Designing a child’s aptitude through environment

In 2 wks, Freyda and Arthur will begin their first formal wrestling practice (for Pre-K thru Grade 1).

After very limited wrestling-specific training under my instruction on our basement wrestling mat (i.e. 4 or 5 practice sessions over the last 2 months), Freyda has already acquired the skills of an advanced beginner wrestler.

E.g. Her duck walk is nearly flawless. She automatically applies an effective pinning combination immediately after takedown. And she seems to be able to internalize new techniques very quickly — often within a single practice session.

The presence of these capabilities together so early in a training chronology appears to present an outlier aptitude. The question is where this aptitude originated… and how might aptitude be intentionally designed?

It is my assertion, in fact, that this aptitude really *was* designed — though indirectly. I.e. It is the natural outcome of several design decisions made and implemented over the course of multiple years.

The list, in summary:

1. Playful, safe roughhousing with dad since birth: Body awareness (particularly in grappling context) + Positive psychological association — “grappling is playing.”

2. Years of regular workouts with both mom and dad: Strength + Mental toughness + Pain tolerance + Well-myelinated brain-to-muscle neural pathways — i.e. Her body does as she wills

3. Emphasis on technical precision in all aspects of training to-date, including… Calisthenics & Stretching, Soccer & Ballet, Math & Reading, Communication of information & ideas, Household tasks, etc…: Habituated practice of attention to detail, with emphasis on particular essential focal points.

4. Years of experiencing the “natural consequences” of bad grappling decisions — e.g. over-extension is met with a throw or a drag: An internal network of experiences subconsciously affirms direct training instructions. The student is rarely in self-contention… the teacher is merely structuring the presently amorphous assertions already taking shape in the student’s mind.

5. Familiar and well-liked training environment, partner, and instructor — We purchased our wrestling mat 3yrs ago, roughly the same time Arthur was born (who serves as her training partner): She has no psychological reluctance to train — she is “at home”; training is as familiar as eating and sleeping.

A learner with the above has already internalized many of the principles, habits, and affections of a good wrestler — now they must simply be refined to the particular techniques of the wrestling discipline. A child without the above will be attempting to internalize — all at once — the techniques, principles, and affections. And will be understandably bewildered.

Under the right circumstances, that bewilderment can be overcome. However, it is a much harder road for both the learner and the coach and thus much less likely to result in success. Either learner or coach will likely determine the difficulty is not worth the reward. In contrast, in Freyda’s case, the reward comes so quickly and frequently that training borders on recreation. Not quite — there’s still sufficient rigor and presence of mind so as to ensure proper habituation, but the ground is rich with potential awaiting refinement into capability.

Now let’s look at a situation that is not so rosy — Math.

I’ve been a bit surprised by what appears to be relatively low aptitude for numbers and arithmetic in both Freyda and Arthur.

Until just recently (the last few months), Arthur would still hold up 2 fingers while saying “three”. And it’s not for a lack of practice. I would estimate we have been counting by ones for at least a year.

Freyda appears to still be on the edge of understanding of symbolic representation of quantities. She’ll regularly confuse numbers and quantities and is often initially at a loss when presented with single-digit arithmetic. Again, not for a lack of practice. Similarly, I would estimate her first arithmetic lessons were over a year ago.

My assessment and prediction for Math is 3-fold.

1. Keeping track of quantities over ~7 at integer-level precision is not an easy task for the ordinary human mind, which must be trained with particular algorithmic and visualization techniques. Savants are considered extraordinary because these techniques are seemingly unnecessary.
2. The Hindu-Arabic symbols 0-9 and Base-10 place value are simply significant conceptual hurdles. It’s just not obvious how to manipulate these seemingly-arbitrary and mysterious symbols. Until it is.
3. Once those conceptual hurdles are breached, a flood of mathematical capability and curiosity will be loosed.

Under normal schooling conditions, that curiosity would then be slowly extinguished by way of the forced march through the context-less assimilation of esoteric techniques and examinations. Naturally, we won’t do that.

