Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Myth of Talent

There's an article in the New York Times by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, authors of Freakonomics. This article is about the reality behind what we commonly call "talent." They reference Anders Ericsson, whom they describe as the "ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement" who conclude that:

[E]xpert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.

And because people will naturally spend more time practicing things they like to do, Ericsson concludes that there are implications for education.

Students should be taught to follow their interests earlier in their schooling, the better to build up their skills and acquire meaningful feedback.

This raises some interesting questions. First, it confirms what any teacher knows--making learning more interesting is more effective. My 8-year-old daughter used to love math. After her bedtime story, I would give her simple algebra problems to solve, and she relished the challenge of finding two numbers that add to 20 and subtract to give 4. But, now in the third grade, and confronted with things like long division, her attitude about the whole subject is souring. It's not the fault of the school, which is a very good one, or the teachers. It may be that the whole way we think about teaching rote skills like long division may need to be rethought.

Now for the flip side of the coin. There are indications that IQ, or general intelligence 'g', is partially dependent upon brain physiology. A recent article in NewScientist is one example. Others I've seen recently relate brain volume or physiology of particular parts of the brain to IQ. If we accept at face value that the physical nature of one's brain has a lot to do with academic "ability," it raises interesting questions.

Do admissions criteria like SAT scores or high school GPA derive more from static IQ-like abilities or from a student's potential to become interested in and eventually expert in a body of knowledge? Most teachers have probably had the frustrating experience of having a student who is very quick to grasp new ideas and connections--even brilliant--but who simply will not take the time to develop these gifts by doing assignments. On the other hand, we have found that our predictions of student success, based on SAT and GPA, are rather weak. In fact, students admitted with the lowest possible scores still succeed 50% of the time, some of them quite dramatically. We graduated a student this year with a perfect 4.0 who was admitted under a special program for under-qualified applicants.

This suggests an opportunity for institutions seeking to improve or enlarge their admissions pool. Because instruments like SAT in particular may not give enough weight to the potential of students with high interest/curiosity/drive, this may well represent a distortion in the admissions market.

Students are given scholarships based on their apparent ability. Hence students with high SAT scores must be competed for. But there may well be a group of "underpriced" applicants out there who do not show up on the SAT radar, but who would excel at your institution. How to go about finding those applicants would be a very interesting research project.

Possible actions following this line of thought include:

  • Place value on how interesting students find courses, particularly survey courses designed to introduce students to a field of study.
  • Try to find indicators like school attendence (perhaps) that may predict positive attitudes in students. Give these indicators weight for admissions purposes.
  • Involve students outside the classroom, ideally with faculty.
  • Create Web 2.0-like communities of study so that students can feed off of each others' interest. We've had some success in that area by making physical spaces available for Science,Math, etc.

This reminds me of an interview I heard on the radio with a former English teacher who had his best success by asking students to write an excuse why they couldn't do the assignment!

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