The Myth of Talent: How to Ruin Your Kid’s Education
My early school experience was a bit like living in a totalitarian state. It was a place where free thought and expression was discouraged.
Boys like me were subjected to show trials for imaginary misdemeanors that included false witnesses and indefinite detention without charge.
The school was run by an abusive bully who used physical violence to enforce discipline. Boys were viewed as suspicious and in need of control.
On one occasion I was locked in an office and told I wouldn’t get out until I confessed to a (false) accusation of racially offensive name calling.
My two friends buckled first, admitting to the fabricated crime through tears.
I remained resolute until mid afternoon when I murmured that I ‘probably did’ which ended the imprisonment and let me get back to class.
I was five.
Another more benign feature of my schooling was ‘the bright kids’ who ‘got moved up a year’. I imagine this was due to high IQ, skill at maths or similar skills. They would appear amid whispers that they’d ‘been moved up’.
I only know what happened to one of these bright and talented few – she got pregnant soon after leaving high school and last I heard was living a bitter life at home with her mum and the baby.
The Myth of Talent by Matthew Syed and A Failed Education System
I’ve just finished reading Bounce: the Myth of Talent by Matthew Syed which was a sobering book for a Dad like me.
Although it focuses on sporting achievements and talent, the hardest hitting part of the book were the chapters on mindset and the words we use.
Syed quotes from a 1978 study by Carole Dweck that showed kids who believed they were talented or gifted performed worse than those who valued hard work and persistence. When given a complicated maths problem,
“[The ‘talent’ group] began to denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for their failures, saying things like “I guess I am not very smart.” , “I never had a good memory” or “I’m no good at things like this.” – Dweck, 1978
In another study students were
“..given a test so tough that none of them succeeded. But once again there was a dramatic difference between the ways they responded to failure, those praised for intelligence interpreted their failures as proof that they were no good at puzzles after all. The group praised for effort persevered on the test far longer, enjoyed it far more and did not suffer any loss in confidence.” – Bounce, Matthew Syed
It’s safe to conclude from these studies that believing you are talented or special has no benefit for success. It may even be a hindrance when facing obstacles!
Those ‘gifted’ children in my primary schooling were no different to the rest of us and eventually were caught or surpassed by their peers.
Studies have even shown that gifted children are no more likely to succeed than the rest of us – probably due in part the phenomenon found by Dweck all those years ago.
But this flies in the face of praise such as:
“You’re so clever!” “Wow, you are really talented.”
And the proliferation of media (and school endorsed) ‘talent’ shows where contestants attempt to prove that they have a gift that no one else has (or will achieve).
Instead of education establishments being meritocracies, they are ‘talentocracies’ where the so-called gifted are given the praise while the rest are ignored or given lip service.
The cult of celebrity has increased this further as winning the X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent (or The Apprentice for business) is the only way to truly succeed in life. Isn’t it?
Think back to the findings of boys failing at school. How much of this is down to boys being (actively or passively) discouraged from working hard and making continuous improvements to become better. Instead they are conditioned to chase the talent rainbow which, as we now know, contains no pot of gold.
A Father’s Role: The Importance of Hard Work
The premise of Matthew Syed’s book is that talent is a myth. And he presents a persuasive case. Whether totally false or not, there is clearly an issue with branding your kids as ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ or even ‘clever’.
By doing so, you take the value of their achievements away from them and any hard work and effort they’ve put in. Instead you’ve attributed it to something that they have no control over and that (if you’re totally honest) you’d like to take ultimate credit for.
The language we use for your kids achievement matters as Dweck showed back in 1998. Praising the effort not the gift is the key take home from this.
Recently my son entered a drawing competition. His entry was a monster truck in the snow. He was tearful when he found out his entry didn’t win. This presented me with an opportunity to praise him for his hard work, a good picture and to teach him that sometimes you fail, even if you did your best.
Changing our attitudes towards talent will have a knock on effect on our own lives. No one was born a great musician, writer or athlete. Instead we have to work hard for our successes.
Any ‘overnight phenomenon’ will tell you it took them years to perfect their skill before they were recognised or achieved anything close to success. But this isn’t an obstacle for you, it’s an opportunity to learn and feel real achievement.
Words are important too – changing the way you praise your kids from ‘That was clever.’ to ‘You worked hard to learn that.’ makes a colossal difference in shaping their mindset.
P.S. A lot of hard working Dads have subscribed to my emails. You can join them here.
P.P.S. You can buy Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice by Matthew Syed here.