Sunday, March 17, 2013

Broad Experience, or Deep Engagement?

You know how you get a song stuck in your head sometimes, and even though its driving you crazy you can't get it out of your mind?  Or how you can get fixated on something someone said, and you keep replaying their words over and over, trying to figure out what they really meant?  Well this week I've added a new category to my "types of obsessive thoughts" list:  Circular Questions.  This is a new one for me, and I've been going round-and-round on one particular question: 

"Is it better to spend your childhood, or your life, 
a little bit interested in a lot of things, 
or a lot interested in one thing?" 

I have the author, Paul Tough, to thank for this.  I've been reading his book "How Children Succeed",  learning how research is showing that positive character traits like perseverance, curiosity, and self-control are actually more important than intelligence when it comes to succeeding in school. Mid-way through the book he begins describing a group of middle-school kids who are members of a chess club at their inner-city school, and how they regularly win chess tournaments against kids from much more affluent schools, including some of the best high schools in their area, and even against some adult chess masters.  He attributes much of their success to their teacher/chess coach who challenges the kids "to look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently."  In other words, how to persevere. And part of this perseverance includes hours and hours of practice each day, which means they have time for little else.

So here is where the question is posed. "Is it better to spend your childhood, or your life, a little bit interested in a lot of things, or a lot interested in one thing?"

In spite of what I had just read about the chess club kids, my immediate response was "a little bit interested in a lot of things"; kids should have a chance to try things out and see what they enjoy, to experience as much as possible.  This is certainly what I've encouraged my kids to do, and is what I've spent most of my own life doing -- trying something out, getting pretty good at it (or not), and then moving on.  When given the option of being a "generalist" or a "specialist", the former has always seemed the better choice.

But, it turns out that there's a very strong case to be made for specializing, too, even when you're young.  In the words of the chess coach from the book, "I think it's really liberating for kids to understand what it's like to be passionate about something. They're having momentous experiences that they'll always remember."  Right.  Passion and big experiences -- they're important, too.  The opportunity to deeply engage in an activity, to develop mastery, is rare these days when we're all called on to be "multi-taskers", where technology-driven interruptions and distractions are the norm.

So now I'm reflecting on my original answer to the question, and am rethinking it a bit.  I want my kids to have the experience of being deeply engaged in something meaningful, to push themselves and experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes from dedication to a goal.  

But... I still want them to experience as much of life as they can.  Is there a way to have both?  What do you think?

A note on the book....

Paul Tough has produced an incredibly-researched, well-written book that will serve as a valuable resource for educators and policy-makers.  If you are interested in education, educational policy, or character development, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.  You will be amazed at all of the great information and insights.  

If you don't have much time, but are still interested in learning more, there is a summary version of the book called "How Children Succeed.... in 30 Minutes".  Just click on either of the images below to order through Amazon.


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