Working memory affects how we process, retain and use information. Specifically it’s memorizing and repetition to retain the information. A common trait among prodigies is having incredible working memory.
How you’re born is 75% responsible for being a prodigy, according to the most recent research, and how hard you work is 25%. This research applies to rules-based expertise that kids develop by age ten which is why math, chess, music are the areas most likely to see prodigies
The 75% of magic that prodigies are born with is working memory; people with exceptional working memory are able to understand, store and apply knowledge at a much faster rate than other people. We are able to predict working memory because the brain is smaller in the prefrontal cortex region but overall the brain with exceptional working memory grows faster than the typical brain. We don’t measure everyone’s brain to see who has the brain of a prodigy, but scientists have measured enough to find that the measurements of the brain of a prodigy also predict autism.
What’s so special about the prodigy/autism brain? Working memory.
Each of us has strengths and weaknesses, but the neurotypical brains have strengths and weaknesses within a relatively tight range. Someone with autism has strengths and weaknesses within a very wide range. Normally, when testing IQ there are five areas tested and the average score of the five areas is the IQ. When scores are extremely divergent, an average is not informative. For example in one study of musical prodigies working memory was at 145 and fluid memory was at 108.
School kids should be organized by working memory instead of age. This would ensure that people who have wide ranging capabilities can still learn. Kids with low fluid memory learn abstract ideas better through pictures than abstract words. And kids with high fluid memory and low working memory need to be taught slowly in order to leverage the talent for fluid memory.
Fluid memory is linked to creativity and working memory is linked to performing well on standardized tests. There is no point in putting kids with extreme strengths in classes that call on the kids correlating extreme weakness. (Don’t like tests? Try Hampshire College.)
We must stop mistaking working memory as a trait that make a happy life.
And herein lies the danger of prodigy: seeing a young child exhibit the mastery of an adult in music/math/chess is breathtaking. But by the time that kid gets to be 20, many people have achieved that same mastery. It’s a well-documented prodigy problem: only the few kids with an similarly competent fluid memory and working memory will move past the oh-wow-that-kid-is-so-cute phase of life. That next phase involves developing artistry that you can’t achieve with even the most earth-shatteringly high-scoring working memory.
School grades kids based on right answers. And right answers are predominantly a measure of working memory. So schools should separate kids based on working memory first and perhaps the by age.
There are a lot of problems with grouping kids by fast and slow track. For example, in many instances, if you tell a kid they are slow that hurts their self-esteem over the long-term, and also evidence shows tracking systems are simply one more method of institutionalized racism in schools.
But the real problem with tracking is that our celebration of the fast track in school is misguided. All kids are gifted in something and there are gifts far more useful than working memory. Don’t treat school as a race because learning is not a race and life is not a race. The people who internalize that wisdom have the best lives.
Moreover, most of the kids on the fast track have autism. That is, a very high score for one type of intelligence and a very low score for another. School is an island of non-reality where the person with the best working memory wins. But in the real world, the people with similar scores across five types of intelligence do the best.
The truth is that we should all hope are kids don’t get put on the fast track. Because science has shown that is not a path to happiness.