The Genius in All of Us

Annie Murphy Paul offers an interesting review of David Shenk’s new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, IQ, and Talent is Wrong .  Shenk’s central argument is that intelligence and talent have been misconstrued as static genetic gifts.  The idea that great talent is genetically bestowed or that, similarly, intelligence is innate is common enough that these twin truisms can be uttered in most quarters without much controversy.  But our belief that the genetic lottery destines some for greatness and dooms others for tragedy may be based on an incomplete understanding of the relationship between our biology and the environment.    Shenk contends that, while genes certainly exert a strong influence on all of our traits and behaviors, genes are constantly activated and deactivated in response to multiple environmental inputs.  As Paul writes, “…our genetic inheritance is constantly interacting with other forces, some of them under our own control.”

Shenk goes on to argue that exceptional ability is not necessary inborn, but is the result of deliberate, repeated practice.  Paul summarizes Shenk’s argument:

Shenk is saying that we need to forget about genes as immutable “blueprints” and talent as a “gift” bestowed at birth. “We cannot allow ourselves to think that way anymore.” Rather, we should see the human genome as a giant control board, with thousands of switches and knobs that turn genes off and on or tune them up or down, and we should see talent not as something we have but as something we do, as a process, not a thing (Paul’s words).

So how does a person get to be really good at something? It’s the time-honored answer to the question How do I get to Carnegie Hall? – practice, practice, practice. Whatever you want to do well, Shenk says, you must do it over and over again in a manner involving “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” including “frequent failures” (Ericsson). This kind of “deliberate practice” can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible.

This is similar to what our own Dr. Malbert Smith has written.  In Next Generation Assessments , Smith writes:

These breakthroughs also rest upon the assumption that reading, writing and mathematics are skills that can be taught and there are critical instructional components that facilitate their development. Research suggests that a novice develops into an expert through an intricate process that includes the following components (Glaser, 1996; Kellogg, 2006; Shea & Paull, 1996;Wagner & Stanovich, 1996):
· targeted practice in which one is engaged in developmentally appropriate activities
· real-time corrective feedback that is based on one’s performance;
· intensive practice on a daily basis that provides results that monitor current ability;
· distributed practice that provides appropriate activities over a long period of time (i.e., 5–10 years), which allows for monitoring growth towards expert   performance; and
· self-directed practice for those times when a coach, mentor or teacher is not available.

An important question for teachers and policy makers to address is: How can this intricate process be applied in the classroom to promote the development of expertise in reading, writing, and mathematics?

Smith’s question is an important one.  With more research indicating that intelligence and ability are malleable and that deliberate, targeted practice plays a key role in the development of exceptional ability, or in moving from novice to expert, educational leaders must ask what sort of instructional practices lend themselves to these principles.

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