Saturday, January 10, 2009

Developing talent in young people?

Benjamin Bloom is well known to teachers for his taxonomy of questioning. In the late 80s Bloom wrote a book called 'Developing Talent in Young People'. Bloom was interested in what contributed to the greatness of talented individuals and what role did schools play in their success

I have always been curious about the early life of talented individuals so I was interested to access a copy of an article written on the subject by Benjamin Bloom published in 1985. I have  wondered what creative individuals like NZ filmmaker Peter Jackson would've been like at school and what kind of school would such creative individuals invent if they were given the challenge? One film maker George Lucas has done this.

In the future schools will need to focus on developing the talents of all students rather than academic success for those students who are best suited to the current education. This is the position of creative expert Sir Ken Robinson. Howard Gardner is obviously a key figure in defining the range of multiple intelligences or talents students have.

An emphasis on a personalised talent based eduction would dramatically transform education and would result in less students leaving feeling failures, or worse still alienated, as at present.

Bloom studied 120 individuals who, before the age of 35, had demonstrated the highest level of accomplishment in artistic, psychomotor ( physical) and cognitive fields.

He was interested in; what was the role of the home, teachers, and schools; and were such people initially so rare and possibly a special type or were they largely a product of special circumstances; and what were the patterns of development found in each field? Bloom was interested in their learning and the relationship with schools

The first thing that was noted was that the majority of individuals became involved at a relatively early age, usually before the age of 12.

In the majority of cases one or more of the parents had a personal interest in the in the talent area and gave the individual great support and encouragement. Some of the parents were above average in in the talent area but most parents exemplified some of the special qualities and lifestyle and provided role models for the young learner. Sometimes the interests were so strong all members of the family were expected to participate.Small signs of interest were encouraged and rewarded. Bloom makes the comparison to the process where very young people learn their mother tongue, it begins at the optimal time is and strengthened through natural interaction. The families involved take for granted that the children will learn their talent and language.

The curriculum of the home consists of a special language, a set of expected behaviours, and a set of values or a lifestyle.For the most part children are taught and learned on a schedule in variety of ways and to a standard that seem to someone in the family to be appropriate. Quite frequently early learning exploratory and very much like play.

In contrast much of school learning is highly formalized even in the early grades ( note , this refers to American education of the era). Teachers follow curriculums, learning is seen as as serious task and is differentiated from play. School programmes are determined by the age of the child and, while there may be some adjustment made for individuals, normally each individual is instructed as a member of a group with some notion that all get nearly equal treatment. A child who deviates may be given special help but this is normally restricted for those doing poorly. At home each learner is treated as unique. Bloom makes the point that only in small one class rural schools would a similar situation be seen.

For the talented individual all of the instruction is received on a one to one basis. Many talented individuals receive regular individualized private lessons. In such setting the 'teacher' works with each individual, diagnosing needs and providing corrective feedback, and sets practice to be supervised at home. The development of each individual was seen as unique; the child's learning was seen as central and involved continual adjustment. Standards set by the teachers were always tailored to the specific needs of the learner.

In contrast instruction at school emphasizes group learning with students in ability groups.The group is taught as whole or in sub groups. There is a cycle of teacher explanation and demonstrations and student responses and practice with minimal adjustments made for individuals. Because of differences in ability some students are expected to better at the same set tasks. As a result some students develop a positive view of their progress while others develop a sense of inadequacy. When home and school work together greater progress is made but when home and school relationships are poor progress suffers.

At home talent development emphasizes individual progress relative to the learner with parents following up practice set by the 'teacher'. The home supports the 'teacher' by monitoring practice and giving encouragement especially in the early years.

Learners with talents are are spurred on by regular recitals, concerts, sports events, competitions etc where the child's special capabilities are displayed publicly. These real periodic events provide important benchmarks of the child's progress and also provide opportunities for individual to exchange experiences with other outstanding peers even if they did not win. In schools there are few such public events to reward performances.

Bloom admits that home school comparison in regard to talent development could be seen as unfair. School provides a general education for all while talent development focuses on the individual in a particular field. Bloom however believes that that much may be gained by noting major differences in the process and the results. For talented individuals schooling was rarely seen as central to their lives but, at the same time, talented individual spent up to 15 to 25 hours a week practicing. They also lived and breathed their particular talent. Their aspirations for the future in their talent ruled much of their lives. They were willing to put in the effort, hard work, and make sacrifices to achieve; everything else was done in moderation.

In contrast, at school, students are expected to do everything well according to timetabled instruction, and this limits the sense of engagement provided to those who pursue talents out of school. The school does not permit students to become deeply involved in any one part of the curriculum and indeed students are expected to follow courses and to achieve on a narrow range of learning areas.

Schooling, writes Bloom, provides an assembly line with each student and teacher concentrating on only a particular part of the educational assembly line. Unlike the talented individuals unique and integrated learning experience students at school receive their learning in isolated tasks. Bloom writes that this provides a sort of tunnel vision which lack integrative meaning.

