Sunday, December 21, 2008


I finally gave in and started listening to Malcolm Gladwell's new book last night. While I had heard most of it before, it is still nothing less than stunning. Within the first few pages he managed to convince me of things I don't think anyone else could.

For example there is about an 11% lower college graduation rate for people who are the youngest in their class than people who are the oldest in their class. That is not the age for their college class, it is the age for their elementary school class! The gap between the average test scores for forth graders is huge between those youngest, and oldest, students in the grade (something like ten or fifteen percentile points). That alone convinced me that: either elementary school classes should be split into kids in a 3 month age range rather than a one year range, or any program that selects students based on their intelligence and gives them better education before the age of ten needs to be eliminated. While it is possibly making the smart kids smarter, just as often it seems to be making the old kids smarter. That extra preparation is what seems to be driving the higher college graduation rates for that group. Once they were passed over for GATE programs and the like they are far less likely to catch up to their classmates who were once just older than them and are now actually smarter from the better elementary school education they got.

Probably the better of the two choices is simply making age ranges for elementary school kids in a class a three month range. It would cost almost nothing to do, but for those youngest children not being compared to children a year older saves a great deal of frustration, but I can see the other point. From a fairness, and class mobility standpoint eliminating those programs before the age of ten could do a lot of good. Giving a small number of students a huge institutional head-start does seem unfair. These clearly are the students who already have better parenting on their side, better schooling to go with it seems extreme.

In a way the book is fairly motivational. As best as psychologists can tell the difference between someone who is poor, and someone who is one of the best in the world, at just about anything is simply practice. For example huge studies on musicians have been completely unable to find any world class musicians so brilliant as to get to that level with less than 10 000 hours of practice. That is about 20 hours a week for ten years, so typically it ends up taking a decade to reach that level. Not only that, but when looking at music school students they were unable to find any people who had practiced that number of hours and not reached that level! Consistently the poor musicians were simply the ones who practiced the least. Beyond actual mental retardation there is almost no place for talent whatsoever, those who practiced more beat those who practiced less every time.

Talk about motivation to get off the computer and learn something of importance! Actually though I could argue that what I am doing now is part of the 10 000 hours needed to build some skill. Another 9000 hours and I could actually be a competent writer!

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