Wednesday, February 6, 2013
One of the bedrock principles of training is that it is specific. A demand is imposed on the system and the system, to the extent it is ready and able, adapts to that demand. To train for an endurance event, for example, I can perform a series of tasks that demand higher-than-normal energy production. The human body is very well equipped to respond to such a demand by ramping up the production of hormones and enzymes that encourage the production and storage of energy. After that series of tasks, therefore, I will have adapted to the specific demand for sustained energy. An endurance event will pose a whole variety of challenges to the athlete, however, that are considerably more complex than any single demand to which the body can adapt. In order to run a fast marathon an athlete would need additional adaptations in bony and connective tissues, cardio vascular components, neurological components, and of course muscular tissue.
Muscle tissue adapts quickly – on the order of weeks. Connective tissue adapts slowly – on the order of months. Training gains and losses therefore depend on the nature of the adaptation. They also depend on the readiness of the system to respond and adapt. Sports provide the framework for contriving and testing all manner of adaptations and for comparing the differences between people who compete. The whole premise of sports is that differences between people will demonstrably emerge.
Schooling, at its best, is training. It places demands on students who then adapt to those demands. A highly trained student is just like a highly trained athlete: they are both primed for competition.
When demonstrable differences emerge between competitors who have similar access to resources, whether athletic or academic, we attribute that to differences in talent, motivation, or a combination of the two. If we were interested in developing an Olympic training program for athletes, we might begin by trying to screen young people for talent. We would hope to reveal the people most likely to respond to very specific kinds of training for specific sports. We could administer general fitness tests to kids and get a rough measure that is likely to correlate with future responsiveness. A more refined screening instrument would probably need to include a direct measure of responsiveness, though, to specific kinds of training. For example, kids are pre-tested, given a training regimen, and then post-tested to measure the gains made through training.
Though we don’t tend to, we could look at schooling the same way. If we are interested in developing competitive thinkers in a variety of fields, we might begin by trying to screen young people for the likelihood that they will respond to specific kinds of academic training. One such screen is the IQ test. From its inception the IQ test has been designed to screen for those most likely to adapt to school generally. [Technically Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to screen for the converse – students who would struggle in school.] Perhaps it wasn’t worth the added expense to get the more refined result we might expect if Binet (and his successors) had directly measured how students respond to specific kinds of training.
The cost of testing is likely less of a road block than issues surrounding the concept of intelligence. Problems arise because of the inference that intelligence is fixed and that it determines academic success. Although I am unaware of any actual pronouncements that intelligence works this way, I am well aware of the constant barrage of pushback against the possibility that intelligence may be conceived of in this way. There appears to be a raft of studies seeking confirmation that intelligence is not fixed and that academic success can be achieved by all people regardless of any perceived biological constraint. And the results of studies that do not directly pertain to intelligence and academic success are combed through for any hint that people are indeed freed from the shackles of biological determinism to pursue whatever may interest them.
So I wasn’t surprised by the blog that showed up on my Scientific American News Feed titled: “Virtues of Cognitive Workout: New study reveals neurological underpinnings of intelligence.” In it, Samuel McNerney sets up his interpretation of a recent study with this narrative: “For decades researchers believed that fluid intelligence was… largely determined by genetics. The implication of [this 2008 study] suggested otherwise: with some cognitive training people could improve fluid intelligence and, therefore, become smarter.” In his review of the recent study, 17 participants trained over 3 sessions to perform a mental task that requires working memory. Not too surprisingly, these participants improved on a test of fluid intelligence that requires working memory. This finding resonated with the chorus of those building a bulwark against an imagined enemy -- biological determinism.
To me, this finding is analogous to any training effect we’d expect from tissue that adapts quickly to imposed demand. It is pretty silly to generalize from this result that we can, in effect, train anyone to accomplish whatever academic goal we happen to value, especially if the goal is to be competitive with others. Here’s the problem: among the 17 who were trained to use working memory some improved more than others. Further, working memory adapts quickly and specifically to the task imposed, which means any gains will be quickly lost once the demand is removed. The results of this study do not mean anything about the relative performance of different people on complex tasks over the course of a lifetime.
The only thing that can be said to determine success in life is motivation, and we don’t even know how to talk about what that really is, much less where comes from. I’m working on a framework to at least have an illuminating conversation about it. Stay tuned.