Why Every Kid Knows Maths: The Myth of Talent

by Sean D'Souza

Why Every Kid Knows Maths: The Myth of Talent

If you go to any school, in any country, you’ll find one thing consistently

That if you ask the kids in the class if they can draw, then almost 100% of the kids put their hands up. What’s also interesting is that all the kids in the class are equally good (or equally bad, as the case may be).

If you were to go back to that class a year later, and you asked the same question, you’d find that at least 30% of the students don’t feel so confident at drawing. If you were to then visit the class on a recurring basis till all the kids were about 10 years old, you’d find that you’d get diminishing percentages (that is, fewer and fewer kids who can draw).

By the time all the kids have reached ten years of age, you may find that the percentage of kids who can draw have gone from as high as 100% to as little as 2% or even zero.

So what happened? Did the kids suddenly get “stupid” with drawing?

Let’s put that question aside for a moment and look at their reading and writing. At the age of five, almost the entire class can barely read or write at all. At best, they can recite the alphabet, recognise numbers and possibly read a few words—if at all.

Almost the entire class is exceptionally crappy at writing—struggling to even roll from A-Z without their writing looking like gibberish. Then go back to the class the next year and the next and the next.

If you were to visit when all the kids were ten, you’d find what you’re already expecting: All the kids (except those with severe disabilities) can read and write.

So what is the difference between reading, writing and drawing?

The answer is: There is no difference.

Reading and writing is considered critical to your future, so everyone from parents to teachers, even your peers, push you in the direction of reading and writing. A child spends at least an hour or more every single day learning the skill and practicing it.

Drawing is considered to be not so critical, so it’s quickly abandoned except for the weekly token drawing class. And so if something is considered critical, everyone quickly learns because without it your future is in jeopardy.

But what about the 1% who draw despite these barriers?

They draw because of several reasons. The biggest factor is simply one of encouragement. They draw, they’re not a menace to society, and so their families encourage them to continue drawing. If the family beat them up every time they did a drawing, the child would quickly learn “not to draw”. But many kids are shy and drawing becomes their outlet.

And in the hands of the right teacher, right person egging them on, they continue to draw spending several hundred, even thousands of hours learning and honing their skills.

So does it require thousands of hours to learn a skill?

No it doesn’t. It requires thousands of hours to become an expert in the field. Anyone with reasonable practice can learn in the hands of the right teacher, the right method and the right media.

In fact in fewer than six months a person can go from zero skill in a specific field to incredibly competent. They can’t reach genius level, because genius level just requires enormous practice. When you compare yourself with the top stars in a field or even the mediocre stars in a field, you’re making an incorrect comparison.

The comparison is you having spent ten hours with dubious methodology learning a skill vs. an expert spending thousands of hours with precise methods learning the very same skill.

So what’s required to acquire a decent level of skill really rapidly?

As I mentioned before, it requires:

1) The right teacher.
2) The right method.
3) The right media.

What’s also required is a concept called “tiny increments”

Most teaching is done with big leaps. So pick up any book on any subject from carpentry, to Photoshop to cartoons and you get the same problem. The teacher tries to drive home several points in the same book/audio/video.

Yet our brains can only lock into one thing at a time. And then that one thing has to be practiced; mistakes have to be made; those mistakes have to be corrected repeatedly before you move on to the next thing.

Yet no such system of education exists. Instead all we have is rush, rush, rush. Don’t believe me? Pick up a book on how to paint watercolours for instance. Your eyes will soon glaze over as you get hit by several concepts like unity, counter balance, value, focus point and dozens of other terms. And this in a beginner course or beginner book. Is it any wonder that learning is difficult, if not terribly tragic?

Tiny increments mean that a person can move in such tiny movements that they don’t even realise they’re moving ahead

This means they do the same movement over and over again until it becomes second nature. Once that single movement is learned, they move to the next and the next and the next. But the increments must be extremely tiny.

To the average person this slow advancement may seem way too slow—even a waste of time. But it’s how the brain learns. It’s how kids learn to read and write. They take years. And they get there.

