About physics and teaching

“Naturally Gifted”

with 6 comments

I was visiting Carnegie Mellon University yesterday with my son, a high school junior. I grabbed a piece of paper titled “Science” from the wall of information in the Admissions Office as he signed in. On the back, there was a series of questions followed by answers. One question was “Can I create a degree that combines science and the fine arts?” This was followed by an answer beginning, “Carnegie Mellon recognizes that there are students who are naturally gifted in both fine arts and the sciences.” My current understanding is that studies designed to find evidence of “natural giftedness” have come up empty-handed.

Absolutely nothing else on that double-sided information sheet indicated that the view that some are just “gifted” is widely accepted at Carnegie Mellon. In fact, the words and phrases “work,” “doing what it takes,” and “providing you with the skills, knowledge and training” occur. Perhaps it is only biologists that paint or physicists who play the violin who are considered by Carnegie Mellon to be “naturally gifted,” but I think instead that a typical mistake was being made. Even people who are trying very hard to readjust their mindset to de-emphasize the assumption of the primacy of innate “talent” make occasional references to innate talent. I have been talking to colleagues about the lack of evidence for inborn talent recently. I have read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” and am working on “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. The messages of these very different books resonates with something I think I learned in the swimming pool as a youth. I’ll write about that later, but what I want to say here is that even my colleagues who believe that hard work is the most important determinant to success still sometimes slip up and use the language of innate, inborn talent (I include myself in that group as well!). The assumption that certain skill sets are hardwired into us at birth is so prevalent in our culture that it is very hard to keep it from popping into your conversations.

This is not a matter of policing our speech for political correctness. It is not that I want to avoid writing student comments that praise a student as “bright,” “talented,” or “smart” for fear of offending the student not labelled so. No, it is nothing like that. Instead, I fear for the student so labelled. First because it ignores the hard work the student has done previously, and, second, it sets them up for failure as soon as they hit a concept with which they must struggle for awhile.  The assumption of innate talent also denies the possibility that other students starting out behind the frontrunners can catch up. Finally, such language simply doesn’t appear to be supported by evidence.

Even students who have worked hard sometimes still attribute their success to innate talent. I have one student, who told me she was “just good at Spanish.” Upon questioning her about her background in Spanish, she told me that she had a very rigorous middle school Spanish class. She had worked “very hard.” In fact, she said she worked harder on Spanish than “any other subject in middle school.” Then she noted that only now, a year and a half after arriving at high school, was she finally learning anything new in Spanish. Then I asked her whether it was any surprise, after she had worked very hard for three years and then had spent the last year and a half in relaxed review of Spanish, that she only now felt like her peers were catching up to her in Spanish? She gave me a very far-away look and a long “huuuhh.” This girl had essentially ignored her own hard work (and the pleasant circumstance of having a year and a half review), because society has told her repeatedly that stuff like this just happens… at some point you just find out what you’re good at. The fact that in seventh and eighth grade she was labelled “gifted” in Spanish may, in fact, have led her to deny the reality or the importance of her own hard work.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/15 at 18:59

6 Responses

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  1. We’re going to read aloud the description of growth and fixed mindsets that Matthew Syed gives in Bounce in my intro classes on Monday.

    Kelly O'Shea

    2011/03/16 at 07:33

  2. You wrote, “My current understanding is that studies designed to find evidence of “natural giftedness” have come up empty-handed.” Would you mind sharing where you found these studies or references to them?

    Stacy Chalmers

    2011/03/16 at 13:05

    • Hi, Stacy. I was referring to secondary sources with which I am familiar… I have not read the primary sources. Those secondary sources are: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Bounce by Mathew Sayed, Mindset by Carol Dweck and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The first three of these books are all pretty similar in the sense that they are making the case for an over reliance on the idea of innate talent. The last two are somewhat different, but related takes on how we think of ourselves and our students (Dweck) and how we think of people who are wildly successful (Gladwell).

      Mark Hammond

      2011/03/16 at 17:40

  3. […] “Naturally Gifted” […]

  4. As a physicist (actually majored in physics but work as a software engineer) I tend to distill these things to basic principals and naturally gifted is one of those principles that keep emerging. Students that are gifted in something tend to spend a lot of time with it. Maybe the natural giftedness is a natural interest or even a natural purpose of mind, but it is very hard to look at many of the results we see and not recognize that there certainly is a natural something that lies squarely with the student. That isn’t to say that is the only factor involved, just that the factor exists and is strongly supported by our experiences with people and empirical evidence. And quite frankly, you could look at it as a gift to all of us or we wouldn’t have these talented people making art and science.

    If it isn’t something that lies squarely with the student then how would you explain them via an external component alone? And why would some be susceptible and some not?

    All students should be encouraged in all things at this age but eventually we all choose our path and we generally choose what we enjoy and are good at. The ultimate success is to find that thing you enjoy and are good at.

    Robert Hansen

    2011/04/10 at 01:05

    • I agree with you to some degree. It certainly seems people are oriented towards enjoying some things more than others. Watching my own two children growing up (small sample size, I know), it was certainly clear that my daughter found enjoyment in drawing and painting… as a result these were her default activities. My son enjoyed numbers… playing with numbers, statistics and logic games were his default activities. Guess what each is “good at?” Certainly the amount of time they spent in their favorite activities is very important for their success in those pursuits, but there was some initial spark that launched them in that direction. But what was the spark? Was it internal? Was it external? Was it a combination of both that we could never tease apart? I tend towards the latter.

      What really puzzles me is a more generic tendency in people: that tendency to stick with something even when it’s not so much fun. That spark to work at something, to pull it apart and put it back together and figure it out… where does that come from? This tendency (or level of patience?) seems to be extremely important in moving from being interested in (or liking) something to being accomplished in that activity. Is there some innate ability to “stick to it” or is that learned? Or is it a combination of the two that we could never tease apart?

      Mark Hammond

      2011/04/10 at 15:27

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