The Practice We Don’t See, pt. 1

Anders Ericsson asserts in various studies that the key to proficiency is practice. Demonstrating “practice makes perfect” doesn’t sound very impressive, but throughout Anders’ research, no prodigies have emerged. Even appearances of talent degrade over time, as concerted practice overshadows its ostensible effects, and the talented become distinguished from the layfolk only by their dedication. Some studies question the very existence of talent, with good evidence to back up their scepticism.

This research is very relevant to my work as an educator. If talent is only the propensity to practice, and that such “talent” can be fomented by carefully realized incentives and environmental stimuli, then what are we really searching for with programs like TAG? Every dollar spent on such talent-hunts is a dollar not spent creating talent. That said, it’s not hard to demonstrate that not all college freshmen are created equal. Even six year olds have clear propensities and proclivities, even if said six year olds don’t seem to be doing much in the way of active practice. I submit that exposure to and involvement with the very world around us, in every moment, are a kind of practice. This is where talent as we know it comes from: the practice we don’t see.

More on that later.

PS: As a TAG beneficiary, I think the program is very valuable. But in the face of evidence questioning the notions of “talented” and “gifted,” it becomes irresponsible of us not to perform some rigorous and sceptical examination of institutions that rely on their existence, if only so we may improve them.