Monday, November 26, 2007

Is Prodigy a Myth?

At the most recent APS convention, Malcolm Gladwell spoke about potential problems of identifying precocious talent:

"I think we take it as an article of faith in our society that great ability in a given field is invariably manifested early on, that to be precocious at something is important because it's a predictor of future success...but is that really true? And what is the evidence for it? And what exactly is the meaning and value of mastering a particular skill very early on in your life?" Gladwell goes on to present what he believes is good evidence that "what we mean (by prodigy)...when we say that someone is 'naturally gifted' is that they practice a lot, that they want to practice a lot, that they like to practice a lot...", even suggesting that Mozart's precocious ability was simply due to intense practice.

Well, from our experience (as parents and learning professionals) and followers of the neurobiology literature, this idea just doesn't ring true. There are quite wide individual differences in brain wiring and physical endowment (and these may have varying rates of development on the path to adulthood), in personal motivation and temperament, and all these factors, in addition to opportunity and practice can effect outcome and performance.

It is a damaging myth to believe that all children have the same capacity to master a given skill or domain because it would also suggest that if a student doesn't succeed to the level of his classmates, he is just not trying hard enough.

Those of an anti-prodigy mindset might also approach their children with a broad brush, less likely to notice differences in aptitude or promise.

Some of Gladwell's observations are reasonable..."He read a long list of historical geniuses who had been notably undistinguished as children- a list including Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Beethoven, Kant, and Leonard Da Vinci...'None of [them] would have made it into Hunter College," but it's better as a critique of requiring that a giftedness or talent be evident by the age of 5 years.

In our experience, success in an intellectual, creative, or physical domain usually shows some glimmer in childhood, with varying contributions of intrinsic ability (natural aptitude, brain wiring, physical endowment), personal passion and commitment to mastery (practice could contribute here, but also the brain's reward and motivation centers, temperament, executive function), and opportunity (rich environments for nurturing talent). Gladwell's talk does raise the important issue that many late bloomers should not be overlooked if their bodies' or brains' full maturity later, perhaps only by adolescence or early adulthood, but to deny intrinsic differences in aptitude is poppycock.

APS Observer - The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Biology of Late Bloomers - Gifted, but Immature?
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Gifted Dyslexic Storytellers
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Remembering in Different Ways
Gifted Children: Brains on Fire pdf

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