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Excerpted from

Developing Talent in Young People


The Nature of the Study and Why It Was Done

Over the past four years a team of research workers under my direction at the University of Chicago has been engaged in a study of the development of talent in children. We have examined the processes by which individuals who have reached the highest levels of accomplishment in selected fields have been helped to develop their capabilities so fully. The subjects of our study included concert pianists, sculptors, research mathematicians, research neurologists, Olympic swimmers, and tennis champions.

The study has provided strong evidence that no matter what the initial characteristics (or gifts) 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. This research has raised questions about earlier views of special gifts and innate aptitudes as necessary prerequisites of talent development.

Most of the individuals selected for this study attained these high levels of accomplishment in their field before the age of thirty-five. Our investigation was concerned with the talent development process and the role of parents, teachers, and others in teaching, motivating, and supporting these individuals until they reached the highest levels of learning and capability in their field.

We limited our study to individuals born and reared in the United States, since we wanted to be certain that the long teaching and learning process was within the American context. We had earlier found that countries differ in the value placed on particular types of talent, and they differ in their methods of identifying individuals to receive special training in particular talent fields, as well in their methods of developing these talents.

Previous Research on School Learning

After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn if provided with appropriate prior and current conditions of learning. This generalization does not appear to apply to the 2% or 3% of individuals who have severe emotional and physical difficulties that impair their learning. At the other extreme there are about 1% or 2% of individuals who appear to learn in such unusually capable ways that they may be exceptions to the theory. At this stage of the research it applies most clearly to the middle 95% of a school population.

The middle 95% of school students become very similar in terms of their measured achievement, learning ability, rate of learning, and motivation for further learning when provided with favorable learning conditions. One example of such favorable learning conditions is mastery learning where the students are helped to master each learning unit before proceeding to a more advanced learning task. In general, the average student taught under mastery-learning procedures achieves at a level above 85% of students taught under conventional instructional conditions. An even more extreme result has been obtained when tutoring was used as the primary method of instruction. Under tutoring, the average student performs better than 98% of students taught by conventional group instruction, even though both groups of students performed at similar levels in terms of relevant aptitude and achievement before the instruction began.

While this theory and the research done so far have been limited to school learning, they raise some very important questions about the ways in which special talent develops in many areas. How were the outstanding persons in art and music, in athletics, in various fields of scholarship, and in industry, government, and other areas of human endeavor discovered, developed, and encouraged? Do these very talented individuals achieve because of innate and rare qualities and/or as the result of special training and encouragement?

The central thesis of Human Characteristics and School Learning (Bloom, 1976) is the potential equality of most human beings for school learning. We believe that the same thesis is likely to apply to all learning, whether in schools or outside of schools. At least, it leads us to speculate that there must be an enormous potential pool of talent available in the United States. It is likely that some combinations of the home, the teachers, the schools, and the society may in large part determine what portions of this potential pool of talent become developed. It is also likely that these same forces may, in part, be responsible for much of the great wastage of human potentiality.

A Method of Studying Talent Development

The Development of Talent Research Project began with the speculation that there must be a very large pool of potential talent available in each society that can either be developed or neglected, depending in large measure on environmental conditions. By talent we mean an unusually high level of demonstrated ability, achievement, or skill in some special field of study or interest. This is in contrast with earlier definitions, which equate talent with natural gifts or aptitudes. We assumed that the development of both excellence and standards of excellence in a society is dependent on the extent to which there are opportunities and encouragement for individuals to find meaning and enjoyment in one or more areas and fields of development. The project also began with the belief that the development of talent provides a sense of fulfillment for individuals as well as a source of great contributions to the society at large.

We have briefly considered various methods of trying to answer some of the major questions we raised about talent development. For example, a longitudinal study of thousands of children over ten to twenty years of development would have been a possible method if one could be certain that many of them would reach high levels of talent development. However, at this point we know of no method by which one could predict which young children (under the age of ten) would eventually become outstanding musicians, athletes, mathematicians, and so on.

We did some pilot studies in which we tried to answer some of our questions about talent development by reading biographies of unusual mathematicians, musicians, athletes, writers, and scientists. However, we found little information on the developmental processes by which these individuals were enabled to reach high levels of attainment in their respective field because most of the biographical material dealt with the lives and work of these people after they had reached adulthood and a high level of attainment. It became evident to us that the kind of information we needed on the formative years could only be secured by interviewing people who had already attained these high levels of capability in selected fields.

