>training the brain | teaching the heart

>We homeschool our kids. This is not an easy task. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience, and most of the burden falls on my wife’s shoulders. As much as I can I try to do my part. One thing I’ve started doing is teaching my seven year old how to play chess. I am not a gifted, or even a good, chess player. And I can’t say I’m that good of a teacher. But I know how the pieces move and I love playing the game. So far my daughter seems to like chess as well.

Chess is one of those interesting mental games that is both fun and educational. Just like playing sports is a more enjoyable way to get exercise than going to the gym, so playing chess is a more enjoyable way to exercise the brain than some other kinds of mind-training.

But all this chess playing has got me thinking: What is the relative value of educating a child from the perspective of well-roundedness versus specification? In other words, is it better to “create” a well-rounded person, or a person with great abilities in a specific area, such as chess or ballet? Why am I asking this question? In part because of my own personal discovery of László Polgár and his daughters Zsuzsa (Susan), Zsófia (Sofia), and Judit, and their incredible abilties at the chess board.

In reseatching this topic I came across this fascinating film clip, which focuses on Susan Polgar. The film provides some insight to the idea of specializing a child’s education and how it affects the brain:


In general I have always been a fan of the liberal education, and have sought that for myself. But, strangely, I have always been extremely fascinated with the so-called genius. I am amazed by the abilities of the great athlete, the great musician, the great mathematician, the great architect, etc, etc. And very often the genius is not the product of a liberal education, rather a specialized education. Most individuals who achieve some level of greatness in one thing do so by an intense single-mindedness applied over a lengthy period of time in such a way that the rest of us rarely experience. This seems to be true of just about any area of achievement.

Recently I have some across this “magic” number of 10,000. That number refers the amount of hours of practice the typical expert has to do to become an expert. In an article on the Polgar sisters the author cites some important research on the topic of “creating” a genius by Anders Ericsson:

[…]Ericsson is only vaguely familiar with the Polgars, but he has spent over 20 years building evidence in support of Laszlo’s theory of genius. Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, argues that “extended deliberate practice” is the true, if banal, key to success. “Nothing shows that innate factors are a necessary prerequisite for expert-level mastery in most fields,” he says. (The only exception he’s found is the correlation between height and athletic achievement in sports, most clearly for basketball and volleyball.) His interviews with 78 German pianists and violinists revealed that by age 20, the best had spent an estimated 10,000 hours practicing, on average 5,000 hours more than a less accomplished group. Unless you’re dealing with a cosmic anomaly like Mozart, he argues, an enormous amount of hard work is what makes a prodigy’s performance look so effortless.

This makes sense to me. When I was an undergrad I knew a young woman who, as a first year student, qualified to be the second chair violinist in the university’s orchestra. She was an amazingly talented violinist. She was also someone with limited social skills, though she was a nice person. I once asked her to tell me what she did for practicing. She said she would go out to an empty room in the back of the building she was living in as a student, set up her music stand, a chair, and a timer. She would stand and practice for exactly 55 minutes, then sit down and rest for 5 minutes, then stand and practice another 55 minutes, etc. This would go on for anywhere between 3 to 6 hours at a time depending on her other schoolwork. She also said that ever since she was a young girl she had always practiced for hours at a time and often her parents would have to curtail how many hours in a day she could practice. In some ways she was socially and interpersonally naive, she also did not convey a sense of much knowledge outside of music, but she was brilliant at violin. After two years at the state university she received a full-ride scholarship to Juilliard.

The simple fact is there are no natural prodigies. All are created through hard work. One hopes that as a child takes on the hard task of practicing something that the child also truly loves the subject at hand and enjoys seeing the results of hard work. But, as I hear the girl in the following video speak I can’t tell if she is happy or not, and I am a little concerned about her social and intellectual life beyond music:

At the same time I know that in many societies parents emphasize their desire for their children to succeed, and in the U.S. parents emphasize their children’s happiness. One is a focus on doing and the other is a focus on being. I don’t know which is better. I do know that I want my children to grow up and be good, that is, of good character rather than merely good at doing something, or even just good mannered. Overarching the question of liberal versus specialization is the fundamental goal that education is primarily about character development rather than knowledge or action.

Another factor is the strangeness of even thinking about raising and training our children to be truly great at one thing. Neither my wife or I grew up in families that had that kind of focus. Sure, there was pressure to do well in school, but neither of us were driven to excel at any one thing the way we witness a few others excelling at what they do. We watch the Olympics, or listen to a concert, or hear about the next youngest chess champion, and we are amazed at the stunning accomplishments of those involved. And then we turn away, possibly assuming that that level of accomplishment is not for us or our kids. I don’t think turning away is necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if we turn away too easily. I don’t have an answer.

So now we are trying to create the best, well-rounded, liberal education for our children while wondering about the values of specialization. I am going to continue to teach my kids chess, and they will continue to take ballet and swimming, learn math and science, reading and writing, art and history, piano and soccer, and hopefully they will also grow to be good people. My hope is that we will know when we should push and when we should step back. Most importantly, we must keep in perspective the very relative benefits of being great at any one thing. Even the genius has achieved very little if she has a heart of stone.

4 thoughts on “>training the brain | teaching the heart

  1. >Tucker,Damian turned me on to your post through one of my own. My 9 year old son has recently gotten into Chess and he loves it. As a Christmas gift, my wife and I enrolled him in a City Chess Club and he participated in his first National Chess Tournament a couple weeks ago. In attending his chess club meetings and tournaments I have discovered what an incredible game this is. I might argue that it should be required learning in grade school. That entire classes should be dedicated to it for how it makes the brain work. Those who only play it socially are not aware of the complexities of the game. Ben Kingsley in Searching For Bobby Fisher describes Chess as art, and I would agree.Nice post.

  2. >Piper, thanks for your comments. I would agree that chess should be taught to kids. I got back into it to help keep my brain from deteriorating too much, but realized my daughter should play as well. Now I have to figure out how to teach her properly, and find out what other resources are available. I hope your son enjoyed the tournament. I want my daughter to do one in the near future. And I agree that chess is an art. It’s a truly amazing game.

  3. >Tucker, David Shenk is the author of a history of chess called “The Immortal Game.” The book he’s currently working on basically argues that ‘genius’ – extremely high level achievement in a given area – is always made through this kind of intense practice. He also explores the “cosmic anomaly” of Mozart as a product of cosmically anomalous training from birth. The blog for his new book is here, and is terrific.

  4. >Dave, thanks for the link! I didn’t know Shenk had a new book coming out. It look like something I would like to read. I just finished The Immortal Game and found it very interesting. When it comes to chess I am probably more interested in it history and implications, as Shenk documents, than studying the games – which is why I’m a rather mediocre player.

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