My best friend recommended a book to me called The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk. I was prepared to be oppositionally defiant. After all, my professional reason for being is people who have been identified by IQ tests as being geniuses (or near geniuses or at least really, really smart). Luckily, I had left a window open in my mind. Shenk’s argument isn’t that there is no genetic component in giftedness. Rather, his argument is that what we call intelligence is a complex intermingling of natural gifts and environmental factors. Who can’t get on board that train?
The thing that Shenk’s book made me think about is one of the common characteristics of gifted learners: reluctance to fail. Bear with me while I make a psuedo-Socratic argument here. Imagine you have gifted child x, whom we’ll call Lobelia. Lobelia has a quick mind, as evidenced by her knowing all her numbers and letters by the age of nine months. Whenever she displays this talent, she is praised with some variation of “Oh how smart you are, Lobelia!” (Go read Carol Dweck for more on that.)
When Lobelia is three, so goes to preschool with her parents and everyone else she knows well aware of her inherent genius. At preschool, the teacher is teaching colors, and Lobelia, used to hearing herself praised for her intelligence by demonstrating the things she can do, is unhappy with the idea that there are other children who already knew their colors, while she is having a little difficulty remembering that violet and lilac aren’t the same color. She doesn’t want to work on colors at school. She only wants to work on numbers and letters. Lobelia’s mother is likewise upset. She reads about giftedness on the internet and makes a quick diagnosis of the problem. She decides that Lobelia, because she is gifted, doesn’t like to do things unless she can do them perfectly.
Instead of seeing Lobelia’s issue as one of praise gone wrong or a normal learning curve or asynchronous development, Lobelia’s mother sees Lobelia’s reluctance as proof of genius and actually encourages the behavior, allowing her to work on letters and numbers exclusively because that is her “gift.”
The extra time spent on the letters and numbers makes those skills even stronger, thus reinforcing the initial impression. As Lobelia progresses in school, she is only encouraged to work hard at the things in which is already comfortable. Whenever she is faced with something that doesn’t fit in her comfort zone, she rebels, and this rebellion is again seen as proof of life for her giftedness.
And yet it was perhaps the initial reluctance itself that made the “gift.” If she is spending more time on the things she likes to do and is praised for, she will become better at those things, and the initial impression of her giftedness in them, which may have been simply a precociousness, through work and effort has now become a developed talent.
This dynamic is a logical fallacy, it is common, and it is dangerous. Perhaps my first blog posting is not the place to be controversial, but that’s the way I see it…gifted learners are not naturally easily frustrated by things that don’t come easy. This is an adult-centered affectation. We have created that monster. We have seen the enemy, and it is us.
Shenk’s book is a great read, at least partly because he successfully teases apart giftedness and achievement, which is, you must admit, tricky to do.
My Worth Reading Rating: 4