Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Talented and the Undeserving



During a tutorial last week a student told me that she thinks I’m wrong to be skeptical about the notion of talent. She presented me with the example of two equally able and hardworking individuals who decide to learn a new skill. Invariably one will become better - sometimes markedly so. She asked me how I might account for such inevitable divergences other than through the agency of talent.

I don’t doubt that variations amongst individuals within any culture can be the result of genetic differences but the thing I find objectionable about common conceptions of talent is the tendency to attribute seemingly inexplicable or untraceable variations in performance to a genetic source without first considering the equally plausible alternatives. Two individuals of comparable ability who take up learning a new skill and find themselves unevenly matched despite expending comparable energy, need not explain their differences by recourse to genes. For example, one individual may have enjoyed a now forgotten childhood pastime that predisposes them to learn a related skill more quickly. They may find something humorous about their new learning that lends it more significance and promotes greater cognitive processing and memory retention. Equally likely is that an entire complex of subtle biographical details and influences are combined in unique ways to bring about a measurable difference in performance. Such causes of variation can have significant influence over peoples’ development and are extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible to trace. But just because we can find no simple explanation for something, is it therefore necessary to invoke what amounts to speculation dressed up as certainty?
“Both popular and scientific explanations of behavior, accustomed to invoking genes, parents, and society, seldom acknowledge the enormous role that unpredictable factors must play in the development of an individual.” –Steven Pinker
If accepting the notion of talent did not betray an underlying assumption of immutable genetic superiority and were simply a way of describing otherwise unattributable causes (both environmental and genetic) of advantage, then I might be more inclined to accept it. But, to assume that any given example of superior performance is due to genetic advantage is to make a leap into territory of which few of us have any thorough understanding. Philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and evolutionary biologists are still researching and debating these issues and although they are beginning to reveal many fascinating and often counter-intuitive insights in the process, many questions over the relationship between nature and nurture remain unexplained.

But the arguments over whether talent is a truth or fallacy are perhaps an irrelevance when considered beside the fact that believing in talent - other people's talent that is - has a well documented and measurable influence on student achievement – a negative one. Studies across cultures, genders and age groups have shown that students who attribute the success of others to talent are less likely to persist in the face of difficulty and are therefore more susceptible to sub-optimum performance when compared with individuals who view hard work as the road to achievement.

Some teachers take the view that it is possible to identify talent; to 'see' potential in students. We might well ask how such 'gifts' influence teachers’ perceptions of student potential and of how much attention they are prepared to devote to those they feel lack talent? As one colleague recently quoted from a now retired teacher: “Good students don’t need to be taught, because they’re already good, and bad students don’t deserve to be taught.”

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Improving on Deliberate Practice


Talking with my friend Ailsa the other day she mentioned how she regularly plays tennis with another friend - Jon. I asked her if she’s a better player, to which she responded that she isn’t but she wins more often. She went on to explain that she thinks Jon is a better player but he’s always trying new techniques and making mistakes which cause him to lose much more than he would if he played a “straight” game.

Ailsa's explanation exposes some important differences between practice, variation and challenge. Practice, on its own, allows people to maintain their of ability and fitness. However, without attempting more taxing challenges, progress is likely to be relatively slow and may even decline. Experimentation, on the other hand, whilst it is likely to develop new skills more quickly, can also give the impression of poor performance.

Hard work, persistence and practice on their own are insufficient then. What is also needed is a willingness (confidence) to take risks, to vary the experience, and to learn from the consequences.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

“Everybody’s Good at Something”



“Everybody’s Good at Something”

I heard someone say this on the TV today and was reminded of just how prevalent this nonsense truism is. I remember being fed this conceit at school and wondering how it might apply to someone like Muhammad Ali. Could there have been someone better who, due to circumstance, simply hadn’t had the opportunity to discover their talent? And if so, perhaps there are countless people in the world possessed of undiscovered talents or talents for which circumstances do not yet exist or talents with no value at all.

Telling someone that they’re bound to be good at something is a handy way to turn their attention away from what other people possess back towards what they themselves have control over. In this sense it’s not an entirely bad thing but what is unhelpful is the extent to which this idea suggests that you simply have to look deep inside yourself to discover your unique talent and all will be well. It places practically no emphasis on the importance of practice, persistence and hard work. Far better would be:

Everybody can become good at something.

Though I suspect the reality of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is far less comforting than the prospect of simply uncovering an innate ability.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Puzzled Question and a Thoughtful Reply



A friend, poet Thomas A Clark, is currently involved in a curatorial project (blog) with art historian Alistair Rider of the School of Art History at St Andrews University, called ‘The Single Road’ – after Mondrian’s famous assertion that ‘True art like true life takes a single road’. They are examining a wide range of artists from the mid 1960s onwards who have dedicated their careers to one ongoing project, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Daniel Buren, Alan Charlton, Hamish Fulton, On Kawara, Roman Opalka and Ad Reinhardt.

I've followed their progress along The Single Road for some time and the other day I sent Tom and Alistair a few thoughts and questions. You can find these along with Tom's thoughtful response here.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Visual Literacy



Beware the authoritative text or teacher - the ideologue - who speaks of a language of photography, a grammar of drawing, a syntax of painting or a vocabulary of sculpture. Nowhere in the copious annals of art will you find the formidable dictionary, compiled by universal consent, to which their annunciations point wherein are amassed these magnificent systems of signification. Art enlists methods, processes, strategies, genres, forms, styles and traditions. On occasion it may even advance a set of principles, though these rarely endure. Anything that purports to be more structured, more systematic, more explicit or more elaborate is nothing but a deceit.

Sunday, 2 October 2011