Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: Raise a Genius!

A few months ago, I learned about Laszlo Polgar, the man who trained all three of his daughters to be chess grandmasters. He claimed he could make any child a genius just by teaching them using his special methods. I was pretty upset because, although he had a book called Raise A Genius, it was hard to find and only available in Hungarian and Esperanto.

Many SSC readers contributed money to get the book translated, and Esperanto translator Gordon Tishler stepped up to do the job. Thanks to everyone involved. You can find his full translation here: Raise A Genius!

I was hoping that this book would explain Lazslo Polgar’s secrets for raising gifted children. It does so only in very broad strokes. Nor does he seem to be holding much back. But it looks more like he doesn’t really have secrets, per se. The main things he does differently from everyone else are the things he’s talked about in every interview and documentary: he starts young (around the time the child is three), focuses near-obsessively on a single subject, and never stops. Polgar:
The first characteristic of genius education – I could say the most important novelty distinguishing it from contemporary instruction – and its necessary precondition, is early specialization directed at one concrete field. It is indeed true what Homer said, “A person cannot be experienced or first in everything.” Because of this parents should choose a specific field at their discretion. It is only important that by the age of 3-4 some physical or mental field should be chosen, and the child can set out on their voyage.
He has a couple more things to say, but they’re more like vague principles than like specific details. The rest of the book is his opinions on the meaning of genius, his gripes about the Hungarian government, the ways public schooling destroys children’s natural creativity, and various related subjects.

And maybe this stuff deserves some attention. He spends a long time responding to people who say it’s inhumane or immoral to educate children the way he does it, and certainly those claims need a response. A lot of his pedagogical philosophy and personal philosophy of life come out in the way he answers these questions, and given how few specifics he gives, maybe understanding his broader worldview is the way to go. And although a lot of people talk about how public school destroys children’s minds, it’s always good to hear it from the mouth of somebody who’s put his money where his mouth is and done a better job.

But what can we glean from this book in terms of how one can educate a child in the Polgar method?

The closest Raise A Genius comes to anything like a specific prescription is Polgar’s description of what a day might be like in some kind of imaginary Polgar genius school:
In genius education it is necessary that the pedagogue (whether the parents or professional teachers or tutors) stay in direct, constant and intensive contact with the child. Because of this we imagine groups of only 10-15 members. In practice an intensive collaborative contact between the child and an adult must be formed, in which the child does not feel “subordinate.” Think how advantageous it would be if the child already understands at the age of 10 that they know a great deal, that they are a person of the same value as an adult, and that in their life there is at least one field they master as well or better than adults.
As for the curriculum, it would be:
– 4 hours of specialist study (for us, chess)
– 1 hour of a foreign language. Esperanto in the first year, English in the second, and another chosen at will in the third. At the stage of beginning, that is, intensive language instruction, it is necessary to increase the study hours to 3 – in place of the specialist study – for 3 months. In summer, study trips to other countries.
– 1 hour of general study (native language, natural science and social studies)
– 1 hour of computing
– 1 hour of moral, psychological, and pedagogical studies (humor lessons as well, with 20 minutes every hour for joke telling)
– 1 hour of gymnastics, freely chosen, which can be accomplished individually outside school. The division of study hours can of course be treated elastically.
All of this cries out for more explanation (in particular, the humor lessons sound fascinating), but the only part he really explains is the foreign language. He quotes Frantishek Marek: “Learning foreign languages in early childhood is very important, because without that a person cannot later express themself spontaneously, rapidly, and appropriately”, and I think suggests (though I might be misunderstanding) that languages are one of the easiest things to teach young children, and so a good way to get them into the spirit of learning things. He also thinks languages are nice because they have a defined end-goal (speaking fluently) and obvious progress along the way, so children feel good about learning them. He argues Esperanto is perfect for this: as a logical constructed language, it’s very easy to learn, and it convinces children that learning is fast and easy. Then with their Esperanto knowledge they’ll be much better able to pick up other languages later on. I’m not really sure what to think of this – language learning might be more important if you grow up speaking Hungarian rather than English, and Polgar seems so enthusiastic an Esperantist that it’s hard to picture him recommending it for purely rational reasons – but he’s quite insistent on it.

This idea that children should learn things they find exciting and enjoyable – and where they keep making measurable progress – recurs throughout the book. Often it’s in the context of a kind of counterintuitive point, where someone asks him “Won’t kids hate having to learn so much?” and Polgar answers that kids may hate public school, where they sit around a lot and never feel like they’re really mastering anything, but won’t hate intensive genius education, where they actually feel like people are trying to make them good at things:
In conditions of intensive instruction a child will soon feel knowledgeable, perceive independence, achieve success, and shortly become capable of independently applying their knowledge. Let us take an example from language learning. Let us suppose that someone visits a class for interpreters at a school for geniuses, where they are occupied for 5-6 hours with a first foreign language, Esperanto if possible. (Why precisely with this language I will clarify below.) After some months they are already corresponding with children in other countries, they participate in meetings in and outside of their country – and longer-lasting – where they experience serious successes, and they converse fluently in the language they have learned by then. Is this a nice feeling for a child? Yes, it is nice. Is it useful for the child? Yes, it is useful. Is it useful for society? It is useful. In the following year one can do the same with another foreign language – let us say English – and in the year after that another. 
The same is valid for any field of life. In this way a child really enjoys what they are doing, and they see that it makes sense. In contemporary schools students do not understand why they are learning. But in genius-education schools the children know that after a few months they will speak Esperanto, in the following year English, in the following year German, etc. Or in the field of chess; in the first year they play at level 3, after the third year at level 1, after five years as a master candidate, after 6-7 years as a master, after 8-10 years as an international master, and after the 15th year as a grandmaster. So the child sees the goal and meaning of their work.
One thing is certain: one can never achieve serious pedagogical results, especially at a high level, through coercion. One can teach chess only by means of love and the love of the game. If I may advise: one should make sure that before everything the father or mother should not diminish the child’s habit of chess playing by too much severity. We should make sure not to always win against the child; we should let them win sometimes so that they feel that they also are capable of thinking. In this way we should bring them to a feeling of success. (...)
There’s a lot of this, always exhorting people to make sure children enjoy being intensively educated, but always giving only vague gestures on how to do it. I suspect Polgar was a naturally gifted teacher, and his daughters naturally curious students, and that he never really encountered problems in this regard and doesn’t expect other people to either. Some of this seems apparent in his section on play:
I think of play as a very important phenomenon, perhaps more important than do many of those psychologists who put it on a pedestal. 
But play is not the opposite of work. Play is very important for a child, but in play there is an element of work. One should not separate these two factors in a child’s value system; if for example a child hears at an impressionable age, “Play, son, don’t work!” this can later result in him feeling that work is alien. On the contrary, it is my opinion that a child does not like only play: for them it is also enjoyable to acquire information and solve problems. A child’s work can also be enjoyable; so can learning, if it is sufficiently motivating, and if it means a constant supply of problems to solve that are appropriate for the level of the child’s needs. 
A child does not need play separate from work, but meaningful action. Children already enjoy doing meaningful things in infancy. They like solving problems during play, even pleasurable play. The more meaningful and information-rich the problems they solve during their activities, the greater is their enjoyment and sense of success. In the end it is most important at this age to awaken enjoyment and good feelings in them. 
Regarding my daughters, it is my experience that learning presents them with more enjoyment than a sterile game. I have the feeling that play deprived of information often plays only a surrogate role, of surrogate action, of surrogate satisfaction.
by Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex |  Read more: 
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