So who are the kids who can’t read and write?

Those who stop. Those who don’t practice. Those who are not encouraged. Those who are beaten senseless at home because of drunk or abusive parents. Those kids will never be talented at writing and reading. They’ll never go to the fancy colleges. Those kids have been deprived the ability to “acquire” talent.

And yet talent can be acquired

And acquired speedily. But first you have to throw off the shackles of believing that talent is inborn. If you believe in that, you believe that nothing can change you. And that’s your choice. For those who believe in acquisition of talent, it’s just a matter of finding the right teacher, the right method and the right media. And daily practice.

Which means you can learn to draw, or cook, or do whatever you jolly well please.

How liberating is that?

P.S. Do you have a question or comment? Write it here and I will respond.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra Hopkins August 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Excellent article, Sean! I totally agree with the tiny increment approach—learning one thing, practicing until it’s second nature, and only then, the next thing. It’s the key to the effectiveness of your Headlines Course. It’s also one of the reasons KhanAcademy.org is so effective.

But for unknown reasons, this approach is not used in public schools in the U.S. And they’re not very successful at educating.

There are additional keys to teaching, and you seem to know them as well. But this incremental approach is one of the keys.

Reply

Sean D'Souza August 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

Yes, teaching is complex.
Hence few teachers, teach well.
Even among those who are unrestrained in any way. The Internet is a good example of a system that has few restraints, but a squillion crappy teachers.

Part of the problem is that they’re money-hungry. But part of the problem is that they had bad teachers themselves. It’s hard to teach well if you had a bad teacher. You have to unlearn and then re-learn. And then teach.

All hard work. And hard work may not be the system that most prefer :)

Reply

Sean D'Souza August 29, 2012 at 11:47 am

You know it because you’ve worked with us. But most people don’t have the opportunity, and so believe that talent is inborn.

Reply

Phil Callinan August 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Great article Sean. It is truly amazing how many resources are available for learning at present. Even more amazing, is how standardized testing in the majority of educational systems, is still the norm. To access information is one thing, but to do so intrinsically motivated i.e with autonomy, mastery and purpose, flies in the face of most models at schools and in business. Maybe in a few short years we will finally “get it” and adopt the incremental and supportive methodology your article promotes.
Cheers
Phil Callinan

Reply

Sean D'Souza August 29, 2012 at 11:48 am

I don’t think we’ll get it in a hurry.

It takes too much work to be a good teacher. And a good student. And it’s easier to take the easier route.

Reply

M Vine August 28, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I believe the author is confusing talent with skills and knowledge acquisition. Yes, most people can improve their drawing with enough time and instruction but some people will product better drawings with a fraction of the amount of time and instruction. They have more talent.

A question for advanced education policy is should we focus our expensive teaching resources on people who will will learn quickly or on those who will struggle and consume huge amounts of resources.

Reply

Sean D'Souza August 29, 2012 at 11:49 am

Talent is a prison.
Or a spring board.

It depends how you look at the concept of talent. If you believe, like most of us were made to believe, that talent is inborn—then there’s nothing you can do. Because then, talent takes is like the colour of your eyes. For the most part, we know the colour of our eyes, and they stay that way, never changing much (or at least, not that we notice).

But if you believe that talent are like your shoes, then we have a different starting point. You know believe that you can go out there and acquire more shoes. And soon enough you have a shoe collection.

This of course is a simple explanation.
And it frightens two sets of people. One is the person who’s been told they’re untalented. And it also scares the heck out of the talented folks as well. The talented folks like to believe that it’s inborn. That somehow they were picked and bestowed this great skill. 

And it’s equally scary for the untalented. Now they have no excuse. They realise that they can ramp up their abilities to a stage they would or could not have imagined before. Then they run into the Anders-Ericksson study that is mistakenly quoted as “To be talented, you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work”.

Which is nonsense.

