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Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Now displaying: August, 2016
Aug 29, 2016

Over the past century, women have been gaining rights and prejudice against women has declined. Although many would argue that there's still a way to go, the progress is undeniable. Why, then, do men still outperform women in a number of intellectual domains?

In this episode, we look at several articles that try to answer this question for one cognitive domain in particular: chess. Chess is a good domain to test for a number of reasons:

  • There is little subjectivity or ambiguity in deciding who is a better chess player. In chess, you either win or you lose (or draw), and there's no arguing about it. This isn't the same in most other domains, such as art, literature, music, or scientific research.
  • In chess, it's what you know, not who you know. You don't need to have a professional network or be well-liked to win chess tournaments. You just have to play the game. This is different to other domains, where your career can depend on the judgements of others, and women or other groups may suffer from the effects of a "glass ceiling".
  • There is a lot of data on chess. For the top few hundred male and female chess players, we know who played who; when; at what event; what the exact moves were; and what the result was. This helps our analysis greatly.

So, why do women tend to worse in chess? Are women less interested in chess? Is there some hidden psychological bias or prejudice that is holding women back? Is it just some sort of statistical artefact? Or are men simply cleverer than women? All these theories and more are discussed in detail.

Enjoy the episode.

Aug 15, 2016

I write a little blurb like this for every episode, but I feel that some books hardly need any introduction. This is one such example. Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most celebrated journalists and writers of the early 21st century, and his book Outliers caused a splash in people's thinking about success.

Why? One answer is that it popularised the idea of the so-called "10,000 hour rule", initially discovered by K. Anders Ericsson, concerning how much "deliberate practice" it takes to become a world-class expert in any field. "Popularised" is the key word here, as several others were writing the same thing, but when Gladwell writes, everybody reads. And, for the most part, everybody believes. (So another answer to "why did the book cause a splash?" would be "because it's Gladwell, and he's famous, and everybody likes him.")

The strange thing is, the 10,000 hour rule makes up a minority of what he writes about in his book, but people seem to often forget the rest of the ideas. Since we've already seen the power of extended deliberate practice described in other books (Bounce, Genius Explained, and The Talent Code), it's actually these remaining ideas where we find Gladwell's unique contribution to our knowledge of the development of expertise. And it has a message with is quite at odds with the spirit of the 10,000 hour rule.

Gladwell's unique yet oft-forgotten contribution, then, is the idea of success as being a gift. He's not talking about talent, which he more or less rejects by reference to the aforementioned 10,000 hour rule, but about life circumstances. You don't choose where or when you are born, or the culture you are born into, or the state of the job market or of national demographics or of technology as you are growing up, and yet these very factors have a profound effect on whether somebody is successful. Would Bill Gates have become so rich were he born in Burma instead? Or in the 1920s? Or in fourth century Phrygia? 

Although some of Gladwell's historico-cultural musings can be somewhat open to doubt, in several places he gives evidence strong enough to convince even the careful reader that something funny is indeed going on. In this episode, I hope to help you see where he might be onto something, and where we need to be wary of the potential of his masterful storytelling to obscure his shaky arguments.

Enjoy the episode.

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