Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise
Authors: Fogarty, Kerns, Pete
“The horizons of human potential are expanding with each new generation” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016).
On The Brink of Greatness
For many, reviewing the science of expertise creates enthusiasm and optimism. Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi (2012, p. xv) enthusiastically proclaimed, “We think that the teaching profession is on the brink of greatness,” and we concur.
The Power of a New Model of Understanding
The power of a new, more vivid model of thinking is indisputable. Consider the fact that “98 percent of IQ test takers today score better than the average test taker in 1900” meaning “that in just one century, improvements in our societal discourse and our schools have dramatically raised the measureable intelligence of almost everyone” (Shenk, 2010, p. 43). How did such a massive shift occur? How was overall achievement raised so dramatically? A new model of thought.
According to Flynn (1987 in Shenk, 2010, p. 42) this shift, which “represents nothing less than a liberation of the human mind” was facilitated by new understandings and new ways of thinking, primarily drawn from science. Prior to the significant scientific advances of the turn of the century, “The [intelligence of most] our ancestors in 1900 was anchored in everyday reality” (Flynn 1987 as cited in Shenk, 2010, p. 42). By contrast, we now use much more abstract thinking than they did, as a result of relatively modern scientific techniques.
Flynn (1987) notes, for example, that “When asked: ‘What do dogs and rabbits have in common?’ Americans in 1900 would likely say ‘You use dogs to hunt rabbits’” while a contemporary response might me ‘both are mammals’” (as cited in Shenk, 2010). “The scientific world-view, with its vocabulary taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents . . . paved the way for mass education . . . and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable” (Flynn, 1987 in Shenk, 2010,pg. 43).
Share the Science of Expertise
Perhaps the profundity of a powerful new model is best understood when we see the impact sharing the science of expertise with students. Psychologist Carol Dweck documented significant and nearly immediate impacts when students are taught “brainology.”
To study the potential impact of ideas from cognitive research and the science of expertise, Dweck (2007) and her team devised an “intervention” where all students would be taught study skills, time management, and memory strategies but where the experimental group would also receive the “brainology” content (e.g. “brain is like a muscle,” “the more they exercise it, the stronger it becomes,” and “when you try hard and learn something new the brain forms new connections that, over time, make you smarter”). The results were phenomenal.
While “both groups had experienced a steep decline in their math grades,” the experimental group “showed a significant rebound” in grades and the teachers, “who were unaware that the intervention workshops differed . . . singled out three times as many students in the [experimental] group as having shown marked changes in motivation” (Dweck, 2007, pg. 38). The science of expertise, a new model for considering talent and skill acquisition, transformed the way these students looked at themselves, their potential, and school, and did so in short order. What’s good for them is good for us.
A Dose of Reality
So, what does this all mean for the concept of talent? Are we saying that there is no such thing as innate talent? Accepting that certain physical attributes aid specific physical endeavors (e.g. height greatly facilitates basketball ability), that our progress can be impaired by physical ailments impacting myelin (e.g. Multiple Sclerosis), and the highly unusual cases of autistic savants, an essential assertion is that “in pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016, pg. 113).
Questioned directly about the concept of innate talent, Coyle (personal communication) noted that recent studies do detect some elements of innate abilities, but while we use talent to explain vast differences between performances, genetics likely only explains roughly seven percent. In contrast, deliberate practice explains about 50 percent of the variance meaning that how willing we are to practice is seven times more impactful than any natural proclivity (Coyle, personal communication).
Coyle sums this up eloquently in the following:
This is not to say that every person on the planet has the potential to become an Einstein. Nor does it mean that our genes don’t matter – they do. The point, rather, is that although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop and we each have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.(Coyle, 2009, pg.73).
“Genetic differences do play an important role, but genes do not determine complex traits on their own. Rather, genes and the environment interact with each other in a dynamic process we can never fully control, but that we can strongly influence” (Shenk, 2011, pg. 5 – emphasis added).
Our job as educators is to use this new knowledge to positively influence this complex process as much as we can, and it appears we have more control over things than we may have imagined.
We Are All Gifted
Numerous authors in the field remark that talent can easily look and feel pre-destined. We see YoYo Ma perform, or witness a nearly “impossible” 3-point shot in basketball, or are thrilled by a Cirque du Soleil acrobat and the old folklore whispers, “they are gifted” or “she’s a natural.” The abilities of expert performers are “so qualitatively different, so detached from our own lives and experience, that they very idea we could achieve similar results with the same opportunities seems nothing less than ridiculous” (Syed, 2011, p. 10). Ericsson and Pool (2016) note that such individuals are “gifted,” but not in the historical sense of “giftedness.”
The science of expertise reveals to us that we are all gifted. We are “all endowed with a brain so flexible and adaptable that it [can], with the right sort of training, develop a capability that seems quite magical to those who do not possess it” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016, pg. xvi). “Learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016, pg. 48).
Armed with these new insights, “it no longer makes sense to think of people as born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by various things that we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016. Pg. xx).
“Imagine what might be possible with efforts that are inspired and directed by a clear scientific understanding of the best ways to build expertise” (Ericsson and Pool, 2016). Our schools are filled with untapped talent. Let us use this new information to unlock talent with what we know from the new science of developing expertise.