With the school year wrapping up in most places, it’s almost like Jan. 1 again. Summertime schedules offer many a fresh start and a lengthy to-do list.
For students and teachers, summer is a time of renewal and hard work. Many teachers are involved in district-level curriculum planning. Others are working on advanced degrees or certifications. Most kids are working hard, too, and it’s not limited to a neighborhood lawn mowing business or family farm or ranch work. Summer camps proliferate, some sponsored by the Boy and Girl Scouts of America and religious organizations, others devoted to sports. Camps for art, astronomy, engineering, math, music, and science are thriving as colleges recruit future students. The best academic camps are more than a talent search. Wise and supportive camp directors see intense summer experiences as a way to help kids understand what they need to do to pursue a passion. That passion might turn into a profession or something even more unusual, world-class performance.
Geoff Colvin, in the sensible and readable "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else," overviews what researchers know about talent and why it’s important to kids, teachers, and adults of any age.
Colvin explodes the myth that the highest achievers are born with more talent than the rest of us. Put another way, our parents and teachers had it right. A lot of hard work beats a little raw talent any day. With great insight, Colvin details the kind of hard work that matters, work that can make each of us smarter about the way we approach our work and more accomplished at what we do.
It’s not just about putting in time -- it’s using that time in particular ways. The most successful learners are the best self-regulators. They set high but achievable goals. These learners have a heightened sense of self observation, what psychologists call meta-cognition. They’re good at thinking about their thinking and not making the same mistakes over and over again. They are willing and able to self-evaluate. Perhaps most important of all, they know when they need help in analyzing and overcoming their errors. At that point, the only way to reach the next level is with the assistance of ever better teachers. Those who improve seek out more adroit teachers. Such teachers are able to move learners out of a comfort zone and into a learning zone, but not a panic zone in which progress freezes up.
Colvin confirms what others in psychology and education studies have long maintained. The key to better performance is a strong combination of stimulation, structure, and support. All of us grow in environments that are intellectually stimulating, offer opportunities to learn, and value curiosity. Structure means finding ways to help us learn. A learner working in isolation is a recipe for disappointment. Roles and responsibilities are presented in positive, forward looking ways that build on success. Put it all together, it’s being smart about working very hard over the long haul.
In just about all of the work I do with K-12 and college faculty, the first thing these faculty identify as crucial to outstanding performance is work ethic. To achieve world-class performance, work ethic means profound dedication and taking on risks. That’s something we aren’t very good at helping school-aged kids understand. No wonder, then, that most adults are risk averse, especially in the context of complex work environments where collaboration and learning with and from others counts.
For this reason, the ideas in "Talent is Overrated" apply to organizations as well as individuals. The next time you wonder why the performance in your work place is ho hum, apply the Colvin metric. Is the environment high in stimulation, structure, and support? If it isn’t, don’t expect world-class performance. Summer is a good time for organizations to renew themselves. Start by reading "Talent is Overrated" and think about your work. Then, share the book with work colleagues and spend some time considering actions that would improve the stimulation, structure, and support in your organization.
Audrey Kleinsasser is a professor at the University of Wyoming, directs the Wyoming School-University Partnership, and is a member of Wyoming’s P-16 Education Council.