Bloom concludes his article by describing the relationships between talented individual and their high schools. Some students were 'A' students, others barely met graduation requirements, while some rushed to to get away from unhappy circumstances.

Three possible scenarios were discovered.

For one group of the individuals Bloom studied talent development and school were almost two separate spheres of their life. Both made great demands but with minor adjustments students were able to meet both sets of demands. They worked on their talents before or after school. Whatever, schools did little to assist in their talent development and their talents were seldom discussed at school.

For a second group school experiences were a negative influence in their talent development. Schooling was something to be suffered and they were frequently urged to pay more attention to what the school expected of them. These students were outsiders and were often labeled by other students as different.

For a third group Bloom found that some schools were more encouraging and such schools became a major source of support, encouragement, motivation and reward for the development of the talent. The school experience expanded the individuals interest and made the development of their talent real and important. Many of the students recalled unusual and exciting teachers whose enthusiasm and encouragement was contagious. Such teachers went out of their way to support their talented students. They were helped to meet peers with similar interests and involved in events to celebrate and give recognition to their particular talents. Such schools provided, writes Bloom, 'a shelter in a world where few people shared their interest and the intensity of their involvement.'

Concluding Bloom believes teachers ought to ponder the differences been talent development and school learning he has uncovered. Teachers, he says, might like to think about whether their schools provide the conditions essential to fulfil the realization of all their students potential; and to think about what makes teaching and learning most effective and why is that some individuals become committed to learning while others become distracted?

He reports of very few schools where talent development and schooling enhanced each other.

He concludes with the observation that, after age 12, the talented students students spent as much time on their talent field each week as their average peer spent watching television.

Time to put Bloom's research into action!


Anonymous said...

Tom Peters in his book 'Re-Imagine' wrote that American High Schools could not have been better designed to kill talent development than if they had been designed to do so.

Thank goodness for extra mural activities.

I wonder when a country will put talent development of all students at the top of their reform plans?

According to the late Peter Drucker the first countries to do so will be 'winners' in the 21st C.

I have to admire your persistance!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Can't say I am hopeful of any real changes ahead in education that will focus on developing the talents of all students.

When the industrial age finally collapses things may change? Maybe the current financial crisis will spread and trigger all sorts of changes?

Maybe one day it will seem as sensibe to acknowledge and amplfy all the talents , gifts and passions of all students?

How long can society put up with a school system fail so many? When will we wake up to the fact that extra mural activities hold one of the keys to developing a new conception of schools?

When will schools become part of the students inter-connected wired 21st C world?

How long can we put up with the anger of alienated young people?

How long can the ideas of Dewey, Bloom, Robinson, Eisner, Claxton, Gardner and others; and all the pioneer teachers be ignored?

Why is it that subject centred schools are such slow learners? They seem more equiped to dull, or 'turn off', than 'light the fires' of learning.

Answers lie within the writings of Bloom - what conditions are required to ensure the talents of all are developed?

George Lucas ( seems to have practical answers. In NZ Peter Jackson's Weta Workshops is an organisation that taps the talents of many who might not have done so well at school.

Anonymous said...

And maybe pigs will fly!
But don't give up, we need all the alternative points of view we can get - true heretics.

Mr Eames said...

Thanks for this Bruce , Great stuff, very interesting.
‘Schools of the Future’ I would like to think that schools now are looking towards developing the talents of all students. Providing a range of unique opportunities and exciting experiences in order for all students to achieve. I agree with you though that it isn’t practiced everywhere and isn’t necessarily on the agenda for many schools’ development. However lets hope there are teachers who are looking towards and exploring the ideas of Blooms etc.

Thanks, I am enjoying regularly reading your blog.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for your comments Mr Eames. I am reassured that, after looking at the creative work of your class on your own blog, that creativity exists in such rooms as your own. My own criticism of education,and Blooms, refers to what happens, or doesn't, in too many secondary schools.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Bruce!

Malcolm Gladwell would agree with all you say here. His latest book, Outliers, covers in anecdotal and general detail much of what you've summarised and more.

Check it out.

Ka kite anō
from Middle-earth

Bruce Hammonds said...

Tena koe 'Middle Earth'

I have read Gladwells two previous books but have only read reviews, and listened to one interview about 'Outliers', but his views do seem to agree with Bloom's research - about culture, circumstances and effort etc.


Flying_Rower said...

I have exactly this problem at present. My son who is talented at maths is being disillusioned and held back in class because the slower students are struggling with concepts he has mastered. At 9years old I am worried that he is becoming disruptive because he is bored and rather than segmenting the class by ability they try and satisfy all ability levels but this ends up with neither of the two extremes being happy. Conseuqently I am having to provide a home tutor to satisfy his maths teaching requirements. Interesting article thanks.
If anyone knows of programmes for gifted primary school maths students in the UK I would be gald to hear of any!