Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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The nature/nurture debate has been going on for centuries. Is it our genes (nature) that predict success? Or is it the environment (nurture)? In the past 20 years this topic has evolved into the innate ability/natural talent vs. practice/effort debate. One side argues that success is all about innate ability and natural talent, while the other argues that it’s all about how hard one is willing to work. In the early and mid-1900’s as researchers studied intelligence and developed tests to measure it, it was generally believed that one’s “natural endowments” predicted success. In the 1950’s and ’60’s the cold war space race was a boon for gifted education, as national polices were implemented in an effort to identify and educate the “best and the brightest.”

The pendulum swung hard from ability toward practice and effort in the 1980’s and 90’s. In a politically correct world, the practice/effort argument was appealing because it posits that anyone can achieve success if they are willing to work hard (and the right environmental factors are supplied). In 1993 Dr. Anders Ericsson published a paper arguing that training and deliberate practice could explain performance differences that had been previously ascribed to innate talent. Studying expert performance in sports, music, mathematics, and other areas he found that so-called innate ability was unnecessary to predict who would become most successful. The single greatest predictor of success was hours devoted to the activity. The more someone practiced, the better they were. It’s a provocative argument, and one that Ericsson still espouses over two decades later. If it’s true, anyone with any ability profile can follow their dreams and, with enough effort, reach them. Ericson did add one caveat: when it comes to athletics, height and body size do make a difference. Along the same line, in the book Talent is Overrated (2008), George Colvin argued that investing the right type of practice on a focused pursuit is far more important than natural ability in predicting performance. In 2011 Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000 hour rule” in Outliers, attributing the success of the Beatles and Bill Gates almost entirely to intensive practice. 10,000 hours of practice was identified as the threshold level required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.

If this is true – that success is all about practice and effort, and that anyone can achieve anything they set their heart to – does giftedness as a construct even matter?

Recently, the pendulum has swung the other way – toward innate ability. In a 2014 meta-analysis, a study analyzing the results of 90 other studies carried out across disciplines ranging from sports to the arts to academia, authors Hambrick, et. al. reported: “More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.” In  2017 authors Wai & Rindermann studied what factors contributed to high educational and occupational achievement by examining a sample of 11,745 high achievers across disciplines. They found that about 50% of these super successful individuals were in the top 1% in terms intellectual ability (in other words, they were gifted).

I agree that innate ability is important, and I don’t think all the practice in the world can take someone who has poor native ability to a level of super high achievement in most areas. But I also feel that innate ability alone is rarely enough.

What does it take to turn giftedness into success – for gifted children to become high achievers?  Giftedness is a raw ability. In his “Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent” Robert M. Gagné made an important distinction between natural abilities or giftedness and talents. He defined giftedness as: “the possession and use of untrained and spontaneously expressed natural abilities in at least one ability domain, to a degree placing that student in the top 10% of age peers.” Talent, on the other hand, implies “the superior mastery of systematically developed abilities (or expert skills) and knowledge in at least one field of human activity to a degree that places a student in the top 10% of peers in that field.” This is an important distinction because the terms “gifted” and “talented” are often used synonymously. Gagné differentiates between giftedness as raw capacity and talent as a developed ability. Talents progressively emerge from the transformation of high aptitudes into the well-trained and systematically developed skills characteristic of a particular field of human activity or performance.

Thus, a young child might be described as gifted to highlight that they have exceptional abilities and, when they have favorably developed these abilities may be described as gifted and talented. While such a child will always (barring exceptional mishap) remain gifted, only when a high level of performance has been attained can they also be described as talented. This alludes to the common phenomenon of gifted underachievement, and points us in the direction of beginning to understand and therefore remedy this.

Gagné’s model  illustrates the process and factors influencing whether a child’s giftedness will develop into a talent. Chance is a significant factor, but so are the environment and intrapersonal catalysts. Environmental influences include culture and family, teachers, peers, and the provision of programs and services. Intrapersonal catalysts include health, motivation, concentration, and temperament. Efforts can be made to facilitate the development of gifts into talents through a developmental process encompassing informal and formal learning and practice, enriched curriculum and training, a goal of challenging excellence, systemic and regular practice, regular and objective assessment of progress, and personalized accelerated pacing. Sounds like a great gifted education program to me!

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog: giftedness does matter. I feel that in many domains, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition to predict high achievement. The development of gifts into talents is a process impacted by environmental, intrapersonal, and chance factors.

Let me add a caveat of my own that the discussion above focuses solely on the outcomes of “success,” “high achievement” and  “talent.” I believe it is quite possible for a gifted person to eschew such outward measures of achievement, and perhaps not contribute their talents to society at large in any measurable way, but to still be a happy and fulfilled person in part because of their giftedness. Giftedness can provide the individual with a rich inner life entirely separate from societal measures of success.

