Tuesday, August 09, 2011

It is not possible to predict one's potential at an early age

A study@ of 120 immensely talented individuals, below the age of 40, chosen in the aesthetic field (piano and sculpting), athletic or psychomotor fields ( Tennis and swimming) and cognitive fields ( mathematics and science) was done by a researcher quoted below. After they were chosen, their process of growth from childhood to talent realisation was tracked and documented retrospectively by interviewing them, their parents, and their teachers or coaches. Such longitudinal studies covering 10-20 years of growth trajectory are rare.

Many surprising findings emerged out of this study. For instance, Parents of these talented individuals displayed three common characteristics: they were very child-centred, practiced rigorous work-ethic at home and expected children to share distinct household responsibilities.

However, for the purpose of the discussion here, this study also highlights that one cannot identify one's potential at the age of 10-15 because of four reasons identified in the study:
1. It is hard to identify potential at an early age even amongst the best:

For instance, potential of these 120 talented individuals was not 'spotted' by any objective scientific method at an early age. Teachers or parents simply spotted these individuals as 'fast' learners based on how they performed as compared to their peers in their school or locality. Parents of these talented individuals did not encourage them because they were identified as 'stars' but simply because they thought it was the 'best' course of action. But getting identified as' fast' learner helped these children to get special attention from parents and teachers at an early age. This initial learning, when got rewarded and approved, further stoked their desire of learning and made them practice harder on their talent.

2. The child's development in a talent till the age of 10-15 is very very small as compared to what is required to reach the heights of that talent. This is so small a part of what has to be ultimately achieved that one cannot claim that this 'small' achievement will lead to 'big' achievement later.

In this study, out of 120, only two of the children by the age of 10 had won 'child competitions' while one of them had won a 'national competition' in his age group. But none of the three had shown any development that was comparable to the 'masters' in any field.

While the talent development of musicians and sportsman commences at the age of 6, the talent development of mathematicians and neurologists commences at the age of 13. It is therefore almost impossible to 'spot' potential of a performer in cognitive field - lawyer, chartered accountant, engineer, consultant - by the age of 15.

3. Because talent development happens in three phases, a child developed in one phase may fail in the other phase.

Talent in this sample of 120 individuals was found to have developed through three phases of learning: the first phase of introduction ( of about 3-5 years); the second phase of 'technical mastery of the domain' (of about 4-8 years) and last phase of Expression where the artists learnt to express his work in his/her style ( 4-8 years). This is true for all the three fields: art, sports and cognitive.

Substance and style of learning as well as instruction required in each phase is completely different. Because of this big difference, being good in one phase of learning does not mean that one will be good in a later phase, even though the learning occurs in the same talent field,

In other words, it is more than likely that a child with identified potential will negotiate one phase, and may fail in the next phases of learning. Perhaps, this is why so few identified talents ultimately reach their highest levels, be it in music, sports or cognitive fields.

4. Support mechanisms to support the growth of talent in each of these phases of learning is so different, that one cannot predict that one will get that support.

For instance, teacher required in the first phase are 'nice' and 'supportive', while the teacher in the second phase are 'technically adept'. Similarly, parental support in the first phase is of 'hand holding' passive support while in the second phase the parents were required to offer active support like 'relocation'.

Because of these immense challenges in developing a talent, the author of the above study writes "We do not believe the perfecting of aptitude tests or other predictive instruments would enable us or other workers in the field to predict high-level potential talent at these early ages".

I have also written other reasons in my book 'The five great myths of career building' of why it is prudent to ignore aptitude tests in deciding child's future potential. Despite all the bottlenecks of using these predictive instruments ( like aptitude tests), you will still be surprised why parents still use them. We shall speculate these reasons at some other time!

@Benjamin Bloom: Developing talent in young people

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