Friday, January 11, 2013

Our Obsession With ‘Natural’ Talent is Harming Students

what is talent?
What is talent? (Photo: the|G|™)
by Dr Catherine Scott, Sessional senior lecturer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

Results released from a major Victorian study on student learning show high achieving children’s performance in tests is “flat-lining”.

The study, by Professor Patrick Griffin, followed 36,000 students from years three to ten for six months.

Student achievement in maths, reading comprehension and critical thinking was assessed at the commencement and end of the study.

On the basis of the first assessment, students were placed in four achievement groups for each subject.

For students whose results were initially poor - the bottom 25% - the results of the study are very encouraging. By the end of the study these students had experienced achievement gains at five or six times the expected rate. The news was not so encouraging for students in the top 25%: their scores flat-lined.

The reception these results have received is interesting, particularly for a nation that prides itself on egalitarianism. Instead of delight that the strugglers have made great gains, an article in The Age yesterday dwelled on why students who were initially doing well did not go on to do even better.

Attempts were made to find an answer in Australia’s decline in international standing on tests of student attainment. A number of answers are proposed, including that teachers don’t know how to instruct able children.

But a more plausible answer can be found: one that draws on decades of research into attitudes and their influence on behaviour, including achievement.

Stars aren’t always born

As a nation we love high achievers and enjoy the spectacle of gifted athletes, sportspeople and musicians performing at the highest levels. In our cultural belief system, those who make it to the top are the “naturals”, people born with extraordinary talents and abilities.

As a result, we go searching for the talented few to recruit them into training programs, so that they may “realise their potential”.

This also applies to intellectual capacity and there is whole industry in promoting the need to identify intellectually gifted children and to provide them with special educational services.

The model of ability that reigns in Australia is that talent of any sort is an inborn gift. As a corollary, effort is to be denigrated, deplored even, because if one has to try hard, one is demonstrating that he or she is not a “natural”.

The belief that stars are born not made is demonstrated by the portrayal of genius in the media and popular entertainment.

Higher achievers such as Mozart and Michelangelo are shown in plays and movies as having prodigious abilities from their earliest years, their talent the result of possession of some mysterious in-built gift. The role of studying and working at mastering anything - art, craft, intellectual pursuits or sport - is glossed over or ignored.

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