In the true-story movie Rudy, a runt of a kid grows up wanting nothing so much as to play football for Notre Dame. He works passionately, toiling on the practice squad, but is never good enough to make the cut. Finally, his last game as a senior, the players on the team beg the coach to play Rudy for the final game because he has worked so hard. The coach agrees; then in the final seconds of the game, once Notre Dame has wrapped up a victory, Rudy gets into the game and gets a sack against the opposing quarterback.
The movie is supposed to be a feel-good story, but to me it’s a cautionary tale. Rudy only wanted to become one particular thing that his body simply was not a good fit for. In the end he gets a symbolic victory, which I guess is fine if that’s what he really wanted. But just think if he had decided to wrestle for Notre Dame instead. Not as romantic as football, but who knows if his drive and passion could have taken him to the Olympics at his weight?
Body Nature and Nurture
In the book The Sports Gene, David Epstein writes about how different people get different results from the same athletic training regimen, just because of how their different bodies naturally work. One person does weight training, and their muscles quickly grow bigger and stronger, while another person lifts the same weight but just doesn’t get the same gain. One person’s lungs grow in oxygen capacity almost immediately when they train for running, while another person does the same work, but their lungs stay the same, year after year.
From whatever combination of genetics and nutrition and habits, our bodies (minus PEDs!) just respond differently to training.
This can be bad news if you want to play football for Notre Dame and don’t have the right body type, but it’s not the whole story. Even if some people have natural advantages, Epstein also tells stories of people who lacked certain natural gifts, but picked a sport that was a good fit and worked hard till they succeeded. Their limits may have kept them from being elite, but they still became very, very good.
The key is to find the right method of training, and to fit it on a realistic timeline to get us where we want to go. Our bodies aren’t infinitely malleable, but we do still have a lot of choice in the matter.
Brain Nature and Nurture
It seems the same is true of our minds. Consider a story like the one on NPR this week about a kid in Georgia named Caleb Anderson, who is taking college classes at age 12. The story tells how his parents nurtured his intellect, which is huge. But the vast majority of kids aren’t going to start reading at 6 months old (as Anderson did!), no matter how how hard their parents try to make it happen. Anderson has something natural, born into him, that just lets him learn faster than most of us can. If he develops that skill, a normal mind will never catch up with what his mind might do.
A lot of people find it offensive that one person would be “naturally” smarter than another, but it’s hard to deny there is at least some truth in the idea. As Epstein writes, some people are able to become chess masters (a measurable level of chess skill) through far fewer hours of work than others. Part of that depends on using the practice hours efficiently, but it seems clear that native intelligence plays a big role, at least when it comes to the very best players.
This makes sense on so many levels. We all know there are people like Anderson, who have amazing gifts, and other people with severe MR that can never be fixed by hard work or study; how strange it would be for there to be those extremes of natural ability on opposite ends of the spectrum, but for everyone in between to somehow have the exact same amount of mental potential. Then you have the sports comparison: how strange it would be if our genes could cause such a variety in how our bodies respond to athletic training, but then have nothing to do with how well our minds respond to academic training. And finally, consider: if every kid is born with the natural ability to become Einstein if they just work hard enough, then what massive failures we must all be!
But this hardly means that we are simply born with an IQ, and that’s it. Just as in sports, the other side of the story is true at the same time: becoming a world-class thinker may end up requiring unusual natural gifts like Anderson has; but just as in sports, the vast majority of us can still learn to become excellent thinkers in areas we’re well suited for, if we work hard and have teachers and mentors who help us find the right studying methods to get where we want to go. Our minds aren’t infinitely malleable, but we do have a lot of choice in the matter.
Learning Speed and Education
What does this mean for educating kids? I would say that we need to learn the right lesson, and also not learn the wrong lesson, from all this. The right lesson is that our kids will learn differently, and we should help them learn at a pace that works for them. We shouldn’t assume one kid will learn just as fast as another, as long as they “try hard enough,” or whatever. Some kids will simply be able to advance faster, and some may advance to places others can never reach.
On the other hand, we need to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion, that a slower learner should be written off as having preordained limits on what they can become. Maybe a kid who is a slower learner won’t be able to catch up to a Caleb Anderson in the quest to become a world-class aerospace engineer, but they may well have the potential to become an excellent aerospace engineer if they have the right drive and nurturing, and spend the extra time it might take. Or maybe they won’t, but a teacher hardly needs to know that from the outset.
I suppose it’s possible that a kid does have world-class abilities, but they just aren’t evident as early as Caleb’s. But even if that may sometimes be true, I don’t think it’s a good idea to push that as the norm, and fall into the trap of assuming that everything just depends on nurture and hard work. That kind of approach puts a burden on us all that I think is really unfair. We may end up encouraging our kids to become a Rudy, when a shift in focus could lead them to pursuits where they could really excel and contribute to the world for the long run.
Instead, I would argue that educators should go into teaching embracing a two-sided truth: We do not have to pretend that kids are all the same, in order to affirm that the vast majority of kids can excel at something.