THIS EXTRAORDINARY book sweeps away many of our conventional notions about talent and "giftedness" and requires a shift in perspective.
Most of the literature about gifted children deals with ways to identify them so they can be given special training, as if the gifted were a breed apart. But Benjamin S. Bloom, a Chicago University professor of education who is known for his research on how children learn, maintains that almost any child can become highly talented in almost any field if the circumstances are right.
He bases this conclusion on a recently completed four-year study during which his team interviewed 120 outstandingly talented pianists, sculptors, swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians and research neurologists, chosen by objective standards. Though world-famous, these people spoke freely on condition that their names never be revealed. They were young enough (mostly under 35) that many of their parents and teachers could also be interviewed.
Bloom and his team found surprisingly consistent themes in the early lives of these highly talented people, regardless of the particular field in which they excelled. In painstaking detail, with hundreds of quotes, this book describes how great talent is made.
The process begins in the home, of course. But it doesn't happen in the pushy, deliberate way that one night expect. Rather, according to Bloom, everything depends on whether the child is made to feel important or special in something that the parents genuinely value -- some activity that at least one parent enjoys or admires very much. And this cannot be faked.
Thus, musical families tend to reward their child's first plinking at the piano with a great deal of fuss and attention, but can't help showing less interest in how the child plays ball (which usually comes later in such families, anyway). The reverse is true in athletic families. One of the outstanding sculptors remembered that her parents preserved all her childish drawings with great care, but never saved the stories she wrote. Similarly, the mathematicians' parents were very pleased when their children asked interesting questions but paid little attention to their art work.
Bloom reports that 81 percent of the musicians who were interviewed came from families that either performed or regularly listened to music, so it was quite natural for them to pick out tunes on the piano while they were still toddlers. Even in the homes with no apparent interest in music, music lessons were taken for granted and started at an early age -- usually before 6.
The first teachers were not outstanding, however. Usually they just happened to live in the neighborhood. But they were almost always warm, maternal and lavish with praise or rewards. The team found that during Phase I of talent development, children are enticed to play with a musical instrument or crayons, or in the water, or with various kinds of puzzles, because these activities are fun and bring many rewards. The children soon come to feel that they are "special" because they can do these things with ease, and this gives them an invaluable head start in a particular field.
PHASE II BRINGS precision and discipline -- generally with another teacher who is more skilled. By then the children are "hooked" on having a special status because of their talent and quite willing to work for it. Furthermore, regular practice has become a way of life for them. Bloom's study shows that the parents of highly talented people almost uniformly have a strong work ethic. In most of these families, "not doing well or one's best was just not acceptable," as one of the tennis players recalled.
By the age of 12 or 13, the children seem possessed by a desire to excel, and their parents -- increasingly convinced of the child's special talent -- are making more and more sacrifices to help them along. Entire families move to be near a really good teacher or coach. The children double or triple the period of time they spend studying, practicing or performing.
Finally the most determined children with the most committed families gravitate towards master teachers -- an inner circle of a few, top-ranking people in each field who hold the keys to the best training and also provide the best opportunities for jobs, fame and fortune. Under the guidance of these master teachers, they begin to develop a personal style and can look forward to making real contributions of their own.
Many children drop out at each of these stages; the circumstances must be just right for them to continue to the top, and usually, only one sibling in a family makes it. But Bloom and his five co-authrs point out that it is almost impossible to predict which children under the age of 10 will eventually become outstanding. They conclude that there is an enormous pool of potential talent available in the world -- talent that can either be developed or wasted.
People who devote themselves to art, music, athletics, mathematics or other fields enrich themselves as well as their society, Bloom declares. What matters is not getting to the top, but developing the talent itself -- a quest in which people find meaning and enjoyment. He would like to see much more encouragement for it.
Because the subjects' identities had to be disguised, some of the case histories in this book are rather wooden. The book itself is repetitive in spots, as the same quotes are used over and over again in different contexts. The authors are not very lively writers.
Nevertheless, Developing Talent in Young People is indispensable for anyone who wants to learn what it takes to produce excellence in any field. It should also prove quite enlightening for parents of young children, and for the families of youngsters whose talents have already begun to emerge.