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SCIENTISTS DISMISS 'TALENTS' AS MYTHS

A GROUP OF RESEARCHERS SAYS PRACTICE AND ENCOURAGEMENT CREATE CHILDREN WHO EXCEL.

By John Clare - The London Daily Telegraph  September, 11 1998

THE notion that geniuses such as Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso were "gifted" or possessed innate talents is a myth, according to a study published yesterday. [Read the complete study.]

After examining outstanding performances in the arts and sport, Michael Howe, professor of psychology at Exeter, and his colleagues concluded that excellence is determined by opportunities, encouragement, training, motivation, self-confidence and - most of all - practice.

Their theory - which represents a radical break with traditional beliefs - has been applauded by academics worldwide. It has significant implications for teachers and parents, not least because children who are not thought to be gifted are being denied the encouragement they need to succeed.

The authors took as their starting point the "widespread belief that to reach high levels of ability a person must possess an innate potential called talent". They said it was important to establish whether the belief was correct because it had social and educational consequences affecting selection procedures and training.

However, studies of accomplished artists and mathematicians, elite tennis players and swimmers reported few early signs of promise prior to parental encouragement. No case had been encountered of anyone reaching the highest levels of achievement without devoting thousands of hours to serious training. Even those who were believed to be exceptionally talented, whether in music, mathematics, chess or sports, required lengthy periods of instruction and practice.

Mozart produced his best work only after a long period of training. It was not until he had been immersed in music for 16 years that he first produced an acknowledged masterwork. The study said: "The early biographies of prominent composers have revealed that they all received intensive and regular supervised practice sessions over a period of several years.

"The emergence of unusual skills typically followed rather than preceded a period during which unusual opportunities were provided, often combined with strong expectations that a child would do well.

"The persistent myth that some people reach high levels of performance without devoting numerous hours to practice owes much to the fact that practising activities are usually outside the casual observer's view."

Research had shown strong correlations between the level of performance of student violinists and the number of hours they practised. Even people who were not believed to have any special talent could, purely after training, reach levels of achievement previously thought to be attainable only by gifted individuals.

Research had shown that cocktail waitresses could regularly remember as many as 20 drink orders at a time, far more than a control group of university students. The study said: "It is conceivable that people who are employed as waiters gravitate to such jobs because of an in-born memory skill. But the findings make it far more likely that employees excel in recording orders because of on-the-job practice."

In sport, differences in the composition of certain muscles were thought to be reliable predictors of differences in athletic performance. The study said: "However, the differences in the proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres that are essential for success in long-distance running are largely the result of extended practice in running, rather than the initial cause of differential ability."

It said reasoning about talent was often circular, and said: "She plays so well because she has a talent. How do I know she has a talent? That's obvious, she plays so well." Some children did acquire ability more effortlessly than others but that did not mean they were gifted.

The study said: "Substantial numbers of today's musicians reach standards of performance that would have been rare in Mozart's time, when they would have been regarded as special talents. Similarly, substantial numbers of serious amateur athletes are capable of marathon times for which Olympic gold medals were awarded early in the present century.

"This again points to the importance of opportunities and learning experiences, rather than innate gifts. It even raises the possibility that levels of performance in children that would have been regarded as indications of innate talent in prior generations might be seen as indicating a lack of talent in a child today."

Categorising children as innately talented was discriminatory, the authors said. "The evidence suggests that such categorisation is unfair, preventing people from pursuing a goal because of the unjustified conviction of teachers or parents that certain children would not benefit from the opportunities given to those who are deemed to be talented."

By the same token, a false belief that one did not possess the necessary talent could affect a person negatively. Talent was a myth and it was time it was demolished, the authors concluded. However, they said it would be wrong to assume that any diligent child could excel at anything, especially in the absence of expert teaching, encouragement, and unusual motivation.

Opponents of Prof Howe's theory said practice and other factors were no doubt important contributors to outstanding performance, but not enough to explain great creative works. "Talent is essential," said David Feldman and Tamar Katzir of Tufts Univerity, Massachusetts.

"If anyone can prove that the works of these individuals can be explained without recourse to a construct like natural talent, we will concede that talent does not exist: Mozart, Picasso, Shakespeare, Martina Hingis, Pavarotti, Ramanujan, Judit Polgar and Michael Jordan. Practice indeed."


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