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.”


Brian said...

Recent research in Scotland seems to indicate that genes are not fixed, but can change during a lifetime. Similarly, science is in a constant state of flux, and it is a mistake to take its findings too rigidly, or dogmatically. A superficial and imperfect knowledge of genetics applied to art will therefore not yield satisfactory results. "Studies" need to have rigorous controls if they are posited as being scientific, especially to an indeterminate subject such as art. Teaching, too, is a "talent", and a good teacher will try to bring out the best in every student, no matter what their level of - let's jut say it - "talent" or 'ability'. If everyone were the same, it would be an extremely dull (though 'egalitarian') world. If genes have taught us anything useful, surely it is this?

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brian,

That study of gene changes sounds really interesting/boggling! I guess the changes must be fairly minor though? Have they studied the phenomenon with identical twins I wonder?

I think my aim with this post was directed more at teaching than art. I totally agree that we should be sceptical about totalising claims to truth – even if supported by what appears to be hard scientific evidence. That’s very much my point.

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