Ever since my mind-blowing trip to the Galapagos last January I’ve been thinking about evolution, the environment, and organism-environment interaction. Each island in the Galapagos has a slightly different environment, and the islands as a whole are very different from the Ecuadorean mainland. The animals who ended up flourishing on the islands adapted to their environment. Or they moved on.

I’m a psychologist, not an ecologist. The world I concern myself with is that of children and their development. But it occurs to me that we often don’t spend enough time thinking about that from an ecological perspective. An organism is an individual living animal, plant, or single-celled life form. A child is an “organism.” An environment is the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal or plant lives or operates. School is an “environment.” The child and their school are part of an ecosystem, and they have important impacts on one another.

When something is not working well in the child-school ecosystem we often focus on what’s “wrong” with the child and why they don’t “fit in.” We sometimes pathologize the child’s behavior and diagnose ADHD, a learning disability, autism, or a behavioral disorder. The diagnosis may fit, but I often wonder whether the same child would be diagnosed with the same disability if they were in an environment better suited to them as an individual. Would the twice exceptional student who blurts out answers and won’t do what the teacher tells him to do be diagnosed with ADHD in a school where he could control his own pace of learning? Perhaps a move to a different environment would allow that particular organism – that child – to flourish.

I know that we often feel stuck with the school our child attends. We may have moved to a public school district specifically for the highly ranked schools. We may have gone through an onerous private school admission process to get a spot for our child at what we thought would be the best possible school. But sometimes it just isn’t working out and attention should be paid to not just the child and what might be “wrong” with him or her, but also to the environment and what might be “wrong” with it – for that child. The school your child attends may be perfectly fine for some children and even optimal for others. But it may not be the best fit for your child.

Many of us may have had the experience (I know I have) of spending our political capital in the principal’s office requesting a specific teacher because we heard from other parents how wonderful he or she was, only to discover that the teacher we begged for wasn’t so great for our child. Or discovering that although our daughter thrived at XYZ school, our son doesn’t. I don’t think one can always generalize and describe a school as a “good school” or a “bad school,” or a teacher as a “good teacher” or a “bad teacher.” Good for who? Bad for who?

Our children – the gifted, twice-exceptional, learning disabled, differently wired – are unique. They are organisms that need specific kinds of nutrients and environments in which to thrive. If your child isn’t developing optimally, it might be time to consider a change of environment. Optimal development happens when the organism/environment interaction promotes growth.

I realize that changing schools may not be convenient and can involve risks. But it might be among the best things you ever do for your child. I know parents who have made the sacrifice of moving to another state so their child could attend a better-fit school. And heroes who take on homeschooling. These parents have made bold decisions to try to find or create the best environment for their child to thrive.

When my son was 11 he begged me to not send him back to the school he had been attending. This was after spending the summer at two Johns Hopkins CTY camps (let this be a warning: it can be dangerous to let your child experience the joy of an optimal learning environment). We took him seriously, lost our deposit at his old school, and had to scramble to find a new school for him to attend. We ended up finding a small, funky, ‘”unschool” for gifted kids where I’m not sure he learned much, but he was happy. We call this his “first gap year.” He went on to do well at a wonderful middle school, high school, and the college of his choice. To this day he credits the finding of his academic and social “sea legs” to the “gap year” he had in the 6th grade. And he thanks us for listening to him.

I feel badly he had to ask.

Plato employed the maxim “know thyself” (“gnôthi sauton,“ translated as “come to know thyself” or “learn to know thyself”) in his dialogues at The Academy. He taught that knowing one’s self is a necessary first step in the pursuit of happiness. He believed that only when we truly know who and what we are can we pursue our true nature to happiness and fulfillment.

I’ve coined the term “Plato Parenting” based on this maxim. The idea is that parents can help their children discover, explore, and develop their true interests and nature to discover who they are.

But would this be helicopter parenting? Parents considering an active role in helping their children develop their interests may wonder whether this would constitute “pushing” (like a tiger mother) or “hovering” (like a helicopter parent). They may not know where they should fall on the spectrum from being more involved in the management of their children’s lives to less involved. It’s clear from an examination of the research literature that the most effective parents are those who are involved and responsive to their child and are authoritative and have high expectations. Parents who are disengaged and uninvolved are less effective. Parents who have low expectations and are permissive and indulgent are less effective. We’ve all seen this in action at the grocery store when a toddler throws a tantrum over candy, and a parent immediately gives in. And having low expectations tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most effective parents, when the goal is producing a happy, productive adult, are nurturing and responsive, yet they are also authoritative and have high expectations.

