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Discussing Developing Talent Without Michael Phelps

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A recent thread in the Modeling listserv sought to tease out whether there are any innate differences in us that lead to more efficient learning in physics. In making the argument for some kind of “natural ability,” many of my colleagues use world-class performers as their examples. This kind of reasoning is, I believe, misleading to the application of the ideas of whether talent is in-born or grown. Yes, it is true that no amount of hard work is going to turn a 5’4″, 130 lbs. adult into an NFL lineman. And there are definitely certain physical characteristics that Michael Phelps possesses that help him in the pool (perhaps it is because I’m a swimming coach that others bring up Michael Phelps to me). It is equally true that Ryan Lochte possesses a different set of physical characteristics, but he manages to beat Michael Phelps on a regular basis.

But to take the conversation right to world-class, or even lower level championship-class, performances confuses the issue of whether there are substantial differences between students’ abilities to understand physics. I am not teaching high school physics only to create world-class physicists. If I were, I might want to work at a school that doesn’t demand so much of the students in the way of extensive writing or playing of afternoon sports. And I might want to prepare to be disillusioned a lot of the time. I am more interested in giving students who want to excel in science the foundation to do so, and to introduce students bound for careers as artists, lawyers or historians the skills to think rationally and scientifically. Can every one of my students achieve these lofty goals? I think so. The question comes down to whether they have the time to spend on becoming strong at physics.

The problem with citing world-class performances is that world-class performances are the result of  many diverse factors. Some would argue that at least a few of these factors are innate, and we could have a good old time debating to what extent quickness, agility, reaction time, strength and a host of other factors are innate or developed. Likewise, we could debate the extent to which some kind of innate “smarts” are responsible for the work of Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein (both of whom famously denied any such advantage, citing the power of hard work). In the end, such debates have little to nothing to do with my students and me. I just don’t see enough difference in my students’ abilities to attribute it to anything other than differences in their backgrounds. Even if I’m wrong, I’m not too far wrong, and they can certainly get better at whatever they put their minds to improving.

One response to my warning the listserv conversation away from discussing world-class performances was to say that world-class performers make good examples for our students and athletes. They sure do–I would not deny that. We have our swimmers watch Michael Phelps’ butterfly stroke. We encourage our students to read about famous physicists. We bring outstanding scientists and historians and artists to our campus to talk to and meet our students. My uneasiness with discussing talent in terms of only the very best in each field does not mean I don’t want to study and learn from the best in each field.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/08/11 at 17:16

Why do we think sports are important?

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At my school, all students are required to be in an afternoon activity every afternoon for the entire year. Most afternoon activities are sports-related: either participating on a team, helping manage a team, or doing an independent sports workout (crew winter workout, training for a marathon, etc. usually reserved for upperclassmen). Theatre, organic gardening, mock trial, and non-athletic individual projects (usually only seniors) are other options. So why do we demand that most students spend 1.5 to 2 hours each and every day on a sport?

Typical answers include: teaching teamwork, teaching students to be part of something bigger than themselves, teaching character, teaching lifelong fitness skills… you probably know a couple more reasons. All of these are good reasons, and I won’t knock them. Sports are also fun!

But I think that the most important lesson I learned from swimming as a youngster was that I could become good… actually pretty darn good… at something if I really worked hard at it.

How I learned that hard work makes a difference

I was not a “naturally talented swimmer.” As a pre-teen, I was roughly spherical (perhaps foreshadowing my own predilection for creating simplified physical models). I also had terrible eyesight. My myopia was severe and ever-changing. Within a month of getting new glasses, baseballs again appeared as fuzzy white things with totally unpredictable paths. During neighborhood football games (“hey! I can see THAT ball!”), I always heard “Hammond, you hike the ball and go long.” I went long… totally, but futilely, open in the endzone… beyond the endzone, risking my life by crossing the drive into LeBaron Caruther’s front yard (not that LeBaron was a bully… he wasn’t… but Google him and see what he was really good at, and then realize that in high school he used his parent’s front yard for LOTS of deliberate practice).

