Howe 5

From: McLeod Julia (
Date: Wed Feb 18 1998 - 17:52:55 GMT

O.K, the evidence that Howe et al has presented against the existence
of `talent' seems pretty convincing/conclusive, especially as it is
based on empirical evidence, and as psychologists we are so concerned
with empirical status. Perhaps to the degree that we overlook the

> To ensure that our use of the term coincided with that of scientific
> researchers as well as >teachers and practitioners, we suggested
> that

We seem to be back to the same old problem which haunts psychologists,
a universally agreed `definition'. Isn't trying to define talent a bit
like attempting to define the difference between
normality/abnormality; function/dysfunction?

> (1) a talent has its origin in genetically transmitted structures,

I'm really not sure about this, it could be that genetic transmission
is more about socio-environmental nurturing as Coon & Carey (1989)
have concluded.

>(2) there are early indicators of talent

This can't always be the case, early indicators may be evidence of
parental encouragement opportunity and practice, but just because a
child lacks the opportunity to demonstrate and develop the talent
doesn't mean s/he won't display it in later life, or that s/he doesn't
possess it.

> (3) talent provides a basis for estimating the probability of
> excelling,

Not all individuals will choose to pursue their talent, perhaps this
is the difference between those who possess `true' talent and those
who show a measure of excellence through enforced practice?

> (4) only a minority of individuals have special talents,

If we think of talent in relation to the `arts', I think this is
probably true, but I also believe that all individuals have some
measure of talent that is instinctive and untaught.

>(5) the effects of a talent will be relatively specific.<

I'm not quite sure if I understand what they mean by `relatively
specific'. If this means relative to a single domain, in the ordinary
sense of talent, people may have many dimensions i.e. play a brilliant
game of tennis, be a cordon bleu cook as well as creating wonderfully
useful gadgets out of sticky back plastic and a washing up container,
but, in the extraordinary sense of talent, no, I don't think it is
likely that Mozart could paint like Boticelli or write like
Shakespeare. Extraordinary talents probably are `relatively specific'.

>There proved to be little evidence of early accomplishments that
>could not be explained by other known determinants of early progress.
>We also found no evidence of innate attributes operating in the
>predictable and specific manner implied by the talent account, apart
>from autistic savants with exceptional skills that appear to stem
>from an involuntary specialization of their mental activities

Little evidence maybe, but there is some evidence, surely this just
highlights the fact that true talent is a very rare commodity? This
brings us back to the definition argument doesn't it?

> Where early precocity is encountered it is invariably preceded by
> ample opportunities and encouragement. In addition, when prior
> differences in knowledge, skills, motivation and other factors known
> to affect performance are controlled for, there is little evidence
> for individual differences in ease of learning. High levels of
> accomplishment invariably require lengthy and intensive training,
> and even people who are not believed to have any special talent can
> reach, purely as a result of training, levels of achievement,
> previously .thought to be attainable by innately gifted individuals
> ( Section 3.3 ). There are also logical and conceptual arguments
> against the notion that talent is explanatory ( Section 3.4 )

Exactly. How can a child show early precocity as a pianist for
example, if s/he hasn't the opportunity? Of course early precocity is
encountered when preceded by encouragement and opportunity because it
is fuelled by the parents'/teachers' ambition. This is a circular
argument. The research for learned expertise shows that quite ordinary
skills can be learned to a high degree, and I will concede is evident
in other accomplishments. We're back to definition again. Compared to
the general population, individuals attending special establishments
for art, music, dance and drama, look and are pretty talented, but of
all these `talented' people, only a very small minority are
exceptional. Highly accomplished people may develop technical
perfection through practice, but, this isn't talent.

>Large amounts of regular practice were found to be essential for
>excelling. Studies of long-term practice and training suggest that
>individual differences in learning-related experiences are a major
>source of variance in achievement

Yes, I agree with this, all skills need to be practised, and practice
may make perfect, but it still doesn't account for the quality that
makes some people shine.

> The evidence we have surveyed in this target article does not
> support the talent account, according to which excelling is a
> consequence of possessing innate gifts. This conclusion has
> practical implications, because categorising some children is
> discriminatory. The evidence suggests that such categorization is
> unfair and wasteful, preventing young people from pursuing a goal
> because of teachers' or parents' unjustified conviction that they
> would not benefit from the superior opportunities given to those who
> are deemed to be talented.

Maybe the evidence reviewed here doesn't support the talent account,
but this doesn't make it conclusive. I couldn't agree more with
discriminatory aspect. That is exactly why we need to find some way to
determine how talent can be identified to ensure that the right
children are given the right opportunities. Not just given to those
whose parents hold the ambition which may be merely programmed into or
is even lacking in the child. There should be some element of choice
for the individual child.

> It could be argued that the talent account is not totally wrong, but
> simply exaggerated and oversimplified. In our list of the five
> defining attributes of innate talents (Section 1.1), two are
> relatively unproblematic : (1) individual differences in some
> special abilities may indeed have partly genetic origins, and (4)
> there do exist some attributes that are only possessed by only a
> minority of individuals. Talents in this very restricted sense may
> be said to exist.

This is more realistic. I'm undecided about the genetic origins, but I
do believe that true talent belongs to the minority, and does `in this
restricted sense exist'. Surely that is the whole point, if it is not
restricted, it's not talent? As I have already stated, I think that
everyone possesses some talent in the special quality sense. I also
believe that high levels of accomplishment can be achieved in all
areas with encouragement, tuition and practice, but with specific
reference to the `arts', I can only see exceptional talent as being a
rare gift that is related, in some way to expressed emotion.

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