Monday, January 26, 2009

Developing Extreme Talent

Thanks to Jason Yip's blog entry: On chess grandmasters and the expert mind for pointing me to this fascinating article - The Expert Mind: Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well - from Scientific American.

From the Scientific American article:

"K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University argues that what matters [toward improving one's chess playing skill] is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study."

The concept of effortful study essentially suggests that you grow only when you push yourself. As a very-practiced and accomplished pool player (before I had a family and other commitments), I know that I only improved when I played better players. Seeing this article expanded my thinking on the topic into other areas... such as programming talent and general education (I have four young children).

"The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools."

This points to difficulties in making our educational system effective: teachers who are responsible for 15 or 20 students cannot possibly tailor the education to push the envelope for each child. Even with five children, a common lesson plan loses the ability to maintain that tension between comfort and discomfort that leads to the kind of discovery that keeps up with a student's need to push forward. This is precisely why parental involvement is necessary ... to maintain that tension and to challenge our children - not just in maintaining the necessarily dictated classroom pace, but in tapping into the wellspring of talent and desire living within our children. I see it so clearly now.

"Laszlo Polgar, an educator in Hungary, homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day, producing one international master and two grandmasters--the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. The youngest Polgar, 30-year-old Judit, is now ranked 14th in the world."

Perhaps Laszlo's ability to adapt the level of effort required for each child helped. I'm interested in learning more about how much of his lesson plans were chess oriented and how much were geared towards general education. There's also the genetics argument; if he was good at chess, perhaps he passed on the chess genes.

"[...] success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better."

This argument for driving towards early success is somewhat orthogonal to the "effortful study" thesis, but bears import to the parenting issue (and perhaps the programmer development issue as well). Positive reinforcement and successful results early-on can provide the confidence that children and programmers need to continue pushing forward.

If you are a parent, or a mentor of a young programmer (or any other professional I would think), these concepts bear consideration.


Jef Claes said...

Intresting article!

Rick said...

Thanks for the interesting post!