You don’t need 10,000 hours. Imagine being told that you needed 10,000 hours to learn to drive a car. Or 10,000 hours to learn to use cutlery. Or 10,000 hours to boot up your iPad. None of us would do anything at all, and we’d all curl up in our corner
and cry ourselves to sleep. If it didn’t take 10,000 hours to learn to cry, that is.

The problem we run into, is talent is a very complex term. And nailing it down to a simple set of words is well, difficult to say the least. But let’s give it a shot, shall we?

Talent is the systematic reduction of errors.
That’s it.

The brain, your brain and mine, is extremely sophisticated at what it does. And it does a lot. But it seems to specialise in pattern recognition. So if we cut our hands, the brain rushes support to stem the blood flow. If we see a manhole, the brain tries to keep us from being landing in the hospital. But the brain doesn’t just look for terrible stuff. It recognises all kinds of patterns and tries to make sense of them. And then once it’s made sense of them, the brain goes into a state of automaticity.

In this state, we’re driving without really thinking. We’re swimming without needing to think of how our feet move or our hands surge through the water. But throw a non-swimmer into the water, or a non-driver behind the wheel, and you have utter chaos. This is because the brain has no patterns to call upon. 

But pattern recognition is not enough. 
Recognising a pattern is the starting point. But then trying something out, is when we tend to get it all wrong. No matter if you are exposed to swimming, driving or learning a program like Photoshop for the first time, you will be almost instantly in trouble. Now you have an almost 100% error rate.

As the brain learns the system i.e. learns to swim, drive or party in Photoshop, the error rate declines. For the geniuses amongst us, the error rate is so low, that it seems like magic. Or to put it another way: talent.

The systematic reduction of errors leads to the acquisition of talent.
And admittedly, acquiring talent is a lot harder than going out and buying shoes. There are so many elements involved that unless you slow down the entire process, it seems that some of us are ordained to be geniuses.

And some of us are.
Some people have incredible hardware. They’re able to look at a view of a city from a helicopter and fifteen minutes later, draw the entire city, exactly as it is. Every door, every window, every ugly TV antenna. That’s hardware, and yes, most of us don’t have that kind of hardware. And that’s OK. Because the hardware we already have is amazingly awesome. It can turn you from a blubbering idiot to a genius.

But you must believe.
Yes, this is a faith test. And it’s not the first faith test either. You believed that you could learn a language, so you did. You believed you could balance and walk, so you did. And incredible as it may sound, you need to believe that you could be a writer or an artist. And you’ll get there. Of course, there’s no magic pill.

You need at the very least three things
1) A good system.
2) A good teacher.
3) Daily practice.

Without this, you’re going nowhere in a hurry.

You can stay in the prison. Or get out.
The opposite of talented is lazy.
And that’s a big, over-the-top statement to make.

Are you ready to reduce your error rate? If so, let’s go on a crazy trip.

Reply

Bob Roach August 29, 2012 at 1:32 am

Sean, the idea and piece is generally great. I just found the lead sentence confusing.

“If you If you go to any school, in any country, you’ll find one thing consistently” doesn’t bring the reader to the starting point which I ‘think’ you were trying to make. Not in the same way that say, “If you go to any first grade class, in any country…” does.

Or did I miss something?

Reply

Sean D'Souza August 29, 2012 at 11:50 am

Yes, I missed that part out. :(

My mistake.

Reply

Ami Sanyal September 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Loved this. Thinking that talent is inborn is such an unfortunate (and common) way to sell ourselves short

Reply

Sean DSouza September 9, 2012 at 4:38 am

Yes it’s a fixed mind mentality that goes nowhere.

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Jon Poland September 12, 2012 at 11:33 am

Sean: I thoroughly enjoyed the article. We, as humans, can do amazing things if we just apply ourselves and “Do The Work.” The problem is that most people want instant results. Most people are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices that it takes to acquire the skills that it takes to become world class. But on the other hand, that is great news for those who have the tenacity to stick to it.

Your post reminds me of Seth Godin’s excellent book, “The Dip.” Seth refers to “The Dip” as the tough work it takes to go from where you are today to becoming best in the world. It is a great read if you want to go deeper into this subject.

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