Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Talent Equation

In the last few months, I've found myself getting into arguments with people about talent; in these arguments, I hear myself saying things like "I don't believe in talent."  Less tendentiously, I should say that I'm skeptical about talent, but even that isn't quite right.  So here's what I've come to believe.

First, a basic question: what is talent?  When someone gets an A on a test with little or no effort, we say either "the test was easy" or "she's really talented."  When someone puts years of effort into lab work -- or proving a theorem -- and comes out the other side with an amazingly mind-bending result, we say "Sure, she worked hard--but she was also brilliant to have seen ... "  In both cases, talent is what bridges the gap between the effort somone has put in and the results that come out.  We can express that thought in something like an equation:

Talent + Hard Work = Great Achievements.

As with any equation, we're tempted to apply algebra--in this case, subtracting the hard work from both sides.  

Talent = Great Achievements - Hard Work.

Note what this equation doesn't say: that great things can be achieved without hard work, if only you have talent.  Rather, the equation reminds us that talent is explaining something:  why Jane can work in the lab for ten years and come up with only incremental results, while Jeanine works in a similar lab for ten years and revolutionizes her area of research.  In the classroom, when we say "Jimmy is more talented than Jeff" what we usually mean is something like "Jeff studies for a test and Jimmy doesn't, but they get the same grade."

Notice that the word "talent" (or phrase "more talented than") doesn't necessarily refer to any particular characteristic or set of characteristics, even in a single field such as mathematics.  Some kids have good number sense; some are good at seeing patterns; some are good at recalling any idea or problem they've seen once; some can gnaw on a problem for hours or days without getting overwhelmed; some have great metacognition about what they need to improve and how to improve it.  All of these are talents, and for any combination, I can think of a student I've taught.  I think teachers in particular toss this idea (as well as "smart" or "bright") around without even thinking carefully about which talents or strengths they are trying to refer to.  In my view, simply calling someone talented (or "smart") is intellectually lazy.

It's also useless, to the student--because it doesn't reinforce the actual behaviors that need reinforcing, or point to other areas in which he or she could improve--and to other students--who are led to believe that student X has some "special thing" that nobody else has--and to the teacher, whose job is to strengthen the student, not just praise him or her for what he or she already does well (right?).

Talking about "talent" or "smarts" is actually counterproductive because it reinforces the false notion that great achievements are primarily the result of talent, when in fact virtually every great achievement is the result of years, sometimes decades, of sustained hard work.  Genius/smarts/talent are only invoked to explain why Einstein (or Marie Curie, or Andrew Wiles, or...) achieved the great results they did when other people who worked just as hard got nowhere.  But because we can't point to one or even a few specific things that talent consists in, talk about "talent" doesn't help us identify people who will be successful ahead of time.  And in fact I think that we as math teachers are pretty bad, demonstrably bad, at identifying those people ahead of time, especially when those people are girls, or slightly-rambunctious boys, or nonwhite and nonasian.  (See Lee Stiff's article here.)

So when I say that I'm skeptical about--or I don't believe in--talent, what I'm saying is that talent-talk misses the point rather badly.  The real point is hard work, which for some people will result in great achievements; because hard work doesn't do that for everyone, we explain the disparity as a combination of luck, timing, and talent.  Any task worthy of the name requires concentration, effort, and persistence. Talent isn't the point; hard work is.  Going back to the second equation for a minute, we can rephrase the algebra as an analect: talent is the capacity to achieve great things through hard work.

Now that's something I'd hope we'd try to teach everyone.