Has competition within academic learning ever been more intense? In their quest to gain entry into top senior schools, children are subjected to ever more demanding exams and interviews, and it goes without saying that parents want the best for their children and will go to great lengths to optimize their potential. Media stories abound of tutoring companies furtively employed to this end. Yet the collateral damage of such competition and expectation is that anxiety and stress are pervasive in children.
A myopic focus on exam results, and academic performance in the present, is to attend disproportionately on the outcome rather than the process. This article discusses academic findings as to which factors distinguish those who ‘make it’ in various fields, from those who don’t. Why do some children show great talent at an early age, yet go on to underachieve in life?
As a society, we are fascinated by the concept of ‘talent.’ We talk about those who are ‘naturally clever’ or ‘gifted.’ We admire, or at the least envy, people who ‘get things’ quickly. Have you ever heard such admiration for a child who works hard? Working hard is a pejorative, patronising term. Ironically, to the extent that anyone is a natural, they are winners of the genetic lottery. Their giftedness is luck, outside of their control, so what is there to admire? Moreover, discussions of giftedness belie a misunderstanding of genetic development.
When we argue children are naturally talented, either in academia, sports or the performing arts, we are implying that their talent is innate. They are born with it. This is based on a false premise. We are not born with a fixed genetic map. Rather, genes change as we age. This genetic expression is influenced by all aspects of our environment, especially our interaction with caregivers. Additionally, some genes lay dormant for many years, only to be ‘turned on’ later in life. From the perspective of talent development, we may never know the limits of our true potential. The central point is how do we encourage the optimal expression of genes? A useful clue is examining how people achieve exceptional performance.
For many years, academics have sought to understand how people achieve exceptional performance. A seminal piece of research was a four-year study of Olympic swimmers, world-class tennis players, concert pianists, research mathematicians and neurologists. The aim was to understand how children developed from novices to elite status.
The study found a consistency across disciplines in how expertise was developed. The authors concluded;
“No matter what the initial characteristics of the individuals, unless there is a long and intensive process of encouragement, nurturance, education, and training the individuals will not attain extreme levels of capability in these particular fields.”
Along with other studies, it was found that children passed through distinct developmental phases during their maturation, from playful initiation in childhood to increased practice time and the perfection of skills as an adult. When young, children participated in activities purely for the joy and excitement. They enjoy instant gratification and are intrinsically motivated. As teenagers, they adopted a more serious achievement orientation, increasing their commitment. Individuals taking complete responsibility for their learning and development depicted the final stage.
Role of significant others
Families played a significant role throughout this multi-stage process. Initially, parents were supporting, offering positive reinforcement of their children, helping to stimulate their interest. The second stage involved parents making large sacrifices, as well as providing emotional and financial support. The last stage saw the influence of the family diminish, as their child matured and became more independent. More generally, studies have found that parents of committed individuals tend to espouse values related to achievement, hard work, success and being persistent.
Parental involvement can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand is the importance of parental modeling of positive values, attitudes and behaviours. Furthermore, parental support is highly correlated to a child’s enthusiasm and perceived levels of competence. Our self-belief is greatly influenced by the beliefs of significant adults. However, parental expectations can be a source of pressure and stress, interfering with a child’s participation in an activity and reducing intrinsic motivation.
Displaying one’s true potential requires the ability to transition successfully between different stages of development. Children who show potential when young are more likely to optimize their talent if they can develop certain psychological abilities that help this transitional process.
These findings have been supported by a large amount of research in sport psychology exploring how to develop talent in young people. Performance levels at any given time are poor predictors of future achievement. More relevant is that those who achieve the most success seem to think and learn differently compared to others.
It is important therefore to distinguish between a child’s performance and their capacity to develop. The later is influenced by psychological factors that refer to both attitudes and effective learning strategies. Acquiring the ability to take control of one’s learning, in addition to curiosity, persistence, confidence, and self-regulation are essential for high achievement.
How do psychological factors influence talent development?
As previously mentioned, once children pass through the ‘playful’ stage they enter a period characterized by intense, deliberate practice. This is a form of practice where a child is stressed to the edges of their abilities. It is relentless, and can be extremely tedious.
Committing to such practice requires a great deal of motivation. It is not surprising therefore, that high achieving individuals have been found to exhibit higher achievement motivation and more persistence than less successful people.
Furthermore, practicing at the edge of your ability often results in failure. There is nothing undesirable about failure. Indeed, it is a prerequisite for effective learning. However, failure can significantly reduce motivation. Consequently, resilience, or the ability to cope with setbacks, is another important factor in determining if children optimally develop their talent. In the words of Calvin Coolidge;
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Finally, and critically, is the concept of metacognition. This is ‘thinking about what one is thinking.’ Within the context of a child’s learning strategies, it refers to the ability to plan, monitor and reflect on how one is studying. Expert learners are skilled at adjusting their learning strategies when they are ineffective, serving to sustain motivation and increase their self-belief.
Don’t confuse performance with talent
The danger in measuring an individual’s academic performance is that we conflate performance with talent. The two are not synonymous, and the priority should be in helping children develop their potential.
For children to reach their potential they must develop specific psychological abilities such as commitment, motivation and resilience, which when combined with effective learning strategies, allow them to take advantage of opportunities afforded to them.
Perhaps most important is the application of these psychological abilities in other areas of life. Reaching one’s potential is not just about achieving the highest academic grades and becoming an Investment banker, surgeon or barrister. It is about living a fulfilling life, enjoying rich and meaningful relationships and pursuing challenges without fear of failure and confident in our ability to cope whatever the outcome.
This blog drew upon the following sources:
The Influence of the Family in the Development of Talent in Sport by Jean Cote
Eliminating the dichotomy between theory and practice in talent identification and development: considering the role of psychology by Angela Abbott and Dave Collins