Discussing Developing Talent Without Michael Phelps
A recent thread in the Modeling listserv sought to tease out whether there are any innate differences in us that lead to more efficient learning in physics. In making the argument for some kind of “natural ability,” many of my colleagues use world-class performers as their examples. This kind of reasoning is, I believe, misleading to the application of the ideas of whether talent is in-born or grown. Yes, it is true that no amount of hard work is going to turn a 5’4″, 130 lbs. adult into an NFL lineman. And there are definitely certain physical characteristics that Michael Phelps possesses that help him in the pool (perhaps it is because I’m a swimming coach that others bring up Michael Phelps to me). It is equally true that Ryan Lochte possesses a different set of physical characteristics, but he manages to beat Michael Phelps on a regular basis.
But to take the conversation right to world-class, or even lower level championship-class, performances confuses the issue of whether there are substantial differences between students’ abilities to understand physics. I am not teaching high school physics only to create world-class physicists. If I were, I might want to work at a school that doesn’t demand so much of the students in the way of extensive writing or playing of afternoon sports. And I might want to prepare to be disillusioned a lot of the time. I am more interested in giving students who want to excel in science the foundation to do so, and to introduce students bound for careers as artists, lawyers or historians the skills to think rationally and scientifically. Can every one of my students achieve these lofty goals? I think so. The question comes down to whether they have the time to spend on becoming strong at physics.
The problem with citing world-class performances is that world-class performances are the result of many diverse factors. Some would argue that at least a few of these factors are innate, and we could have a good old time debating to what extent quickness, agility, reaction time, strength and a host of other factors are innate or developed. Likewise, we could debate the extent to which some kind of innate “smarts” are responsible for the work of Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein (both of whom famously denied any such advantage, citing the power of hard work). In the end, such debates have little to nothing to do with my students and me. I just don’t see enough difference in my students’ abilities to attribute it to anything other than differences in their backgrounds. Even if I’m wrong, I’m not too far wrong, and they can certainly get better at whatever they put their minds to improving.
One response to my warning the listserv conversation away from discussing world-class performances was to say that world-class performers make good examples for our students and athletes. They sure do–I would not deny that. We have our swimmers watch Michael Phelps’ butterfly stroke. We encourage our students to read about famous physicists. We bring outstanding scientists and historians and artists to our campus to talk to and meet our students. My uneasiness with discussing talent in terms of only the very best in each field does not mean I don’t want to study and learn from the best in each field.