Chocolate and Gold Coins

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Book Learning and Common Sense

My son is extremely gifted in the ability to learn from books. He reads something once and he has memorized it. He reads books about whales and dinosaurs and can rattle of names and facts about 100’s of these creatures that you have probably never heard of before.

In general, he is gifted academically. He does well in all subjects.

However, my son seems curiously deficient in common sense. This became painfully obvious when I observed him yesterday play a game of basketball. As my wife put it, “He just doesn’t get it yet.” If we gave him a book on basketball, he would probably be an expert in the strategy in no time. But in just playing the game, he is not picking it up at all. He lacks the ability to see the world around him and make some sense out of what he sees.

Let me give some examples:
1. No one would ever pass the ball to him because he would never make much effort to be “open”- free of a defender; and he was always in a faraway corner too far from the other player to pass to him.
2. He would never get a rebound even though he is the tallest child there because he wouldn’t get up close to the basket. Also he wouldn’t jump up as the ball fell to get above the other kids who were jumping.
3. He never seemed to figure out that if he simply threw the ball in the air, the chance that the other team would get it was better than 50-50.
4. He didn’t figure out that if he spread out his arms, he would make it harder for other kids to pass the ball.

Surely he will learn over time. He isn’t stupid and he can learn easily. But what I thought was odd is that he would need to be taught all of these things. I would have thought that he could pick some of this up from seeing what other kids were doing and what things were working for the other team.

It occurred to me that there might be two kinds of intelligence going on here. One kind of intelligence helps you learn in a formal setting but another helps you learn in an informal setting. A person who is excellent at extracting information from books could be a great academic but a person who is gifted with the ability to simply observe and make reasonable inferences might be better at running a business. I also would guess that a pure book-learning academic would probably never win any major prizes since that spark of genius seems to start with a great intuitive hunch.

I hope that over time my son begins developing the kind of common sense that will aid him in situations in which his book learning doesn’t help. I think common sense is something you can probably learn over time. But maybe one has to have a bit of natural ability in this area to be truly gifted.

Well, in any case, I will love my son just as much.


  • I don't know your son, but I can tell you that in my work with gifted children I often meet kids with similar characteristics. My perspective is that they are enchanted with the world in their heads, and quite often haven't discovered the joy and learning opportunities in physical play. I found yoga and meditation especially helpful when trying to increase my own "physical literacy" as an adult. But I did have to read about it first!

    The world can be very overwhelming for a gifted kid. If most people are receiving 53 channels on cable, a gifted kid has a sattelite dish with thousands of stations - all the time, in every experience. A book is simple - one input in a logical sequence. In real life, like a basketball game, the sheer volume information to process makes it harder to prioritize and generalize.

    Best wishes to you all,

    By Blogger jo_jo, at 6:54 PM  

  • Hi Joanne
    Thank you for your observation. I hadn't really thought about it like that but I think that is exactly right. His problem was that he was unable to sift through the multitude of information that was happening to focus on the relevant things.

    It was a fairly overwhelming experience for him. I think that by the end of the game he was ready to quit an never play again. But we focused on the successes (he actual did make a basket - which seemed almost miraculous at the time) and the fact that he was getting a little better at playing defense at the end (after we clued him on the whole spread your arms out thing).

    He definitely needs to keep up with the sports. If he had his way, it would be only books and video games. I would prefer he cut back on those video games but it keeps him entertained for a while.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:22 PM  

  • Ur son is very very Indian :)
    "We are like this only"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:01 AM  

  • Not long ago I was worrying about my son's social skills as all he did was read constantly. And now suddenly everything has changed, he seems to have discovered the world of friends and doesn't touch a book unless he has to. I suppose they are constantly changing.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 4:56 AM  

  • Michael,
    Don't tell me this was the first time he played basket ball and you derived all this from that?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:06 AM  

  • Hi Murugan, Vikram, Wicked, and Ravikiran

    Murugan: Perhaps too much of a generalisation, I think (I hope).

    Vikram: My son does lots of sports. We put him in tennis a year ago and he likes swimming. But he isn't particularly good in any sport yet. We thought basketball was his best chance because of his height and because he does like to shoot hoops.

    Wicked: My son's social skills are very good although I admit that initially he was quite introverted at school. But he began making some friends and now he is fine. It is really nice that there aren't any "bullys" at his school. That is what you pay for at a nice private school more than anything else.

    Ravikiran: He has played basketball for a couple of years now. This new league is very much more competetive. He used to simply be coached on the basics. This is the first time he has played real games. Saturday was his third game and it seemed to me that he was better in the first two games.

    But this kids were really well-coached. They really knew how to play. It was a complete no-contest. And the frustrating thing was that the opponents were short kids - much shorter than my son.

    I'll try to work with him a bit to teach him a few basics. I'm sure once he gets the basic strategy down he will enjoy it more and play better.

    The post was not just about my son. It was more an observation of different types of intelligence. My feeling is that the ability to filter through a multitude of data to key in on some important indicators is a fundamental human trait that indicates true intelligence. But is this learned or instinct (or what mixture of both)?

    Think about picking stocks. What information do you use? There is potentially a multitude of information but you need to filter it. How does a Warren Buffet filter it differently than Joe Shmoe?

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:55 AM  

  • Yes.. you are right. A human brain can be thought of as a pattern recognition machine - one similar to a neural network that not only requires loads of data (read experience) to give accurate predictions (read intelligence) but also a good algorithm (read instinct)to utilize the data.


    By Blogger Iyer the Great, at 10:10 AM  

  • Try putting him in martial arts too. It will help in co-ordination,focus and self-discipline enormously.
    Some kids who do not do well in other sports really enjoy martial arts , or it might just help him to do better in other sports.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:08 AM  

  • Why has your basic assumption not been questioned yet?

    You have somehow assumed, either your son is equally interested in basketball as he is in other areas or, at least in this particular game.

    I would like to claim that I am a really really good batsman. But, I neither play baseball nor am I interested in every game of cricket that I do play. So judging me from a single instance of screwing up in baseball is hardly a valid conclusion. Is it?

    By Blogger Nilu, at 6:15 PM  

  • Hi Rahul, Rajeshwari, Clara, Nilu
    Ruhul: Thanks for that information.

    Rajeshwari: Perhaps. But he's being spread a little thin as is. I want him exposed to sports but I don't want to book his week so solid that he doesn't have time to play with friends.

    Clara: My son is a wonderful boy. And in the end if he turns out to be no good at sports its no big deal. I just hope that he picks up the instinct for figuring things out without having to learn it all from books.

    Part of my frustration in watching him was his frustration at being so unsuccessful. It is difficult to watch you child fail and end up in tears. Believe me, I did not say anything discouraging. But he was just frustrated because the other team was so much better. And my son is the type that "when the going gets tough - it's time to quit."

    Nilu: I don't think that he was playing badly due to a lack of interest. He will quickly lose interest in Basketball if he perceives himself as "no good" at it. I want him to stick with a few sports so he learns teamwork and cooperation and so he keeps physically active.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:14 AM  

  • hehe.....coulnd't help this one...but he seems to be a good "Indian" kid....
    great with the theory, not always the leader in common sense.

    Reminds me of myself.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 9:38 PM  

  • Hi Patrix and Sunil
    Patrix: He will pick up sports over time I am sure. I don't want him to be a couch potato (or web potato like his father).

    Sunil: Of course you have common sense. Didn't you have the sense to run away from that ferocious squirrel that ran into your apartment?

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:23 AM  

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