What do I mean by “authoritative” and “high expectations?” Some people confuse the terms authoritative and authoritarian. Authoritarian parents demand a sort of blind obedience from their children. That’s not good. Authoritative parents take a more moderate approach that emphasizes setting high standards and expectations, being nurturing and responsive, and showing respect for their children as independent, rational beings. High standards and expectations include instilling a strong work ethic, encouraging the productive use of time, and encouraging dedication to doing one’s best. Not all children are born with strong motivation, work ethic, and the knowledge of how to use their time productively to accomplish goals. Many if not most need to be taught these habits. Not only are children who are taught these skills more likely to be successful, but they’re also happier. Children, like adults, are happiest when they’re engaged in something they find interesting that provides opportunities for growth. In other words, when they’re pursuing their interests. They’re not happiest when they’re “hanging out” or wiling away the hours playing a video game because they can’t think of anything better to do. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that pursuing one’s genuine interests toward a goal is highly correlated with happiness, as well as other positive traits such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and performance.

Don’t push your own interests on your child. When embarking on a program of helping your child identify and pursue his or her true interests, be careful not to fall into a trap of trying to influence your child to pursue what you are interested in. Carl Jung said: “Nothing has a stronger influence … on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Often, when parents try to “craft” the perfect life for their child it bears an uncanny resemblance to the one they wish they’d had. We need to accept our child for who he or she is. If we don’t, and instead try to mold them into what we think they should be, one of two things will happen. Either they will accept our dreams and fail to develop their own, or they will rebel. Neither allows them to develop into their own true self, since one path involves blind acceptance and the other a rejection of the parent’s point of view. A psychiatrist I know in Palo Alto has a practice dominated by high-achieving Stanford grads who did everything they thought their parents wanted them to, realizing their parent’s dreams. But now – in their late 20’s and 30’s –  they’re unhappy and confused about what they want out of life.

So, how do you go about helping your child pursue his or her genuine interests? First, you need to identify them. Some children are “born” with strong interests, while others don’t seem to have any especially strong ones. I advise parents of young children to expose them to a wide variety of things – art, music, sports, theater, games, and academic disciplines. This should be done deliberately and methodically. Rather than taking your child on the same kinds of outings over and over, plan “field trips” to varied destinations. These can include museums, concerts, farms, zoos, animal rescue centers, hikes, bike rides, birding, the beach, Chinatown, Little Italy, historical sites, factory tours, a stock exchange, art galleries, a courtroom, science fairs, a geography bee, and fruit-picking. Read  books about a variety of topics. Talk about current events. Travel. Watch documentaries. Expand their horizons.

Observe your child’s reactions and reflect on them. Make note when your child seems intrigued by something. Think about why they are drawn to it, and consider what that might mean. If your child loves Legos, perhaps architecture or engineering would interest them. If your child loves playing outdoors, consider environmental studies. Try to keep an open mind and not be judgmental. Even activities that may seem unproductive can provide clues to worthwhile passions and future careers. The child who seems bossy and unyielding when playing with friends may crave leadership opportunities. The child who is on the phone chatting with friends about their problems all day may be drawn to psychology or counseling. When my daughter was young she loved to tell stories. As a teen she loved social media. Of course that worried me a bit. But now she’s an online news journalist. After exposing your child to a wide variety of things, as they near middle and high school, try to guide them toward selecting 2-4 interests to pursue more intensively to avoid the “jack of all trades, master of none” phenomenon.

Get involved and be proactive. Once you’ve identified your child’s interests the next step is to facilitate their pursuit. This is where being an involved parent comes into play. And having high expectations. Dedicate yourself to taking your child’s goals seriously and facilitating his or her achievements by bringing their goals within reach. Don’t just buy your child a trumpet. Find the best music instructors you can afford, structure time in the day for practice, sit with your child when they practice, and take them to concerts. It’s ok to actively help your child find opportunities. I know a parent who helped her marine biology obsessed child find a volunteer research internship at age 12 which led to her being co-author on a scientific paper at age 16.

What if my child doesn’t find a career out of this? It doesn’t matter. The young marine biologist who published at 16 went into an entirely different field. But she learned some very important things along the way. She learned how fulfilling it is to delve deeply into an interest, that one needs to work hard to accomplish something significant, that she could do practically anything she put her mind to, and that she didn’t actually want to be a research scientist!

By adopting “Plato Parenting” as a philosophy you can help your children develop into the happy, productive young adults they are meant to be. What better gift can you give your child than that?