Instead, just as we might do with wrestling or some other sport, we aim toward a horizon and work our way toward it. For wrestling, we watch footage of the incredibly skilled olympic greco-roman wrestlers or judoka. Frey doesn’t understand the rules, but just by watching, she can internalize a sense of what expertise really looks like.

With the horizon set, we can begin to deconstruct the physical and cognitive skills that compose expertise in that domain. Will Freyda be Olympic material in 2028/2032? Who knows. But if we’re going to practice anyway, doesn’t it make sense to practice toward the pinnacle of achievement?

Same with Math. The pinnacle of achievement in applied math is in accurately modeling natural phenomena (e.g. Calculating the precise timing of an eclipse from astronomical models), deriving new mathematical relationships from existing axioms and proving them to be true (i.e. proofs), defining new methodology and techniques for manipulating math models (e.g. Calculus).

As an engineer, my primary use for math is in its application to design real things. However, I’m not averse to “pure math”. And certainly not to invention of new mathematical “tooling”.

Now… all this is relatively simple and straight forward. The great difficulty I’m currently working through is large-scale application of the above conceptual schema.

That, however, is my own horizon. Sorting this out for my own kids has been the first step. My work via Augment is a parallel path which will converge into larger-scale implementation.

Big picture mission: Human Capability by Design.

Thus far, I have uncovered a few essential understandings for scale-up:

1. Long-term vision and commitment on the part of both learner and teacher is a requirement for excellence.

2. Better to develop no technique than the wrong technique. I often see wrestling coaches fail to correct loose and sloppy form in beginner wrestlers. It’s a crime. That loose, sloppy technique will become automatic, and those wrestlers will forever be limited by them unless they are re-trained.

3. It is harder to retrain than to train properly from the start. Malformed techniques and habits may be reasonably effective in certain contexts and they will continually be employed and reinforced. To retrain those techniques and habits is to force the body to stop doing something it wants to do. Much harder and requires much greater discipline than to train properly from the start.

4. Internalizing a particular set of techniques is actually almost trivially easy compared to the formation of habits of mind (e.g. “Finish what you start”, “For deep understanding, seek the fine distinctions between concepts”, “Don’t be careless with your words and actions — they will revisit you”, “Ask yourself: What is the method behind your approach? Why do you expect to succeed at what you aim to do?”). Cultivating well-formed habitual self-talk, such that it becomes automatic during daily living takes years of dedicated effort — and they must be cultivated properly from the start. Malformed habits of mind are often called “self-limiting beliefs”. And those self-limiting beliefs are often the primary obstacle between the student and the desired capability. Retraining self-limiting beliefs into properly formed habits of mind requires deep personal commitment on the part of the coach. It is the most strenuous and technically difficult of all retraining tasks — intensely strenuous on all parties. And thus, very unlikely to succeed.

5. The “village”, properly instantiated, is still the only way to raise a child. This is because one human does not possess sufficient expertise to accommodate the child’s entire set of learning needs. However, most villages are poorly instantiated, and expertise is neither cultivated or employed in the average child’s training path. The typical professional adult is not equipped with methodology and techniques to mentor and train the young — and the typical professional teacher is not equipped with domain expertise… or really the methodology for mentoring and training the young. I actually don’t think this is the most common state of man, historically or geographically. I think it was likely far more common for hunter/gatherers to render their skills to their children, because their children were expected to be contributors to the survival of the group from an early age. In the modern era, I expect there are fewer and fewer admirable instances of mentoring communities. However, there are bright flashes in time and place in which systems and processes properly activate the capabilities and attentions of the old to cultivate the young.

6. Technology will augment trained practitioners of capability growth methodology and techniques but humans will always be needed to train humans due to affective feedback loop. Mentorship is naturally hierarchical in that one person instructs another (though it need not be oppressive, and it is also not permanent). Until humans are no longer humans, they will not bend to mentorship by machine. They will only bend to mentorship by respected, trusted humans.

7. Shared adventure is one contextual component of the ideal training ground.

More later, probably…

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