Category Archives: nurture vs. nature

Do you have "gifted" students?

I lived in China teaching English and learning Mandarin in 1995-96 and again in 1999. My Mandarin was survival level only, but I was pretty good with food vocabulary. My second week in China, an American friend sent me to a local restaurant to order some noodles. He taught me how to say bring me a bowl of noodles and a pop (that’s soda for you people outside of the Midwest). He also taught me the phrase “I only can speak a little Chinese.” After I ordered the noodles the waitress started saying all kinds of things to me. I had no idea what she was saying and kept repeating the phrase, “I only can speak a little Chinese.” The word for Chinese, han yu, ends in the same sound as the word for fish but in a different tone. Unknown to me, I ordered a small plate of fish (I hate seafood, BTW). My bill came and was way higher than expected and I had an argument with the poor waitress trying to understand what had happened. I only figured it out much later.

So I was interested in the post Nature v.s. nurture, what are we missing by Punya Mishra about how having a strong pitch musically is linked to speaking a tonal language such as Mandarin. I won’t re-hash the whole story here-Read his post and the article!

I can say that I know from first-hand experience the difficulty of a native English speaker learning a tonal language. Mandarin has four tones which change the meaning of a “sound.” If my memory is correct there are only slightly over 400 sounds (words if you will) in Mandarin. But changing the tone of each word changes its meaning. Also the same sound and tone can have multiple meanings. An English example would be the words two, to, and too. In Chinese, the written characters would each be unique, but the pronunciation the same. In English there are various words like this, but in Mandarin there are multiple meanings for almost all of the 400 sounds. That is why tone and context of the conversation are so important in Mandarin.

My first time in China, my wife to be, came and visited. I had been living there around six months and was her guide. This was comical and became quite the joke because my wife was adopted as a baby from Korea. So all of the Chinese people assumed she was my translator and would not believe me when I told them she could not speak Mandarin. But my wife, I believe, has perfect pitch. She can play songs by ear on the piano and was very astute to understanding conversations. She could read the tone and body language to understand conversations. The second time in China, we were married and I listened to my wife talk to people even though I know she did not understand most of the words they said. I have always considered my wife “gifted” in this area, whereas I see myself  “gifted’ in math.

Back to the research… (You read the article, didn’t you?). The critical conclusion of the research by Deustch is:
“Perfect pitch for years seemed like a beautiful gift – given only to a few genetically endowed people. But our research suggests that it might be available to virtually everybody.”

The evidence is that some things we considered to be “gifted” in students may actually be more of a learned trait based on environment, in this case perfect pitch being rare in the West, but more common in speakers of tonal languages. I think Punya asks important questions in his post,

What other exceptional abilities and talents may we be missing out on developing in our children? How many of the talents we regard as being innate are merely a function of inappropriate nurture? I often hear of people say that they don’t have any mathematical ability? Is that necessarily true? What about artistic ability? How much of it is nature and how much nurture? And how much are we losing out by thinking it is more of the former than the latter?

These questions have been haunting me today. How much of ability comes from our parents? Not genetically, but because of values. The art teacher and music teacher in my building have their children in art classes and music lessons. I choose to sign my children up for sports, explore science and nature with them, and helped them create blogs. By choosing what we expose children to at a young age do we strongly influence “their gifts?”

I started the year telling my students that we would approach math differently and that they would all be successful. But they have not all been successful. It is easy to beat myself up and sometimes parents help. I have tried lots of different teaching strategies and methods with varied success.

What really bothers me is that in the back of my mind I have my students labeled by ability and what they can achieve. I believe some of my students can perform almost any problem easily and accurately. They seem to never be stuck. (I should mention that 6th grade math in our district has very few new topics from 5th grade). They are “gifted.” Others I know will struggle a bit, but work hard and “get it” in the end. Still others rarely seem to get the concepts and even when I think they do understand they seem to forget by the next day. These stereotypes are based on what they have shown me and nothing else. Am I holding back some of my students by doubting their skills?

If you read the research summary, it also mentions the importance of starting music training at a young age. Are some of my students math struggles due to a lack of good mathematical foundation skills in elementary school or even pre-school? How much is mathematical ability a born-with trait or how much of it is developed?

What does this research mean for tracking students or “learning styles?” (which research is showing that they do not exist)

How do I keep an open mind about my students and continue to show each one I care and believe in their ability to master mathematics?

What are the effects on children as we continue to cut “the arts” from schools to save $$$ and to focus on NCLB?

Surely we all have areas in life that we are more talented in than others. I love sports and have played since childhood, but was nowhere near good enough to play at the collegiate level. How much of our student’s abilities are natural vs. training?

Most importantly how do we help students who are “behind” get caught up?

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele.