Sunday, March 04, 2007

How Thinking Can Change the Brain; Self-Discipline May Beat Smarts as Key to Success

1) In response to my critique of Charles Murray's first WSJ Op Ed in an email last week, one friend commented:

Couldn't agree more.  One small comment related to your comment that "it seems abundantly obvious that it's a combination of nature and nuture.Actually, over the past two decades neuro-scientists have discovered an *overwhelming* amount of evidence that the brain changes its internal physical structure in response to external stimuli.  In fact, there's even a name for this quality present in all human brains: brain plasticity. 

2) No sooner did my friend send me this than this article came out in the WSJ on Friday, thoroughly rebutting Murray's assertion that a person's intelligence is basically determined at a very young age and can never change:

The Dalai Lama had put his finger on an emerging revolution in brain research. In the last decade of the 20th century, neuroscientists overthrew the dogma that the adult brain can't change. To the contrary, its structure and activity can morph in response to experience, an ability called neuroplasticity. The discovery has led to promising new treatments for children with dyslexia and for stroke patients, among others.

3) An article about research that rebuts another one of Murray's core tenets -- that IQ is the most important factor in determining success in school and in life:

According to a recent article by Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E.P. Seligman in the journal Psychological Science, self-discipline is a better predictor of academic success than even IQ.

"Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes," the researchers said. "We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline. . . . We believe that many of America's children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."..

The results: "Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable, including report card grades, standardized achievement test scores, admission to a competitive high school and attendance. Self-discipline measured in the fall predicted more variance in each of these outcomes than did IQ, and unlike IQ, self-discipline predicted gains in academic performance over the school year."

KIPP really gets the importance of self-discipline and instills it in countless ways -- a nice quote from KIPP TEAM principal Ryan Hill here:

Some educators said schools can teach self-discipline. Rafe Esquith, an award-winning Los Angeles teacher, often tells his low-income fifth-graders about a study that showed that hungry 4-year-olds willing to wait for two marshmallows were more successful years later than those who gobbled up one marshmallow immediately.

Ryan Hill, director of the TEAM Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., said students at his school, a Knowledge Is Power Program middle school in a low-income neighborhood, are required to stay at school until their homework is done if TV interfered with study the night before. "Over time, they learn to just do their homework before watching TV, delaying gratification, which becomes a habit of self-discipline," Hill said.


How Thinking Can Change the Brain

Dalai Lama Helps Scientists
Show the Power of the Mind
To Sculpt Our Gray Matter
January 19, 2007; Page B1

Although science and religion are often in conflict, the Dalai Lama takes a different approach. Every year or so the head of Tibetan Buddhism invites a group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, in Northern India, to discuss their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it.

In 2004 the subject was neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experience. The following are vignettes adapted from "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," which describes this emerging area of science:


Self-Discipline May Beat Smarts as Key to Success

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; Page A10

Zoe Bellars and Brad McGann, eighth-graders at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, do their homework faithfully and practice their musical instruments regularly. In a recent delayed gratification experiment, they declined to accept a dollar bill when told they could wait a week and get two dollars.

Those traits might be expected of good students, certainly no big deal. But a study by University of Pennsylvania researchers suggests that self-discipline and self-denial could be a key to saving U.S. schools.

According to a recent article by Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E.P. Seligman in the journal Psychological Science, self-discipline is a better predictor of academic success than even IQ.

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