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Friday, September 7, 2007The Secrets Of Three "R s"
On Teacher’s Day, this column will try to apply the principles of basic economics to help understand a problem that my elder daughter faces and one that the younger one will also face when she moves into a higher grade at school. To the extent that this predicament is common to most children in India, what follows will also hopefully be of some help to other harried parents.
Saawani usually does extremely well in her school exams, and so it has also been this year—but with one significant exception. Till now, her school put her through an art exam, but the marks she got were never counted in the final tally. The rule has now been changed. And her poor drawing abilities are pulling down her overall tally. But what has really worried her is a remark by her art teacher that the school will not promote students who have failed the art exam.
The problem we have is this: Should we ask her to stop focusing on the subjects that she very transparently loves and is good at, and ask her to take outside tuition in art, or should we tell her to keep concentrating on what she is good at? Should education build on a child’s strengths or should it try to minimize her weaknesses?
This, to my mind, is where the principles of economics come in. Like countries and companies, should schoolchildren focus on their comparative advantage or not? Or is there, in a very literal sense, a valid infant industry argument that should make us force our children to do everything in the hope that they will eventually be good at something?
My own inclination is to let children do what they enjoy. This is partly because of what the 19th century economist David Ricardo taught us about countries and what some modern management gurus tell companies: You should do what you are good at.
Those who have ignored this effective piece of advice—be it countries such as India that embraced import substitution or sprawling conglomerates that lost focus—have almost inevitably suffered.
The tragedy is that countries and companies have a choice; schoolchildren don’t. To get back to the problem at home, Saawani is not some geek without any artistic interests. She loves to sing, and my wife and I believe that she is quite good at it. But it is unfortunate that her school wants to judge her on the basis of her drawing, rather than her singing. It is akin to a government asking a company to produce something that it doesn’t want to or stopping it from doing something it wants to. The lack of choice in our schools is truly depressing.
Now comes the other reason why I think children should be allowed to settle into subjects and activities that they are good at. We often ask each other why there is such a weak correlation between those who top the board exams and those who actually succeed in life. Most of us have also gone through the almost mandatory shock of being told at a school reunion that the class duffer is now a famous doctor or a CEO. My friend Avinash was a known troublemaker in school. Later, he struggled through junior college before dropping out. He is today one of the most successful photographers in the Hindi film industry.
Forget the examples of Gandhi, Einstein and J. Krishnamurthi—if we think hard enough, each of us is likely to remember at least one person who did not do well in school, but later shone in life.
The essential paradox is that we expect children to be good at everything in school, while they will need to be good in just one thing to do well in life. Schools are basically out of sync with the outside world, where division of labour and specialization rule. In the world of adults, we are not expected to be good at everything.
So, does this mean that our children should be allowed to do just as they please? That would be another extreme. Clearly, we send them to school to develop certain basic language and numeric skills. That (to draw yet another analogy from economics) is the basic infrastructure that the school system must provide so that students can make the most of life’s opportunities, just as public provision of good roads or legal protection is a building block of economic success.
And that’s where something that philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his autobiography comes to mind: “I shall be forever grateful to my first teacher, Emma Goldberger, who taught me the three Rs. They are, I think, the only essentials a child has to be taught; and some children do not even need to be taught in order to learn these. Everything else is atmosphere, and learning through reading and thinking.”
Given the basic intellectual infrastructure of the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—our children should be allowed to seek their comparative advantage. I think it is unfair to condemn them to a state that the Indian economy has suffered through four decades of statist planning.
In the book Mantalk by Elliot Jacobs, MD*, all sorts of topics relating to aging, looks and overall sex appeal are discussed, ultimately providing tips and advice on how to turn yourself into the best man you can be. Something in particular caught my attention as I was perusing through the book, namely a section which focuses on grooming and trimming body hair. The paragraph that I thought was most interesting reads and follows:
“Almost all women dislike hair on the back, but are too embarrassed to tell their mate. According to a Harris Interactive survey of 1,000, more than 90 percent of women between the ages of eighteen and forty-four find back hair to be unattractive. Yet, despite their aversion to back hair, only four in ten women would ever feel comfortable asking their significant other to handle their hairy hang-up. Though one in three men currently removes hair from unwanted areas of their bodies, including their back, chest, and legs, survey results indicate that women are looking for more men to incorporate hair removal into their normal grooming routine. When asked in confidence, the women surveyed ranked back as the number one area of their man’s body they desired to see smooth. (77 percent). The derriere ranked second with 11 percent of women desiring a buff butt followed by the chest at seven percent. Not surprisingly, most women did not mind a little hair on arms and legs.”
*Aside from drawing upon his own experience as a medical reporter for the last twenty-five years and his experience as a plastic surgeon, he has also called upon many experts in their respective fields to put medical and other information in layman’s terms.
A new case study of a stroke patient suggests that adults' brains might be just as "plastic," or capable of creating new neural pathways, as those of children.
Past research has established the remarkable capacity of young brains to change or adapt to deficits by creating new signaling routes, a phenomenon called plasticity. However, whether adult brains have that same capacity has remained controversial.
Results from a new study, published in the Sept. 5 online edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest at least in one patient, the visual center of an adult brain can reorganize itself neurally to overcome damaged pathways and result in changes (and possibly improvements) in visual perception.
Daniel Dilks, now a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and his colleagues studied the brain of a stroke patient, referred to as BL. Dilks completed the work while a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.
BL's stroke had damaged the fibers that transmit information from the eyes to the primary visual cortex, which is a region in the grey matter in the back of the brain. The cortex itself remained intact.
The damage cut off communication between the upper left visual field and the corresponding region in the visual cortex, creating a blind area in that upper left visual field. (A visual field refers to the area that can be seen when that eye is directed forward and includes the peripheral vision.)
BL had reported that things "looked distorted" in the area just below the blind spot. The researchers hypothesized the distortions resulted from reorganization in the deprived cortex.
To test their idea, the neuroscientists had BL focus on a center dot while images of objects, such as square shapes, appeared in various parts of the visual field. When the square popped up in the blind area, BL saw nothing.
When the square appeared just below the blind area, BL perceived the square as a rectangle stretching upward into the blind area. Likewise, the patient saw triangles as "pencil-like," and circles as "cigar-like."
Brain scans using fMRI showed the visually deprived cortex (upper left visual field) was responding to information coming from the lower left visual field—something that would not occur in a "normal" adult brain. That ability to "redirect" sight signals is a hallmark of plasticity, the authors say, and could explain the visual distortions.
"We discovered that it took on new functional properties, and BL sees differently as a consequence of that cortical reorganization," Dilks said.
The new finding adds weight to suggestions made by other research about the ability of adult brains to morph.
This year, neuroscientists reported the adult mice could grow new neurons, a finding they said could have implications for the treatment of human neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's. A similar finding was reported a couple of years ago in mice. In 2005, a brain-scan study of human adults with macular degeneration showed evidence of plasticity in the visual regions of their brains.
However, similar studies have somewhat tempered these positive results, one in which brain scans failed to find evidence for brain changes in patients with macular degeneration.