Recognizing Talent

on Apr 05, 2013 in Blog by

This year, my youngest son was admitted into the district Extended Learning Program (ELP), a program for students identified as gifted and talented.  Almost immediately upon hearing the news, he remarked, “Wow…I’m the smartest Nyberg, besides you and Dad, of course.”  Ever since then, I’ve wondered about the messages we send students in some cases as early as second grade about talent and what it means for those who are not deemed “talented” what that may imply?

Can any selection process regardless of its foundation, with any certainty accurately separate the talented from the talentless?  Is there such thing as a person with little or no talent?  The problem, as I see it is how do we identify students’ talents and to what end?  And what qualifies as talent?

Take for example, Nick D’Aloisio, the 17-year-old British-Australian teenager who created and recently sold Summly, a mobile application summarizing online news content, for $30 million dollars to tech giant Yahoo!.  According to reports, he’s been programming since he was 12 and first created Summly when he was 15, but only recently went public with it in November, 2012.  By all accounts, he is a very talented person.  Merely stating that his success stems from his talent emphasizes an individualist view of success, talent, and skill without accounting for a myriad of factors outside of his individual efforts.  As Malcolm Gladwell says in his book, The Outliers (2008):

The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.  But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.  It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine (p. 19).

When I see a story like D’Aloisio, I immediately assume that he had access to computers at a very young age, but also that exposure was ongoing and pervasive AND his parents approved of his access and use of computers.  Speaking of his parents it’s important to also consider that D’Aloisio is the son of two professionals, a lawyer and a global financial services company executive.  As such, the ability to quickly ascertain which information is and is not valuable was not something he only picked up from his own experiences writing a history paper.  It is likely that the need he identified was present in his environment.  Perhaps his parents complained about not having the time to sift through endless amounts of information in order to find exactly what they were looking for.

The very fact that his parents are white-collar workers means that he’s been acculturated into a middle-class environment which strongly emphasizes individualistic merits and individual distinction. Often, we attribute individual merit to success that has actually come from happenstance. Gladwell uses…success that has actually come from happenstance. Gladwell uses the birth months of top-tier Canadian hockey players to illustrate the point that, at those levels, most of the players are born in January, February, or March.  This he says is related to the cut-off dates for the beginning hockey age.

It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cut-off for age-class hockey is January 1.  A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year—and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity (p. 24).

The point:  What we recognize as talent and skills, which leads to eventual success is related to cultural and societal factors that deem student X more capable than student Y, not really based on “native” or “born” intelligence or ability, but based on “selection, streaming, and differentiated experience” (p. 25).  As Gladwell states,

We make rules that frustrate achievement.  We prematurely write off people as failures.  We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail…We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by ‘we’ I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t (p. 32-33).

Even if we rely on I.Q. tests and other supposedly objective measures, these are still products of a larger society that values certain performances in certain ways over others.  So a student who has been reading and writing since the age of three outperforms a student who didn’t learn how to read until age six.  With “accumulative advantage” (Gladwell, p. 30) once some kids are able to outshine and outperform others, they begin to reap the benefits of their early successes until, eventually in high school and college, there are measureable differences.

And I see that holds up for my youngest son.  Applying what Gladwell says about the ways in which we set up competitions for sports and education, it’s no wonder my youngest son was identified as gifted and talented.  He was born in January, whereas both of my older children were born in August.  Where he gained an entire half-year of maturity, experience, and exposure before he entered kindergarten at five-and-a-half, my two older sons started at age five.  He also had the “accumulative advantage” of being the youngest of three, which in our house means hours spent by both older brothers teaching him advanced math concepts, playing chess with him since he was three, and a whole host of other enrichments (for fun) which pile on his already advantaged position.  Instead of believing, as he wants to, that he is smarter than his brothers, I firmly believe that his talents and skills are more recognizable because he demonstrates more of the skills, dispositions, and aptitude schools reward by virtue of his increased maturity and his quick ability to make meaning.

I believe that we need a system of education that doesn’t allow arbitrary cut-offs and early identification practices that value some skills over others to determine what constitutes talent. We need a system of education that works to develop all students’ talents, giving all students access to enriching activities that promote their continued growth and learning.  I believe this will pay for itself as we create a more equitable income structure and move away from the currently lop-sided structure where the top 1% owns 40% of the global assets and as such wield an indeterminable amount of power, influence, and most importantly, access to differentiated experiences and an expanded world of possibility.

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