In the pool, my poor eyesight didn’t bother me. I was also rather floaty at that age (being roughly spherical and all). Yet I was slow. Very slow.  There were two boys I swam with who looked, at age 10, like miniature men… washboard abs, bulging arms and thighs… and they were both ranked in the top ten nationally in our age group. They were so-called natural swimmers. Everyone agreed that they had talent. Me, not so much. But I was a good egg, a hard worker, and several wonderful coaches encouraged me anyway. Within a year, in summer league competition, I could beat those neighborhood kids who wouldn’t throw the football my way. Within two years, I was working out with my naturally talented, svelte and muscled acquaintances, and giving them some tough workout competition. In fact, I was a maniac during workouts. I remember Bobbie L., a year my senior and a state record holder, looking back at me in puzzlement asking “how the ___ are you keeping up with me?” Still, in competition, these boys could easily defeat me. It was only after four years that I could compete reasonably with them at championship meets. The vibe was ever positive and I thrived.

What I learned from swimming

My swimming experience had given me a valuable advantage: I was in possession of a growth mindset… at least some of the time. Unfortunately this mindset did not extend to academics until I was in college (frankly it didn’t occur to me until that point that I could transfer my knowledge from the pool to the desk… just ask my high school Latin teacher). As my swimming buddies and I became high schoolers, I started to surpass them… not always, but often enough. They were no longer nationally ranked. They were, as I knew from daily contact in the pool, not working as hard as I was. And their talent, whatever that was, was not enough to see them through to a NCAA Division I experience. I suspect that they felt their talent had been exhausted at some point around 14 years old. They weren’t as good as they had been told. If you’ve reached your potential, why kill yourself trying to improve any further?

Pretty soon in college, I decided the time I was putting into swimming was probably better spent elsewhere (and eventually I settled on intellectual pursuits after a short detour, but we’ll just pretend that didn’t happen). I still swam, but not passionately, and not with the same commitment as before, partly due to a series of injuries, but mostly due to burgeoning intellectual curiosity. But the lessons learned from swimming… that hard work pays off, that you don’t have to be good at something right away, that improvement feels good… stuck with me. These are the lessons that I seek to convey to the athletes with whose education I am charged. The fact that many of our students play three different sports, often being fairly good already at one or two and stinking it up in the other, gives them ample opportunity to see growth and change in their performances.

Nevertheless, I find it strange that it didn’t occur to me that, although my friends’ talent didn’t carry the day, perhaps the whole idea of talent was flawed.

Later on, I’ll write about what I learned about deep practice (deliberate practice) from swimming. Interestingly, my own swimming career involved very little deep practice, but I saw it, it puzzled me and only years later did I figure out what I had been looking at. Later, though.

Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/16 at 21:05

“Naturally Gifted”

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I was visiting Carnegie Mellon University yesterday with my son, a high school junior. I grabbed a piece of paper titled “Science” from the wall of information in the Admissions Office as he signed in. On the back, there was a series of questions followed by answers. One question was “Can I create a degree that combines science and the fine arts?” This was followed by an answer beginning, “Carnegie Mellon recognizes that there are students who are naturally gifted in both fine arts and the sciences.” My current understanding is that studies designed to find evidence of “natural giftedness” have come up empty-handed.

Absolutely nothing else on that double-sided information sheet indicated that the view that some are just “gifted” is widely accepted at Carnegie Mellon. In fact, the words and phrases “work,” “doing what it takes,” and “providing you with the skills, knowledge and training” occur. Perhaps it is only biologists that paint or physicists who play the violin who are considered by Carnegie Mellon to be “naturally gifted,” but I think instead that a typical mistake was being made. Even people who are trying very hard to readjust their mindset to de-emphasize the assumption of the primacy of innate “talent” make occasional references to innate talent. I have been talking to colleagues about the lack of evidence for inborn talent recently. I have read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” and am working on “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. The messages of these very different books resonates with something I think I learned in the swimming pool as a youth. I’ll write about that later, but what I want to say here is that even my colleagues who believe that hard work is the most important determinant to success still sometimes slip up and use the language of innate, inborn talent (I include myself in that group as well!). The assumption that certain skill sets are hardwired into us at birth is so prevalent in our culture that it is very hard to keep it from popping into your conversations.

This is not a matter of policing our speech for political correctness. It is not that I want to avoid writing student comments that praise a student as “bright,” “talented,” or “smart” for fear of offending the student not labelled so. No, it is nothing like that. Instead, I fear for the student so labelled. First because it ignores the hard work the student has done previously, and, second, it sets them up for failure as soon as they hit a concept with which they must struggle for awhile.  The assumption of innate talent also denies the possibility that other students starting out behind the frontrunners can catch up. Finally, such language simply doesn’t appear to be supported by evidence.

