Butler County Times Gazette
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Marching to a different drummer

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  • Adding to the discussion about whether children need to work harder to achieve the standards set by the Common Core curriculum is a renewal of the controversy over innate ability vs. practice. A recent paper in the journal Psychological Science concludes that contrary to widely held belief, deliberate practice is not as important as has been argued in the past.
    This meta-analysis of the domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated showed a great variance in its importance, and the authors of the study conclude that although practice is necessary to achieve expertise, it is not as important compared to inborn gifts.
    Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” gave currency to what he called the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that success in any field is largely a matter of practicing a specific task for about 10,000 hours. But he also tried to show that there are many more variable in an individual’s success than either innate ability or their own efforts. This certainly rings true at a time when the inequality of opportunity for children depending on where they live, the parents they have and the schools they attend has increasingly been noted.
    Important questions here are: What level of expertise is being considered? How does this relate to learning and achievement generally? Are we talking about winning the gold medal in Olympics, finding the cure for cancer or scoring 800 on the SATs? It may be true that maximizing inborn talent to become a star in any field requires hard work and practice along with talent. But how does this relate to a goal of becoming educated or attaining a skill level that can enhance the pleasure of an activity?
    Ken Robinson, in his book “The Element,” defines the element most significant for individual development as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. Although the examples he gives are of people who have become stars in their respective fields, his deeper point is that in each instance their talents were not nurtured by the usual educational channels but by their own passionate pursuit.
    The argument about which is more important, talent or practice, seems to suggest that the most valued goal is to become a star. This reflects our current culture in which stardom and celebrity are rewarded not only with extravagant admiration and attention but financially as well. Individual worth is too often measured and rewarded in terms of the ability to achieve such status.
    All of this reduces the problem to an either/or question. But is the talent vs. practice question really the one on which to focus? Almost all children have some particular innate ability, and the real challenge is how to acknowledge that ability in a way that enables them to reach their own potential.
    Too often individual innate ability is not recognized because it doesn’t fit the existing educational model or requirements. At the other extreme, an indication of a particular talent can lead to the attempt to impose Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” and practicing to achieve a certain kind of success takes over to the detriment of other values or goals.It is obvious that practice is part of developing valuable skills that will provide rewards to the individual. It is how those rewards are defined that can make the difference.
    Page 2 of 2 - As parents, we play a big role in defining those rewards. We can also recognize when our children may march to a different drummer and support them in realizing those differences in the best way possible for each of them.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.

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