We then did some pilot studies with a small number of mathematicians, pianists, and athletes who had met particular performance criteria. We interviewed these individuals and found that they could tell us a great deal about how they became interested in the field, the role their parents and others in the family played in some of the early years, the kind of instruction they received from teachers and coaches, and some of the factors they believed helped them reach their present level of capability in these fields.

On the basis of these exploratory studies we decided to select as subjects of our study some people who had reached world-class levels of accomplishment in particular fields and to interview them to get a retrospective picture of the process of talent development. We assumed that the patterns of development would emerge most clearly in the individuals who had reached the highest levels of talent development in each field. Although it is likely that no two individuals would have had identical talent development experiences, we believed that the clearest picture of what is required for full development in a talent field would emerge from studying a sizable number of individuals (twenty to twenty-five) who had reached very high levels of talent development in that field.

Selection of Fields of Talent Development

As we began to search for the fields of talent to be studied, it became clear to us that there were literally hundreds of fields we might study. Since we decided to study approximately twenty-five highly talented individuals in each field, we needed to restrict our study to no more than six to eight fields, given our time and budget limitations.

It became apparent in our pilot studies and from our reading that the fields could be grouped in such a way that each field studied would have implications for related fields. For example, in the psychomotor or athletic fields we could study many different types of athletes. We believed that the study of a few well-chosen athletic fields would have implications for other athletic fields. Similarly, in other areas of talent development, we believed that the particular fields studied would have relevance for many other related ones.

We decided to study talent fields that were representative of four distinct areas of talent. The area that includes the many athletic fields we labeled athletic or psychomotor fields, since these involve fine motor coordination, skills in the use of the body, and training to develop strength or endurance. A second area includes the many aesthetic, musical, and artistic fields, which involve sensory and aesthetic perception, particular types of motor coordination, and the training of eye and/or ear to respond to particular sights and sounds. A third area includes the many fields that emphasize cognitive or intellectual development. These fields typically require emphasis on a large knowledge base as well as the learning of particular skills, ways of thinking, and approaches to social, technical, and scientific problems. Many of these also require creativity in attacking a range of problems and difficulties within each field.

A fourth area we planned to investigate included talent fields that emphasize interpersonal relations. By this we meant fields that emphasize the quality of interactions with other people. We were of the view that there is a relatively large number of occupations in which sensitivity to interpersonal relations is a central factor in the work. Initially, we thought of school teachers, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists, administrators, foremen and other supervisors, and other occupations in which much of the work is dependent on relations with others, the ability to empathize with others (to be sensitive to the feelings and difficulties others are experiencing), and skills in helping others to solve personal as well as professional problems.

Thus, we defined a broad spectrum of talent fields, from athletics to interpersonal fields. We regarded this spectrum as a useful schema for identifying fields that require different types of abilities, learning experiences, and development. We decided to select two talent fields in each area that would involve distinctly different types of activity, that are well defined, and for which there are relatively objective criteria (such as competitions, achievements, and awards) for selecting the outstanding twenty-five persons in the United States.

We decided to study two fields of athletics with the hope that we would find some similarities in the patterns of selection, development, and encouragement. We finally chose Olympic swimmers and world-class tennis players. For each of these we could find clear criteria that assured us that the individuals selected for study had reached the highest levels of talent development in that field. We chose athletic fields in which the individual's own attainments were central. In athletic fields primarily involving team sports we could not be certain of the attainments of the individual, since in some cases the team's support might, in part, account for the success of selected individuals on the team.

A second area of interest was the aesthetic fields, which include many types of musicians and artists. We believe that all these fields are likely to involve aesthetic development of some type and should yield some similarities in developmental patterns. After much searching we decided to limit our study to concert pianists and sculptors. Again, these are fields in which individual accomplishment is central and there are clear criteria for selecting the twenty-five individuals in each field who have reached very high levels of attainment. It was our assumption that the study of these two fields would yield findings that are in some ways relevant to the very large number of possible aesthetic fields.

A third area of interest was the cognitive or intellectual fields, which include the largest number of subjects and professions dependent on the entire system of education, from the home and elementary education through college, university, and professional education. In these fields we finally decided to study research mathematicians and research neurologists. Again, we believe that the findings here are likely to have some relevance for other scholarly and professional fields that emphasize cognition as a central concern in the developmental and educational process. Here again, these are highly individual pursuits in which there are criteria for the identification of individuals who have reached very exceptional levels of development in the field.

Tags: Parenting and Families