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Overrated ‘talent’

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Monday 11 June 2012

A warm welcome back to school on this soggy Monday after a rather un-June-like holiday. Normally at this time of year we are able to spend relaxing lunchtimes out on the school field, but for obvious reasons at the moment that is sadly not possible. It feels more like March than June!

I hope that all students and their families had a pleasant Jubilee/half term break. I made a somewhat feeble attempt to look at the Thames pageant on the Sunday at the start of the holiday. Having had lunch in central London I walked down towards the Strand at about 2pm, thinking that we would be able to find a spot to view the boats. I immediately realised that I had been hopelessly naïve, as the Embankment by this point was entirely closed off to new arrivals, and the bridges were either closed or so packed that it was impossible to get anywhere near the front. I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed with the large screens which were supposed to be showing the events to those who could not see the river itself. The one on Blackfriars Bridge, where I was, was small, and positioned far too low to be easily visible from any distance. By about 3.30 it was raining so hard that we retreated into a nearby coffee shop to warm up and dry out!

The National Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s on Tuesday was a splendid event with the usual high standard of music we expect from such occasions. It would have been easy for Rowan Williams to set his sights low in his sermon and simply offer a paean of praise to the sovereign. I was encouraged that he was more ambitious, and addressed specifically the importance to and for all of us of dedication and commitment to service, and denounced in pretty strident tones some of the evils which beset our society: “public service is possible and … it is a place where happiness can be found. To seek one’s own good and one’s own well-being in the health of the community is sacrificially hard work – but it is this search that is truly natural to the human heart.” The whole sermon can be read at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2514/archbishop-of-canterburys-sermon-at-diamond-jubilee-service .

Somewhat closer to home, a local Tunbridge Wells church has made a generous gift to our students to mark jointly the royal jubilee, the Bennett jubilee, and the anniversary of the King James Bible. We have been donated a copy of the King James Bible for every single student in the school, and we will be distributing these, with commemorative plaque in the front of each one, to students over the coming weeks. It is a remarkably open-hearted gesture, and we hope it will be something which students who were at Bennett in this historic year can keep and treasure in the years to come.

The school holidays are a time when I find I am able to catch up with my reading. I always have a large pile of unread books looking accusingly at me at other times, so it is great to have the chance to look at a couple of them. One of them which I am reading now is Bounce by Matthew Syed. Syed is a British table tennis champion, and accumulated an impressive record of success during the height of his career. There is a good YouTube clip of his 5 minute interview with the BBC’s Nick Higham on the programme Meet the Author: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMj_yz4lz_E . The core of his message is to do with overrating of ‘talent’. Referring to how he became so successful himself, he draws the conclusion that we often suffer from what he calls the ‘iceberg delusion’ when we reflect on others’ and our own performance at a challenging task or activity. The tip of the iceberg is what we see, but we fail to notice what is holding the tip above water, the nine-tenths below the surface. This he likens to the thousands hours of practice and training which underpin all excellent performances. We have a tendency to assume that people who achieve highly in whatever field are able to do so because they are ‘clever’ or ‘talented’ or ‘innately gifted’. Using a very wide range of research as well as his own experience, Syed shows that this is very rarely the case, and that high achievers and peak performers nearly always reach the top of their field because they spend many hours and many years practising and honing their skills.

It all comes down to belief: if you believe that ability to do something well is a matter of in-born talent, when you fail, you will give up, because you conclude that you don’t possess the talent. If on the other hand you understand that high achievement has nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with hard work and effort, you are much less likely to give up when you fail, because you know that continued effort will pay off.

This has obvious relevance for us as educators. Getting young people to believe that they absolutely CAN achieve highly, and that they are as capable of doing so as the next person, is central to what we need to do as a school and as teachers. In getting this message across, we have to contradict so many messages coming from the media, from our absurd and over-rated celebrity culture, and even from some within the education world, who perversely and so damagingly attribute ‘intelligence’, ‘giftedness’ or ‘talent’ as qualities which are somehow fixed in young people. They are not. All of these can be acquired, developed and improved. But we need the right mindset first.

I have mentioned before in this blog the startling statistic on the achievement of different ethnic groups from poor and affluent backgrounds. In most cases, students in the UK from poor backgrounds perform less well at school than those from affluent backgrounds. But there is one very notable exception: children of Chinese origin. With these children, poverty or wealth makes no difference whatsoever to their achievement. Chinese children are not ‘innately’ more clever than other groups. But they tend to have an attitude, given to them in their upbringing by their parents and the wider community, that tells them that hard work will bring success, whatever their family or social background. And it is true. We all need to take a lesson from their book.