Task 7 – Forget about ‘Natural Talent’. Remember to Practice.

Posted by Fintan on May 19, 2016

One of the first things that Willingham mentions in his article is the lack of discussion on how to learn. It seems so obvious, but we focus on learning the material in front of us and never really give any thought to how it is learned. For most young people in school, memorizing by rote is the default way of ‘learning’, but this is usually done in the run up to an exam and then is quickly forgotten soon after. We’ve discussed a lot over the past few weeks about what ‘learning’ and ‘understanding’ are and while memorizing is a major part of those processes, I don’t want to conflate its meaning with theirs. Memory alone is not enough, but it is an essential part of learning (that is long-term memory), yet cramming a whole year’s worth of math before exams is normal practice (that is short-term memory). I find it hard to understand how wanting to remember something has no bearing on whether you actually remember it. There are things in my memory that I don’t necessarily want to remember, yet they are there because I may have devoted thought to those things without realizing it. Willingham writes that just wanting to remember something won’t necessarily mean you remember it. If you want to remember something, aren’t you likely to think about it more and thus, remember it? I’m not sure I understand what Willingham means here.

Willingham also talks about cues for remembering. This reminds me of ‘rules without reason’ like ‘Keep. Flip. Change.’ and ‘a minus and a minus gives a plus’. Aren’t these cues that students use to help them remember? They work most of the time, but once this rule has been remembered by the student, it’s very hard for that student to understand why there are exceptions to these rules. As I said earlier, memory plays a vital part in learning, but there’s the risk with remembering these ‘cues’ which are not comprehensive enough, that the student will apply the rule to something incorrectly. The use of cues appears to be a natural way for people to remember information, but in order for them to be effective, the cues need to be of good quality and distinctive to avoid confusion with other information.

Syed’s talk was inspiring and goes to show how far a person’s mind-set can help them to achieve things that they thought were impossible. Of course, I think that there are different levels of ability (genetic variations) as does Syed, but Syed also believes that ‘talent’ comes with a lot of quality practice and I mostly agree with him. However, is there some initial knack that kick-starts the desire to practice more or are people driven to practice harder because they have no ability at a particular skill?  If we’re talking about adults, then I think the latter is true, but children can quickly lose patience with something if they feel they’re no good at what they’re doing. People catch onto things quicker than other people and for children, I think they’re more likely to get better at something that they initially showed some aptitude for rather than something that they struggled with. This is evident in schools, we’re students quickly lose interest in what they’re learning, because they initially struggle to understand something for whatever reason. At school-age, young people haven’t yet matured enough to be able to decide that they need to improve at something. Perhaps the idea of ‘natural talent’ is so prevalent in society that young people can’t understand that with a lot of quality practice, they can improve at anything. I myself didn’t realize that continually practicing something actually causes a physical change in that part of the brain.

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