The word genius – and for that matter, those of talent and giftedness – needs to be redefined for the good of every child and every field of human endeavour. Getting this right also has the potential to impact positively on a great many adults.
As a second degree, a few years ago, I did a masters degree with a focus on the education of “gifted and talented” children. Much of what was presented as sound theory bothered me a great deal at the time, but I did not know enough to challenge things.
One was why this “movement” was begun initially – a Western response to Sputnik.
Secondly was the concept of talent (including IQ) as being fixed components – you either had them or you didn’t.
Thirdly was how these constructs were by and large not set up with the welfare of children in mind but often for the gratification of their parents or the perpetuation and development of sports institutions (e.g. football academies).
Fourthly, I held huge unease about the effect of labelling – both on those included under the gifted, talented or genius labels – and on those excluded (including from school programmes, opportunities in music, the arts, sports, etc).
And finally, regardless of the perceived starting point, I could not find a single example of a human being performing at an exceptional level in any field that had not worked extraordinarily hard to get there and had been through many struggles and shown great sense of purpose and remarkable resilience – including dealing with the boring sounding repetitive practice/training.
In recent years there has been significant change in our understanding of the human brain and on the development of ability. To name of few influential proponents on how we should be thinking in these areas there is the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her growth mindset work as well as the writings of Matthew Syed (Bounce, Black-Box Thinking and now – a children’s book – You Are Awesome) and New York’s Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, David and Goliath). Syed skilfully wove his first book, Bounce, around the 10,000 hours concept and has meshed his recent work – writing and speaking – into Dweck’s mindset concepts.
The basic ideas are incredibly important for every human being; that they have the ability to develop exceptional skill and knowledge sets and that to do so requires significant guidance (teaching, coaching, skilful encouragement), many hours of purposeful practice and opportunities to attempt things (perform and take risks) and learn how to respond to both failures and successes in a way that propels them forward.
In theory these ideas should be truisms. In practice they are not. When applied they are, to use a cliché, game changers for the well-being of young people and the improvement of their abilities and opportunities in life. The ideas change classroom teachers from ability categorisers and brain fillers (with the appropriately levelled work) to genuine developers of aspirational and challenging human beings. The length of time it actually takes to become good at a complex physical human skill set also changes the way sports academies formulate their approach. Instead of “talent identification” they can massively broaden their nets and become developers of ability with a much healthier approach to young people – as well as, in the long term, a much healthier club and sport. And – above all – it gives young people hope about themselves and changes their mindset.
If we throw out the “gifted and talented” labels and fully acknowledge that “genius” is a developed (not innate) state – should schools and other societal institutions still be providing for young people who already have a high degree of developed ability? Of course! As C.S. Lewis (a great developed genius) said in his award-winning children’s novel The Last Battle, “further up and further in”. There isn’t a down-side to this. But in doing so we need to emphasise to these young people the need to keep taking risks, seeing failure as a stepping stone, eliminate the negatives of labelling and no longer be in the practice – as many talent identification programmes are – of throwing a dozen “eggs” at a wall and hoping a couple bounce and become the “future of your club”.
Around the world at present there is huge and justified concern about the mental well-being of young people and adults. The understanding that your abilities are grown over time, that “talent” is a developed ability, that “genius” is available to us all in some form if we are willing to genuinely dedicate ourselves towards it – are mind-changing. Things are shifting.
A few years back I spent a day with one of the world’s great athletics coaches – Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand. I asked him if times had changed so much that no great distance runners would come from anywhere but Kenya or Morocco and if it was genetically based. Arthur adamant, in a way only he could be, stated that laziness was the only thing holding many back. A couple of years back I had an email exchange with Matthew Syed while watching the London Marathon and asked why the commentators were using the word talent in every second sentence. They never mentioned – dedication, years of development, diet, discipline, coaching, and resilience to setbacks… Last week, watching this year’s London marathon the word talent was barely mentioned – the other things, including courage, were.
These concepts are inspirational for adults too. I was told as a child that “I didn’t have a musical bone in my body” … they were wrong (Syed’s new You Are Awesome tells my inner-child so). I am about to go and keep practising on the guitar; I love the progress I am making.
Alwyn Poole of the Villa Education Trust and is involved with two charter schools, South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland.
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