Monday, May 17, 2010

We inherit - and we also become

The nurture vs nature debate is a timeless one. Many people tend to polarize to one or the other and then dig their heals in and debate.

I was reading David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us and was blown away by this photo:

Otto and Ewald are identical (monozygotic) twins. That means they were born from twin embyos derived from  the same fertilized egg. They share the same DNA.

If you look closely you can see some very subtle differences.

Otto trained as a long distance-runner, and Ewald for strength events. Together, they trained for two very different athletic advantages.

Some would have us believe that we don't become. We are.

And while it would be ridiculous to suggest that anyone can literally do or be anything they want to, it is equally as foolish to see our abilities as set in genetic stone. David Shenk explains:

But the whole concept of genetic giftedness turns out to be wildly off the mark - tragically kept afloat for decades by a cascade of misunderstandings and misleading metaphors. In recent years, a mountain of scientific evidence has emerged that overwhelmingly suggests a completely different paradigm: not talent scarcity, but latent talent abundance. In this conception, human talent and intelligence are not permanently in short supply like fossil fuel, but potentially plentiful like wind power. The problem isn't our inadequate genetic assets, but our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have...
So where is this hidden talent?

How do we unlock this long lost source of success?

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck points towards our minds:
Physical endowment is not like intellectual endowment. It's visible. Size, build, agility are all visible. Practice and training are also visible, and they produce visible results. You would think that this would dispel the myth of the natural. You could see Mugsy Bogues at five foot three playing NBA basketball, and Doug Flutie, the small quarterback who has played for the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers. You could see Pete Gray, the one-armed baseball player who made it to the major leagues. Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, who was completely lacking in grace. Glenn Cunningham, the great runner, who had badly burned and damaged legs. Larry Bird and his lack of swiftness. You can see the small or graceless or even "disabled" ones who make it, and the god-like specimens who don't. Shouldn't this tell people something?
Rather than seeing ourselves as prisoners of our genetics, it would be far more wise for us to realize that we can't even begin to quantify our unactualized genetic potential.

David Shenk summarizes this all nicely:

Our abilities are not set in genetic stone. They are soft and sculptable, far into adulthood. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid - of any age - can inspire.


  1. As Tomlinson said in Differentiated Instruction, Intelligence is variable: It is multifaceted and fluid. It can be amplified or it can atrophy. Our best ally in learning is the student herself. The brain seeks meaningful patterns and resists meaninglessness. Our students respond to deep and personal meaning, something life shaping, relevant, important or emotional. Link this with moderate challenge and your hidden talents may shine through.

    None of this is as easy as we would like. Differentiating learning - personalizing learning - for twenty to thirty young people is a challenge. I need to complete a journey of my own, transform myself. I cannot think through the differentiation required for that many people on my own. It can only work if I trust those twenty to thirty people to own their own learning. The eight or so who are not yet ready for that responsibility may be my challenge. The remainder need my trust, encouragement and the freedom to learn more independently. I hope there will be forgiveness in the system for my inevitable failures.

  2. I find it odd that technology has allowed for such personalization and yet school appears to be pushing hard and faster towards standardization and commonality. And commonality is quite often justified because we need to be able to compare for accountability stuff.

  3. In regards to this interesting topic, one cannot ignore the fact that in order to be effective at differentiation then the teacher needs to be able to be effective at planning differentiation. Personally I believe this is where we fall short. It is not that teachers don't think children can do more, should do more, it is that they are/feel limited with what they can do to facilitate. I also think the school system is limited in the student to teacher ratio being so high that true personalized attention cannot truly be possible until this issue is addressed.

    My opinion is that the only thing that is truly impossible is what we deny ourselves the opportunity to pursue with the lack of faith, belief and resources.

  4. Hannah, I actually don't believe the student/teacher ratio is as big of a deal as we might think it is. I know, I know... I can hardly believe I just said that.

    I am reading and thinking about this very topic now. I am preparing a post soon.

    In short, I don't believe we have to wait for uber-small class sizes to truly differentiate. Which is a good thing, because if we did have to wait, we would never get class sizes low enough.

    Differentiation is more about the teacher relinquishing control and acting more as a guide. We don't necessarily need less kids, but we do need less curriculum. As Dan Pink would say, we need more 20% time.

  5. Differentiation is so important, especially where worksheet are concerned. I used to have to teach with a set book of worksheets which allowed for no differentiation so I would cut it up and repaste it or change it on the computer until I had four different variations of the same worksheet lesson to suit my four ability groups. I di this in each of the age ranges I taught: Reception/Kindergarten, Year 1 and year 2. It took a little bit of extra effort on my half but at least I gave most of my class something they could achieve rather than something only a few could!
    And as far as David Shenks quote is concerned:
    'Our abilities are not set in genetic stone. They are soft and sculptable, far into adulthood. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid - of any age - can inspire'.
    I'd like to think that goes for adults too!
    Thanks for the interesting post!

  6. There is a measurement called the Trunk Index which measures the Thoracic Trunk divided by the abdominal trunk. This is an important index for determining the degree of mesomorphy in a somatotype. Even though this is not a carefully posed picture for purposes of anthropometry Otto's Trunk Index is approximately 1.90 and Ewald's is approximately 2.04. This is very close and makes them both extremely mesomorphic or athletic. Their inherited somatotype is virtually identical. Extremely Ectomorphic identical twins could never muscle up much at all, no matter how much they trained.

    You can be anything you want to be. What's hard to explain is the "wanting". The overlooked part of Shenk's book is that most low IQ people really don't give their IQ a second thought.


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