocrity is inevitable.

    Which begs the question, what makes us passionate about one thing and not another?

  3. JP – there are numerous theories of learning as I’m sure you’re aware. Listening to you, it sounds like you’re actually more cognitive behavioural than you think. Cognitive is about thinking your way around issues. I’ve never seen any real success for that theory. Perhaps it’s because it is presented in logical terms. Which is pretty hard when it comes to the interface between emotion and action.

  4. Interesting stuff. The “effortful study” argument chimes in with something I overheard on Radio 4 recently. An educator was riling against having to choose books for children to read that suited their background – rather than “classics”. His argument was that education was all about stretching the child, showing them new points of view, and new possibilities. Anything else was training.

    The article’s conflates training and education in much the same way. While training is clearly a critical adjunct to good, rich education, for me, assumes a known end goal, and a known answer to “what do you want to be?, or worse “what sort of person are you?”. If you have come to those conclusions yourself, then all well and good, but often, because those questions need to be answered at a very early age for the training to bear full fruit, those questions are answered by the parents, or by the teachers, or by society.

    And with that in mind, I have to say, I found this:

    “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. ”

    … fascinating, but ultimately repellent.

  5. Very useful comments; I’ve thought long and hard about them, and believe the best thing I can do is a continuation post. I realise this may not be the right thing to do, all I can say is I’m not sure of the best way, so I’m experimenting. Believing that writing a post with my thoughts on the questions you raise is better than responding bit by bit in a comments section.

    Does that mean I’m fragmenting the conversation? Does it mean I’m refusing to fragment the conversation? Not entirely sure.

    As usual, your thoughts on this approach will be appreciated.

  6. JP – this guy Neil Gershenfeld has part of the answer you are looking for. Runs the the center for bits and atoms at MIT. Couple of years ago he designed a new course for students called How to Build (Almost) Anything. The idea was to teach the students about the tyools available to them at MIT and then let their imaginations fly. It was a smashing success.

    Read this to find out the details.


    I never had heard of gershenfeld until yesterday dirk van der woude in holland asked me if i knew him.

  7. These are some thoughts I am wrestling with . How do we get from “here” to “there”?
    When will we see that the Future we want lies outside the box?

  8. I guess there are a lot of us out there who would like “to build a school from scratch.” Since playing a role “in traditional enterprise” is not currently a problem for me, my primary obstacle seems to be resources, which is probably why, until I can find better things to do, I started up my blog! Here is the pointer to my very first entry, which I think states my current position on education reform:


    My greatest concern is that our recent techno-centric trends are suppressing attention to the more enduring values of a liberal education. My fear is that too much of what we are teaching has a half-life; and, as the Internet thrusts us forward a breakneck pace, that half-life gets shorter and shorter, perhaps by the day. I believe passionately that education is about more than cognitive behavior, and I would LIKE to believe that the Internet can serve education across a broader behavioral spectrum. However, I am not holding my breath that anyone out there (in any country) is willing to address HOW the Internet can help us achieve this goal!

  9. Stephen, are you familiar with the work that Judy Breck has been doing, or Clarence Fisher, or Vicki Davis? These are just a few names that come to mind offhand, but there are a lot of people out there who really believe in the use of the internet to serve education. Google any of their names or search this site, and you will find details.

    Something I posted on more recently, related to what Ian Witten and his team have been doing in New Zealand, may also be of interest. Again, just Google him or search this site for references. Greenstone.org, which is part of what they do, is fascinating.

    I don’t think these are technocentric trends, all we want to do us make use of what techn0logy can do for us, particularly in education. In India, village schools were held in the open air underneath a tree, with a visiting teacher and an irregular schedule. Sure something changed when blackboards and chalk were “invented”, but I don’t think that teaching there became blackboard-centric as a result. Technology is our servant, not our master.

