Developing Talent in Young People

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

In a 1984 study, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that one-to-one tutoring was dramatically better than conventional classroom teaching. Students randomly chosen to receive one-to-one instruction performed at the 98th percentile (of the conventionally instructed control group). Because one-to-one instruction doesn’t come cheap, this finding became known as Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem.

His imperfect solution to the problem was mastery learning, where students perform corrective work until they master the material before moving on.

Now, where I would have concluded that conventional classroom teaching is largely a waste of time, Bloom and other educational psychologists concluded that we can close the achievement gap. Sure, I suppose, if you don’t let the sharper students move ahead.

Anyway, this led me to pick up a copy of Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People, which looks at 120 individuals who, before the age of 35, had demonstrated the highest level of accomplishment in piano, tennis, swimming, sculpture, math, or research neurology.

None of them got there through conventional classroom training. Across most of the fields studied, the young experts-to-be had parents with some interest, but not necessarily any exceptional skill, in the field. The piano players’ parents, for instance, generally had classical music playing on the record player at home, and some played piano as a hobby, but they weren’t themselves concert pianists. The tennis players had families who spent the weekend at the country club, playing tennis. The mathematicians and neurologists had families who discussed important ideas around the dinner table.

The athletes and musicians generally got put into lessons fairly early, and their parents made sure they practiced. Although basically all of the experts described themselves as fast learners who picked up their field faster than the other kids, Bloom places zero weight on this and more or less dismisses the notion. He (rightly) points out that none of these future experts showed up as a prodigy, able to perform like an adult expert overnight. They all put in long hours of practice over the course of years, moving from a friendly local teacher or coach, to a more serious instructor, to a world-class one, as they progressed.

The mathematicians and neurologists, by the way, considered their early schooling a waste of time, at least as far as math and science were concerned. The mathematicians in particular disliked most of their math classes, with the exception of those “classes” where the teacher left them alone with a good math book to work through independently. Outside of school, they tended to like science and engineering projects, and many had their own home laboratories. They didn’t really get any coaching in their field until college and grad school.

The sculptors, by the way, scoffed at art classes and did their own art projects as they grew up — but few had any access to working artists, for guidance, or real materials, for sculpting, until art school.

Again, conventional classroom teaching is largely a waste of time — but mentoring talented and motivated students is immensely valuable.


  1. Wobbly says:

    “None of them got there through conventional classroom training.”

    That’s damning, but hopeful if you are willing to be unconventional.

  2. Isegoria says:

    That sounds about right, Wobbly. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

  3. Entering 7th grade, I had the opportunity to opt to be bused 5 miles to attend an academically distinguished junior high rather attending the much closer local tween-hole. My alma mater-to-be was in an older neighborhood that was income rich but increasingly child poor. The demographic deficit prompted them to import students from neighboring districts to fill their enrollment gap.

    I was in the “gifted and talented” class for English and “social studies” for all 3 years of junior high. The first two years the 7th, 8th, and 9th graders were all mixed into the same class. Toward the end of my 8th grade year, there was a proposal to create separate classes just for the 7th graders. As a pro forma measure, our teachers invited us to submit a critique of this proposed change. My critique panned the change because, in my personal experience, the role of the 8th and 9th graders in breaking in 7th graders was essential to making the 7th graders more efficient class participants.

    However, the change went through (largely because of pressure from upper income parents who wanted their child to be “gifted and talented” too). The results were predictable: the 7th graders found themselves a bunch of academic overachievers without anyone to oppress them into shape. So the little wonders ran wild and their academic performance suffered.

    Several other factors contributed to this problem but it points out something that studies focused on teacher performance often miss: the role of peers in education. If Steven Pinker’s rough estimate from his Blank Slate is correct and adult outcomes are the result of 50% genetic inheritance, 30% peer influence, and only 20% parental influence, focusing everything on the adult role in children’s education, especially if the adult teacher’s contribution is only responsible for a fifth to a fourth of results, seems misplaced.

    In my own experience, much of the one-on-one academic mentoring within school came from older peers while working on projects. The solution is obvious: the education system needs to manufacture better peers.

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