Even students who have worked hard sometimes still attribute their success to innate talent. I have one student, who told me she was “just good at Spanish.” Upon questioning her about her background in Spanish, she told me that she had a very rigorous middle school Spanish class. She had worked “very hard.” In fact, she said she worked harder on Spanish than “any other subject in middle school.” Then she noted that only now, a year and a half after arriving at high school, was she finally learning anything new in Spanish. Then I asked her whether it was any surprise, after she had worked very hard for three years and then had spent the last year and a half in relaxed review of Spanish, that she only now felt like her peers were catching up to her in Spanish? She gave me a very far-away look and a long “huuuhh.” This girl had essentially ignored her own hard work (and the pleasant circumstance of having a year and a half review), because society has told her repeatedly that stuff like this just happens… at some point you just find out what you’re good at. The fact that in seventh and eighth grade she was labelled “gifted” in Spanish may, in fact, have led her to deny the reality or the importance of her own hard work.

Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/15 at 18:59

What Salman Khan might be getting right

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Salman Khan created Khan Academy, a website where you can get short video lectures about math (and many other subjects now). He is being credited with “revolutionizing education,” a description with which some critics take issue. Rather, these critics say (if I may boldly paraphrase), these videos are just standard lectures packaged a different way, and therefore still suffer from the same problems of transmission that live lectures suffer.

Sal Khan has given a TED talk video entitled “Let’s use video to reinvent education” which is worth a listen. Yes, there has been hype about Khan Academy… the “reinvention of education” being credited to any one website or just to the “use of video” is a little much… but I think there are two lessons here that are worth considering.

First, there is “flipping the classroom,” with lectures being homework and practice problem-solving becoming classwork. Second, there is the idea of making sure you master each skill before moving on.

Flipping the Classroom

I was interested in seeing Khan’s video lectures when I first heard about them last summer because I have nieces and nephews who occasionally ask me for long distance tutoring (usually just short term “I can’t get this one thing” kind of help). I thought perhaps these videos could serve as a first line of help, as in “Watch so-and-so video, then let’s talk.” I was not overwhelmed by the videos, specifically because they seemed a pretty direct translation of whiteboard, classroom lecture to a computer screen. Also, the presentation was a bit messy, with what looks like a mouse being used to “write” … but maybe that’s just me being picky. And anyway, there’s just no reasonable way to make the video lecture interactive other than the fact students can rewind and pause, skip over parts that seem too obvious, etc. (which definitely makes video lectures better than traditional lecture, especially for the easily distracted like me).

I had also been experimenting with videoing short lectures for my own physics classes, with the hope of freeing up valuable classroom time with the students. I believe in making class time practice time (I think I’m stealing this phrase from Grant Wiggins, but I’m not sure). I do short mini-lectures occasionally, so I reasoned that if the kids could watch these lectures at night, we could get right down to practicing with new concepts, practicing new skills, and talking more about what we were doing. Currently this effort is not going so well in my own classroom, mainly because I haven’t created many lectures and the whole idea is still a novelty to my students. The result is many students figure they don’t have any “real” homework when a video lecture is assigned. It is short, it is a video, there’s nothing to turn in or show me the next day, so it falls to the bottom of their priority list.

Nonetheless, I still think that having students puzzle over lectures at night and do problems with each other (and with me) during the day is vastly preferable to the standard classroom. So I’m going to keep experimenting in the direction, and I hope to write about this topic in detail in the future.

Finally, if I can find someone who presents a topic more engagingly or more clearly than I do, I’d rather have my students watch that lecture over my lecture. I’ll add value the next day when the rubber meets the road in my classroom.

Mastery-based Progression

The other good idea in Khan’s video is that a student should master each concept or skill rather than moving on with incomplete or faulty knowledge. I have been using Standards Based Grading this year for the first time in an effort to track student mastery of learning objectives in a more rigorous and transparent (to the student and to me) way. The point that Mr. Khan makes when he asks what the student who made a 95 on a test missed, and whether that small misunderstanding or gap will hurt the student in the future is an excellent one. Using traditional grading techniques, the student with the 95 feels that he’s finished, rather than feeling like he still has 5% more to learn before he can say “I’m done.” The entire idea that you get one chance to learn a skill or concept before moving on is just totally odd to me. I have in fact heard teachers say “The students just get one chance in my class,” and I shudder thinking of all the holes I’ll have to fill next year with those students. The reason for “moving on” is often the quest for more coverage, but there is also a strand of thinking that those who get the concepts and skills quickly are just more talented and should be sorted for college admissions.

In the near future I hope to write more on Standards Based Grading, sorting students by grading (and grading philosophies in general) as well as the idea of innate talent.

Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/12 at 14:53

Posted in grades, SBG, talent