How much do genes matter?

What does it take become an expert in something? Is it a matter of completing 10,000 hours of practice? Or is it all in our genes?

(I'm 5'8", but could I dunk if I practiced hard enough?)

Scientists and philosophers have been debating the importance of nature vs. nurture for centuries. And today, a tangential debate rages on: To what extent are our abilities affected by practice? And to what extent do genes matter?

The Economist earlier this week reported on a new study showing that having the right genetic makeup does indeed matter in terms of one's ability to build expertise in music -- though practice does matter as well!

On the flip side, Annie Murphy Paul debunks the 10,000-hour myth here, saying elite level expertise might come for some people after far more than 10,000 hours of practice, and for others it might require far less.

And we've repeatedly reported on the research by Dr. Carol Dweck into "mindsets," showing that the human brain changes throughout our lives and we have the ability to build expertise through hard, strategic work.

So, what does this mean for students trying to learn math or become better readers?

Fortunately, we all don't have to be able to dunk a basketball to survive. But we could all be better basketball players with practice! Same goes for math and reading. No matter our starting points, we can always improve.

On peer pressure and acceptance: Helping teens find the balance

Readers of The New York Times have eagerly been sharing a story that illustrates something middle school educators already know:  the “cool kids” in 7th grade too often struggle as high school students and young adults.

The article, “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23,” quickly found its way into the top 10 most e-mailed articles, according to the Times website. It reports on a longitudinal study recently published in the academic journal Child Development, which followed a cohort of 184 students in Charlottesville, VA, from age 13 to 23. The study’s authors periodically assessed the students’ social statuses, levels of autonomy, and problem behaviors (such as alcohol abuse), then used statistical analysis to see how these factors correlate with positive outcomes in early adulthood.

The study found that many 13-year-old “cool kids” -- those who combine high social statuses with a low ability to resist negative peer pressure -- often end up as troubled young adults. “The fast-track kids didn’t turn out O.K.,” the article quotes Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and the study’s lead author. As young adults, many of those who had been “pseudo-mature” 13-year-olds were still trying “to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night,” Dr. Allen told the Times. “They’re still living in their middle school world.”

Still, the study doesn’t tell a simple morality tale in which “cool kids” always burn out, while unpopular wallflowers inevitably blossom into successful, well-adjusted adults. If “too much, too soon” can be a formula for arrested development, being a middle school stick-in-the-mud can present its own long-term challenges. The study found that those teens with strong autonomy—that is, the ability to always ‘just say no’ to peer pressure—were more likely to have a lower quality of peer relationships at age 23.

“These findings make clear that establishing social competence in adolescence and early adulthood is not a straightforward process,” the study concludes. It “involves negotiating challenging, at times conflicting, goals between peer acceptance and autonomy with regard to peer influences.”

Teachers can help young teens find the balance between being accepted by peers while still resisting negative peer pressure. A good way to do this is to provide middle school students with plenty of chances to develop their capacity to give and accept positive peer pressure. This means a school experience rich in:

  • Collaborative learning – Give students the chance to work together often.
  • Active learning strategies ­– Encourage students working in small groups to summarize, interpret, and discuss what they are learning.
  • Project-based learning – Offer students the chance to collaborate on projects that explore real-world challenges relevant to them, such as, say, developing strategies for just saying “no” to negative peer pressure!

Taking the answer out of the equation

In the quest to promote deep student thinking, sometimes the answer is the problem.

In the classroom, we can launch a beautiful, rich question only to see students reach the answer – and reach the end of their thinking. After all, why would they think beyond the answer? Isn’t the purpose of a question to lead to an answer? Isn’t the answer also the conclusion? Isn’t the answer the end of the journey of discovery?

No, it’s not.

The purpose of a question is not always to launch a journey toward a single answer. The purpose is often to give students an opportunity to think, to stretch, to learn strategies which they can apply to a wider range of scenarios. When students regard the answer as the end of the journey, they may miss those very growth opportunities. But how can we cause students to reach for deeper thinking when they are accustomed to ending the journey at the point of reaching an answer? A simple solution is to take the answer out of the equation. In other words, when you ask a question, give the students the answer to the question and change their task. Ask them to find as many connections as possible between the question and the answer. 

These two questions appear to be nearly identical, but their potential for leveraging student thinking is vastly different.

The first question, by itself, will lead to a journey-ending “28 cubic units.” An insightful instructional tactic would then be to ask the students how they know, to explain their thinking, to make connections. However, the reality is that the students will often do so from the vantage point of confirming and defending their original answer. All additional connections will be seen through the lens of the student’s original pathway.

Now consider the second question. The instructional architecture is much different in this case. If this question is presented with the answer showing, the students are released from finding and defending an original pathway. Instead the teacher is able to say, “Show me as many connections as possible between the question and the answer.”  

The answer has been taken out of the equation.

What remains is the pursuit of the thinking that connects the question to the answer. What are the multiple pathways that can be discovered? More importantly, how are those multiple pathways related to one another?

Expect your classroom to sound something like this:

“I see 4 towers of 4, and 6 towers of 2. (4 × 4) + (6 × 2) = 28”

“I see a prism on the bottom that measures 2 × 2 × 5. That’s 20. And there are 8 on top.”

“There are 14 in the front, and 14 in the back. 14 × 2 = 28.”

“I see a tall group with a volume of 16 and a short group with a volume of 12. 16 + 12 = 28.”

“I see it differently, like I’m slicing it with a butter knife. There are 2 groups of 8 and 3 groups of 4. (2 × 8) + (3 × 4) = 28.”

“Oh, I see that! What if we slice it the other way, horizontally? I see two groups of 4 and two groups of 10. 4 + 4 + 10 + 10 = 28.”

“I see 40 cubes. Imagine that there is not a section missing in the top right corner—that it is one solid rectangular prism. There would be 40 cubic units. But some are missing. The missing volume is 2 by 3 by 2. You see, 12 cubic units are missing—and 40 – 12 = 28.”

Then, after many connections have been established and recorded, including several connections you didn’t see yourself, you step in with the simple question, as you carefully and deliberately point to the algebraic representations of the students’ thinking. “I wonder how these equations are related?” You press your students toward an even deeper level of thinking.

You can do it because your instructional architecture has been well designed.

You can do it because you have taken the answer out of the equation.

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