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Two Articles In This Week’s NY Times Magazine — One Useful, One Relatively Useless

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This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine theme is on the “mind,” and they’ve published two articles early.

How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain seems quite interesting and useful. I’m adding it to The Best Resources On How Exercise Helps Learning — Please Contribute Other Resources.

The other article, Can You Make Yourself Smarter?, seems well-written, but is about what appears to me to be a relatively useless — if not harmful — experiment to increase children’s intelligence. It describes the use of what I guess could be called memory games to develop children’s working memory and therefore, according to some of the scientists interviewed, their “fluid intelligence.” It particularly focuses on one experiment where students spent 25 minutes a day for several weeks paying the “N-back Game.” You can try an online version of it here. Scientists claimed that it increased fluid intelligence, and that the increase was still present three months later (though the article didn’t say if there were any longer re-assessments).

The reporter also writes about a student who seemed bored playing the game. Jeez, who wouldn’t? Try out the online version and imagine doing it 25 minutes a day for several weeks. I’d suggest you’d become bored, too.

The article quotes critics of the study and the idea at length, too. You’re going to spend that amount of time on this kind of speculative idea?

This magazine article follows a deceiving one The Times ran a few months ago vastly overstating the role of working memory capacity in success and dramatically understating the role of deliberative practice (see Sorry, Professors: Deliberate Practice Matters).

I’ve previously written about other “magical” solutions that some people hope will make students learn.

I wish these scientists would realize that there really aren’t any shortcuts.

As the late great community organizer Fred Ross, Sr. said:

Short-cuts usually end in detours, which lead to dead ends.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Make Yourself Smarter?

  2. Hi Larry,

    You state my Op-Ed with Elizabeth Meinz in November (“Sorry Strivers, Talent Matters”) is “deceiving.”

    You write, “This magazine article follows a deceiving one The Times ran a few months ago vastly overstating the role of working memory capacity in success and dramatically understating the role of deliberative practice.”

    We state explicitly that deliberate practice accounted for nearly half of the performance differences in piano performance and that working memory capacity accounted for 7%.

    What is deceiving about this? How is this a vast overstatement of the role of working memory capacity and a dramatic understatement of the role of deliberate practice? We simply stated what the contributions were.

    Best,
    Zach Hambrick

    • Zach,

      Thanks for your comment. As several other researchers (links to them are include in my post) have pointed out in their critiques of your first op-ed piece (I appreciated your second one that appeared today much more), making working memory’s small effect size such a major focus of a New York Times op ed — with sweeping statements — was not an accurate portrayal of the practical results.

      Larry

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