Now that I have a kid who is really talented, I can see what not really talented looks like.
For example, his skateboard teacher tells me he’s great. But I think to myself, well, is he one of the best in the country for his age right now? Probably no. I see the 12-year-old who just landed a 1080. My son is not on track for that, I don’t think. And also, I took him to skate in Los Angeles, and I have to say that no one stopped us to tell us how blown away they were with his skating. (Wondering if you have a kid who is talented in sports? You can study the process of identifying sports talent here.)
This is what happens with cello, though. Almost every teacher who sees him tells me he’s special. He is constantly thinking in terms of cello music. He practices on his own. He tells me he wants to be Yo Yo Ma. He asks about Yo Yo Ma’s path, to make sure he’s on it. He does not need me to teach him. He is way past my ability to learn to play the cello. He will do anything the teacher tells him because he trusts her. He has had ten teachers, literally, to find this one, and he knows she’s special.
And he’s six.
I read that most scientists who discover something big know they will be scientists by age seven.
And I can see, in my own life, that I was enthralled with sports from an early age, always wanting to be great at them, always looking for a way to stand out.
In the academic (and therefore unavailable to you) article titled Beyond Bloom, the authors say that most people who have great talent identify it by age seven. This rings true to me. And the authors say that talent development is largely a product of what the parents provide. The lessons, the equipment, the time, that all happens outside of the school system.
I can see that in my own life. I played professional beach volleyball because that was the sport that was open to me after I missed all the sports that required my parents to help me. This was the place I could rise to the top in sports. I probably could have played indoor volleyball, or basketball, or other you-need-to-be-big-and-tall sports, if my parents had been the talent development types. But they were not.
The other thing the academic research shows is that most Nobel Laureates were students of previous Nobel Laureates. Extremely talented people sniff out the extremely talented in order to carry on their legacy.
Which is to say, there are three stages of talent development. According to psychologist Rena Subotnik, these are: The early stage, where the child self-identifies; the middle stage, where the parents teach the kid how to practice and learn the skill in a disciplined way; and the performance stage, where the talented individual discovers something new.
The really interesting thing to me about all this is that it happens outside of school. Because school is geared toward well-roundedness and also learning what the school can teach. The school is not set up to give an individualized learning plan to the exceptional students. If nothing else, we can’t afford that, as a nation, (which is why it is policy for most public school systems to only award costly individualized learning plans to special needs kids who sue the school district. It would be too costly to award these plans proactively.)
There is not a lot of data to show that gifted kids do better in life by being forced to score well in a wide range of tests. Gifted kids can get by on good social skills and their gifts. We have no evidence that school teaches good social skills — believe me, if school could do that, we’d have a cure for autism. But we do have evidence that being out of school can promote gifted kids fulfilling their potential. And that is probably what gifted kids need most in order to find success in their world.