Confessions of a researchaholic

February 2, 2011

A tale of two brothers

Filed under: Imaginary,Real — liyiwei @ 1:08 pm

A long time ago in a place far far away, a pair of twin brothers were born. Their parents worked long hours, so they were put with different day care families. One of them, nicknamed Rat, lived with his grandfather. The other one, nicknamed Dog, lived with a retired nanny.

The grandfather was a former college professor who had nobody around to lecture on, so he force-fed Rat everything he knew, like chess, history, and classics literature. The grandfather was also a retired army officer, so he instilled discipline and self-control into Rat’s mentality and life style. Through this rigorous training, Rat absorbed everything happily, even though some of the subjects were clearly beyond his age (e.g. classics which should be for high school, not kindergarten, kids). At first grade he knew that history books are filled with lies written by the winners, and at fourth grade he beat his grandfather in a chess match. He was so ahead of his classmates that he found school very boring and thus got into a lot of troubles. To channel his excessive energy, Rat tried to pick up college calculus at fifth grade, but did not succeed until he was 15. Because he derived so much pleasure and satisfaction through learning new subjects and outperforming his peers, Rat spent more and more of his time studying, which further enhanced his satisfaction and achievement. He was in such a virtuous cycle that he did not recall taking any day off including holidays and weekends.

The retired nanny was barely literate, so she did not teach Dog much useful. She got up late and spent most of her time watching TV, so Dog did not learn a disciplined life style. Dog was slightly behind his classmates when he started school, and found school work arduous and unrewarding. Thus, he did not spend a lot of time studying, which made him further behind, which in turn further discouraged him. It also did not help that his father constantly compared him to his twin brother. Dog was in such a vicious cycle that he never fully realized his potential, even though he is an identical twin to his brother.

This tale is mostly fictitious (Dog is entirely made up even though Rat is partially based on myself), but I want to use it to illustrate three very important scientific principles applied to education, especially during early childhood.

Initial condition
Physics taught us that even a tiny little difference in the initial conditions can lead to dramatic differences in the eventual outcomes. This is why early childhood education is so important. By nature, kids do not want to be disciplined, so parents will have to enforce that. This is one of the biggest differences between Chinese and American mentalities for education, and for this, I am totally on the Chinese side. I would not have been what I am today if it were not for the rigorous training I received from my family when I was a little kid.

Compound interest
This is probably the most powerful concept in math and finance. Intelligence and confidence are accumulated in an exponential rather than a linear rate, due to the self feedback loop. Even a tiny difference in how hard you study everyday can lead to huge differences in the long run. I remember seeing a study showing the magic of merely studying one hour more per day. In my personal case, I did not take holidays or weekends off, and that is an automatic 40 percent more work than ordinary folks! I do not even have to be particularly smart or talented to outperform them.

Anchoring effect
This is one of the most well known effects in psychology. People judge things in a relative instead of absolutely scale (e.g. they are happier to receive 20 dollars if everyone else receives only 10 than to receive 40 dollars if everyone else receives 80). In the story above, Dog has absolutely the capability to be like his twin brother, but was frustrated by being compared/anchored relative to Rat and his classmates.

And of course, if the three principles are combined together their total effects would be even more significant.

In summary, if you really care for your children, give them tough love: instill discipline from early childhood, ask them to work as hard as they can in a daily basis, and try to encourage instead of frustrate them through proper peer comparison (e.g. identifying an aspect that the kids performs well relative to others and use that as an motivation). I do not have any kids now, but if I do that would be how I am going to bring them up.

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