  10. JP, for the most part those names were new to me. I like the way in which blogging is emerging as a new form of personal engagement; and, in that respect, I was very impressed with what I saw Clarence Fisher doing. I had actually made some similar suggestions to a humanities-based college here in San Francisco. If you recognize that discourse lies at the heart of education in the humanities, then any digital medium of “persistent conversation” should be examined. Blogs can be both expressive and robust; and, when they are searchable, they become a very powerful tool for humanities-based discourse. Of course the blog is not a panacea; and, like most powerful medicines, it has to be used with cognizance of its side-effects, some of which can be pretty scary. Fisher struck me as a teacher who gets very personally involved with what is happening in his classroom, which makes him at least potentially a good buffer against the worst of those side-effects.

    I have not read any of Judy Breck’s books. I am one degree of separation away from her, through my connection to John Seely Brown, although that connection was a lot stronger when John was at PARC and I was at neighboring FXPAL (which does for Fuji Xerox what PARC has done for Xerox). (By way of disclaimer, though, I have to confess that I was VERY skeptical of the last book that John told me I MUST READ. Having made a thing about that on my own blog, I shall not elaborate here!) I must admit that I was intrigued the first time I saw the Subject Sampler but very quickly lost interest, finding it to be an excellent example of “cool technology for its own sake” that just does not sustain the attention.

    This takes me to Ian Witten, whose work I got to know during my own time at PARC (after John had left). I think that Greenstone has done a lot of things to get at EDUCATION AS EXPERIENCE, rather than content. I do not know how much of that derives from Witten himself, but I suspect that he is a driving philosophical force behind the project. There are a lot of technical types who like to give lip service to John Dewey and his philosophy of education-as-experience; but precious few of them have done work on technologies that make a serious attempt to honor Dewey in the breach. Witten is one of those “happy few;” and I am not sure I really know any others!

    So, now that we have talked about the bleeding edge, let’s turn back the clock. As you probably know the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA pulled up roots from “England’s green and pleasant land” and sank them in Chicago under the intellectual aegis of the likes Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. That environment led to a new kind of reference work, called THE GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. This was originally conceived as a fundamental library of Western civilization, and the original conception collected works that began with Homer and ended with Freud. There was nothing new about this, but Adler decided that he was going to index the whole collection. The result was something called a “Syntopicon.” The motivation was that you could consult this index to see how a specific topic was treated throughout the span of time covered by the collection. Building the Syntopicon was a major effort; and, while there are all sorts of things wrong with it, there is no doubting the nobility of the vision behind it. I have yet to encounter a technology that can rise to the level of that vision. Part of the problem is that those and similar source texts are still taking their time finding their way onto the Internet, even though most of them do not have copyright restrictions. Worse, when some of those text DO come to the Internet, they are not really suitable for scholarly study, the best example being awsome rendering of the page images of a fifteenth-century printing of Augustine’s CITY OF GOD, which is great if you are studying printing techniques and horrible if you are studying Augustine! I vented on that one on CNET News.com:


    The other interesting thing about the Hutchins-Adler project was that they saw both the collection and the index as a SHARED RESOURCE IN THE CLASSROOM, an instrument that furthered the discourse and raised its level, if you will. Now I have been in many meetings where Google would be invoked as part of the discussion and PDF page images would be flashed up on the screen. However, I would say that, for the most part, these are tools for ANSWERING QUESTIONS rather than STIMULATING DISCUSSIONS.

    What I REALLY want is to see the Internet as a resource where the underlying library does not have to be an explicit collection of books (and the curriculum is not limited to Western civilization) and to then access that resource through a Syntopicon-like tool, which recognizes that there is more to characterizing a topic than homing in on the right keywords for it. I can believe that such a tool will have more value in the humanities. On the other hand I have heard at least one intelligence analyst talk about the desirability of such a tool; and I am sure we all know what it is like to come up to speed on a brand-new topic, particularly if a “dummies guide” has not yet been written on that topic! So I am pretty sure the tool will have equal value in more specialized subject areas like science, engineering, and managment!

  11. You don’t like the bell curve is quite easy to understand because you are’nt from the academia :). Bell curve is popular because it is been popularized by the academia because its is mathemetically tractable and other curves are such a pain to handle as they have no tools that could be used to deal with.

Let me know what you think

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