More about nurture versus nature

Thank you everyone for your comments on my previous post on this subject. I’m working through them and learning from them.

In the meantime, I’d like to extend the conversation on just one theme within the comments:


I think it’s at the heart of the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Imagine going into Google and trying to find something. Imagine being told that you’ve failed because the first item returned was not the item you were looking for (or “meant” to be looking for, under orders of “management”).

Well, that’s what we do. We expect people to get things right first time, or “our way”. We have a blame culture so deeply ingrained in us that we behave that way without necessarily being aware of our actions and their consequences.

Back to Google. And in a roundabout way, back to group selection and evolution. Eric Beinhocker, in The Origin of Wealth, speaks of a “simple, but profoundly powerful, three-step formula — differentiate, select, and amplify — the formula of evolution”.

So that’s what we do when we use something like Google. When we put the search term in and peruse the results, we are in the differentiation stage. Then, when we find what we want, we are at the selection stage. Finally, as we dig deep into the selected result, trace other references, follow other links, we are at the amplification stage. We make the information evolve.

Or you could call it learning.

First you experiment. Little by little, failure by failure. You learn from those failures. Adapting as you go. Until something works, at which point you “scale it out”.

But that’s not what happens in real life. We make a big deal out of the lives of people like Einstein and Edison and Churchill and Lincoln and Franklin, hoping that our children pick something up as a result. Or maybe we use Gates and Jobs as the role models.  These role-models’ lives were littered with little mistakes, little failures, a need to pick themselves up, learn and grow.

But we then surround our kids with Blame Cultures. And Nannification. And Because-I-Say-So.
Every time I hear someone say “Fear and greed” I shudder, because all I see is a manifestation of Stick and Carrot. And we call ourselves civilised and evolved.

Fear and greed are not ways to motivate people. Especially children, but true for all people.

I don’t want to over-generalise, I know there are many exceptions. But that’s what they are, exceptions.

If the fear-and-greed blame culture was not bad enough, consider what else we do:


Now, rather than induce a blame culture, we prevent any mistakes being made. We made the mistakes, so we won’t let you. Wow. We are civilised and evolved, aren’t we?

Life is about about love and about learning. Both these carry risk, both these require vulnerability. We need to teach the connection between an action and its consequences, and the need to take individual responsibility for those actions, not prevent the actions. Instead, the way we’re going, we are well on the way to passing laws that ban driving within five miles of home (since most car accidents take place within that radius) or, even worse, ban spending time with your family and friends (since  most murders are committed by those people). Utter tosh.

And if blame-cultures and nannification weren’t bad enough, what else do we do?

Because-I-Say-So. So let’s get this right. We want our children to be educated, to discover their potential, to learn, to develop and extend that potential. And we send them to school so that they learn all this.
And what do they see at home or at work? Why must I do this? Because I say so. Why does this work this way? Because that’s the way it is. Because.

Children aren’t stupid. Grown-ups aren’t stupid either. We all learn. Part of that learning is to pick up signals from the environment we’re in. And the environment says “Don’t do anything. Don’t make a mistake. Don’t ask any questions. Don’t take any risks. In fact we won’t let you take risks”. Loud and clear, aye-aye sir, ten-four, roger, wilco and out.
Those are the motivational signals we send them. And then we wonder why motivating them is so hard.

Motivation is key. Sure, some element of motivation is innate, some element of emotional intelligence and the ability to plan for and acquire delayed gratification is also innate, some understanding of altruism and group dynamics is also innate.

But I think all this is a lot less innate than people assume it is. Our assumptions are just copouts.

In a book called How Children Fail, written in 1964, John Holt says, when talking about effective schools:

The researchers then examined these schools to find what qualities they had in common. Of the five they found, two struck me as crucial: (1) if the students did not learn, the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds, neighbourhoods, attutudes, nervous systems, or whatever. They did not alibi. They took full responsibility for the results or nonresults of their work. (2) When something they were doing in the class did not work, they stopped doing it, and tried to do something else. They flunked unsuccessful methods, not the children.

Wonderful stuff.

They flunked unsuccessful methods, not the children.

For teachers read managers or leaders. For children read staff or team.

Flunk the method, not the person.

So that’s what I think about motivation. Yes there is something innate, but even a Tiger Woods needed the guidance and support and encouragement of his parents to become Tiger Woods.

Teach people to believe in themselves. Build them up, not cut them down. Encourage them. Help them discover their potential. Help them reach their potential.

Of course, besides the “innate” argument there are some other real-world constraints. There are some things for which you need certain physical attributes, like height and strength, and not all physical attributes can be acquired or trained for legally. There are some things where the local environment doesn’t have the facilities, and we need breakthroughs there. I believe that this often happens with role models; that there wasn’t much interest in Germans and pro golf until Langer, and not much in pro tennis in Sweden till Borg. So physical attributes and local facilities and role models, if absent, can hamper the nurture process.

But that’s what it is, a hampering of the nurture process. Not something we can cheaply and lazily put down to “nature”,.

Some of you may be offended by the strength of this post, some by the motherhood-and-apple-pie, some by the sickly-sweet-ness. My apologies, this is something I feel really passionate about, and it is not my intention to offend or upset.

5 thoughts on “More about nurture versus nature”

  1. I recently stood for an open school board seat in my community. My argument, like yours, is that the schools are set up to test themselves and the staff, that the student is entirely unmotivated by passing tests if they do not get something for their performance. Simply passing to the next grade is not a reward, especially when the next grade is as underfunded and standardized-testing focused as the last one.

    I suggested the schools need to use the rigors of testing to find what motivates students, such as their ability to excell in a particular subject, and give them lavish access to those resources. If they do well, continue to invest in them, showing them the value of their success.

    My opponent characterized me as wanting to “throw money at the problem” and went on to urge the board to embrace Deming methods to improve the schools while continuing to cut spending. I was soundly defeated in the vote.

  2. I think there are a lot of good teachers out there. A lot more than people think. But we’ve cocooned them in a control environment where their funding often relies on the wrong measures.

    So we’re not just failing the kids but the teachers as well. We as society.

    And what I’ve tried to point out is the damage we do to the nurturing process.

    Your case is a symptom of that, but may have been seen as an attack on the establishment rather than on the methods and targets.

    People take attacks personally, they find it hard when methods are criticised. They too feel the effects of the blame culture. So I commiserate with you.

  3. Oh, I am sure I was seen as a potential threat–the board extended the opening to find a candidate to run against me. But it wasn’t an attack on teachers, since I was arguing for paying them to do the teaching of the more advanced coursework to which students could earn access.

    My wife is a teacher (9th grade English and French) and I see her tested but seldom confirmed in her success, except when the administration asks her to do more with no more resources…. “That was great, do you think you could do it again if we promoted the event to parents? No, there’s no budget.”

    We’re failing as a society because, for some reason I cannot fathom, we now live entirely for today. It may be the habit of self-preservation that Christopher Lasch talked about in The Minimal Self, but it also seems a product of conservatism that values preservation of today’s order of any prospect of change.

    The funny thing, speaking about my own experience, was that I was talking about private sector models of compensation and motivation and still was labeled the “tax and spend liberal,” because the label is convenient for use against any change.

  4. And more musings here. Does this speak to the conversation here? I hope so.

    I also hope I haven’t got a blooper in the above link. Yesterday was blooper filled. Maybe today won’t be?

Let me know what you think

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