The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, November 19, 2004

Conversations during a spate of parents' evening interviews led to much repeated variations of the stance: "has talent; talent is curse; talent makes above mediocre performance effortless; therefore talent being squandered."

The pattern is so familiar that I ended up printing out an action plan solely suited to these students.
I ended up awarding them to eleven talented no-hopers in the same (final year) class.

Refreshing, then, to read that it's not a phenomenon restricted only to my classroom, but recurs in the world of competitive professional sports.

Reading a Spectator book review of sports fiction, of all things, I recognised both some of my students and my lessons:
Baseball is not a fair game. Money helps. The New York Yankees — the game’s aristocrats — have a payroll three times bigger than the impoverished Oakland As. The Yankees simply buy the best players. The As had to come up with a different way to win. They had to find the flawed champions whom the sporting village underestimated and hence under-priced. They needed to find a scientific method for picking up bargain athletes on the free market.

Talent, they discovered, is rated too highly. One cliché that bounces around most dressing-room walls is, ‘He’s got the talent, so he’s bound to get better.’ In fact, talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement. And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve. Super- talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues. Like high-school beauty queens, they crumple at the first adult rejection.

Conclusion one: the As stopped signing high-school prodigies who looked great in a baseball uniform and just had to train on, and started signing college players who had a proven track record of being able to score runs — and something going for them beyond baseball. Everyone said the As were mad. But the runs kept coming.

If talent was overrated, the As discovered that personality was too often ignored by scouts and managers. The baseball community overestimated its own capacity to graft real psychological resilience on to inert, talented young men. But it also suffered from a reflexive fear of players who operated outside the predictable range of jock-sportsman routine behaviour. Many coaches wanted clay models to mould with their own imprints of what a champion should look like. The difficulty, of course, is that real champions want to be themselves. So while show ponies were patiently indulged by the baseball community, independent-minded performers were written off as difficult ‘eccentrics’. Principle two: we’ll have the eccentrics, you can keep the show ponies.

The As also re-examined how a game is won. Received wisdom — such as the truism that games are won by pitchers not batters — proved not to be so wise after all. The As stopped generalising about large chunks of the game that were too complex to analyse statistically with any accuracy. Instead, they broke the game up into tiny pieces with definite outcomes. They did to baseball statistics what derivatives traders did to the financial markets, and struck gold by exploiting market inefficiencies in exactly the same way.
Source [my emphases]

The students with talent but poor self-discipline: check.

Ignoring those who don't fit the mould: I've spent two years trying to identify and encourage the wilful eccentrics I spot - students whose behavioural patterns may break the standard for bright children, but whose IQ scores and verbal ability show far more potential than is evident in subject tests, and trying to develop their abilities in analysing media and literature.
With limited succes - the process is largely individual - I have to happen to spot them; I have to effectively mentor them out of school hours to get a result.
Making a system that identifies these children is an increasingly fashionable idea where I work.

The only part of this analysis I score well upon is my lesson planning - seven years back, like most UK teachers, I stopped planning projects, and began the process of demystifying and breaking down examiners' expectations, breaking the 'game' up into 'definite outcomes'.
Plenty of times it feels reductive to have done so, but it impacts so strongly upon examination results that it's undoubtedly a method that's here to stay.

But what to do with the holy fools of talent? Education isn't, in an inner city comprehensive, selective in the way a professional baseball team has to be. Students aren't hired or rejected according to a type.

Or ... perhaps that's it? Perhaps selection of streamed classes strictly by ability / previous performance alone is the issue?