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Archive for May 13th, 2011

We’ve been here before with Bounce. Joan Freeman‘s book, Gifted Livesis a delightful perspective on the same issue as Matthew Syed explored: she followed 210 gifted and/or talented people closely over many decades, publishing her data as she went, but here she focuses in detail on twenty representative lives. One of the great values of the book is that these life stories are supported by a good knowledge of the baseline background data and of the findings generated by strong research.

Freeman couldn’t have chosen a more compelling story to draw me in than the life and death of Rachel Wallace. Her mother’s reaction to Rachel’s giftedness warped her life and it was only in its closing months, after her diagnosis of cancer at the age of 38, that she found peace in a deep spirituality that seemed miles away from the field of mathematics that had been the arena of all her triumphs and disasters (page 42):

Spiritual intelligence means being open to a kaleidoscope of ways of knowing which blur distinctions between the physical and psychic worlds. Truly spiritual people, as Rachel had become, have special abilities to meditate and visualise different ways of being while tapping their own inner knowledge. Her spiritual gifts meant she had an awareness of unity between herself and others, feeling herself part of the human community and the cosmos.

Not surprisingly, her ‘awareness of unity‘ resonated strongly with me because of its central place in the Bahá’í vision of the world.

Freeman draws a distinction between gifts and talents (page 6):

. . . I’ve used the word ‘gifted’ to mean outstandingly high mental ability and ‘talented’ to mean outstandingly high artistic ability, though the two overlap.

She unpacks some of the implications of  what she means by ‘gifted,’ for example (page 14):

Gifted thinking is not just hard work, dealing with deep problems or being inspired by startling flashes of insight, it often means a big leap in mental efficiency, which means the gifted can do more with what they have. The gifted can keep competing ideas and interpretations active within working memory till they sort out a way of co-ordinating them.

Her preamble about it not being just hard work shows where her take on this all diverges from the basic thesis of Bounce. She has case studies in her book that she feels point in that direction fairly unequivocally – the story of Margaret Sweeting for instance (page 196):

After four years in that highly selective music school, it became clear to her teachers, as well as to Margaret, that her aspiring classmates had far more talent than her. All those years of dedicated practice had got her through the auditions; . . . . . Chetham’s had taken a chance giving her a place; but not all chances pay off. Her talent was looking a little threadbare.

Practice very definitely does not always make perfect, Freeman feels (page 204):

Margaret obviously had talent. . . . But her talent was not in the top bracket. . . . . In spite of those 10,000 hours of practice which are said to make latent ability into expertise, it was clear in Margaret’s case it did not lead her to a life as a famous pianist.

Syed of course does not claim that it is practice and only practice that makes perfect. Other factors need to be added to the mix such as mindset and the quality of practice, the latter creating the ability to hold in mind a massive aggregate of data as though it were one single chunk. I’ve explored all these ideas in previous posts.

Great Hall, Clare College, Cambridge

It is not in this debate, though, that the main interest of this book lies for me.

First of all, it is in the many different challenges that being gifted or talented throws up for people, often from a very young age. Among the factors which these life stories illuminate are the attitudes of parents who see their child as gifted and don’t cope well with that idea, the response of the educational system to giftedness and how schools tend to exploit it to boost their ratings at the expense of the child’s emotional and social development, how moral awareness and giftedness do or do not relate, and the way that gifted women can be denied recognition in a most damaging way particularly if their gifts, as far as peers and teachers are concerned, lie where women are not supposed to shine, i.e. in the sciences or mathematics,.

Secondly it’s in the resonances the book evokes of experiences in my own life, not though in the sense of being particularly gifted. It’s in terms of being whisked at the age of 18 out of an ordinary environment in the north west of England to Clare College and the heady and elitist milieu of Cambridge University in the early 60s, a dislocation of the kind which many of the people in this book experienced and found very hard to handle, as did I.  Or in terms of teaching in a stiffly traditional grammar school in Tottenham in the mid-60s and seeing how creativity was stifled and rule-driven conformity was rewarded even in English Literature, not a topic that should be used to clone minds into the same patterns, again an issue for many in this book.

There is so much to say that it will not easily fit into the tight framework of a thousand word post (nothing new there, then, for me) so I’m going to have to spill over into at least one more. I may not be able to keep the threads of the different challenges separate from my own experiences either and may need to move freely between them if there is any hope of doing the complexity of my responses to this intriguing book some kind of  justice.

So, next time I’ll pick up on the education theme and see where it takes me.

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