07 June 2012

Talent Schmalent

Those of you based in the UK might remember the Channel 4 series Faking It, where a member of the public would be intensively trained over the course of 4 weeks to try to be able to "fake it" as a professional in a sphere they had never been in, but that was loosely related to their day-to-day lives.  A burger-van operator turned cordon bleu chef, a punk singer made into a classical conductor.  OK, so their skills weren't always entirely generalisable -- the conductor would struggle to conduct anything other than the two pieces he'd practiced, for instance -- but it was still an amazing demonstration of what an average member of the public could achieve... albeit with a more expensive regime than an average member of the public could normally afford: 24 hour a day company from people within the field.

Six years after the program stopped filming, the format has been resurrected in a slightly altered form by another studio, as Hidden Talents.  Instead of finding interesting individuals and training them up, this series starts off with the potentially pseudo-scientific notion of taking hundreds of applicants and putting them through a series of exams to discover their "hidden talents" and then pick the best ones to show on the programme.

I came across this as one episode has been mentioned on a couple of language websites, what with it being based on a "hidden talent" for languages.  Now I'm not convinced that they stuck to the exam results, because the guy they finally chose had a particularly tellie-friendly back story -- he left high school without doing any A-levels and was living in a homeless shelter.  Now of course I'm not saying that he wasn't capable and that he didn't get high marks on the exam (he probably did) but I just find it hard to believe that they didn't play a little bit fast and loose with the figures to get the guy they wanted on screen.

Now I've seen a couple of language aptitude tests in the past, and I'm not particularly impressed.  As with all tests, they can only test your current level of knowledge and not really your ability to be taught.  The most thorough language tests will try to get you to deal with concepts like conjugation, declension and word order without explanation.  So it says you'll pick up the initial concept pretty quickly.  So what?  Does the saving of half-an-hour at the start of the course make that much difference in the long term?  Is the language test putting off people who would actually do just as well in the long run as those that pass?  It's impossible to say, because for the most part, the people that run these tests only have data for those that passed in the first place.  (If anyone knows of any blind study that's given any empirical evidence for language batteries, I'd be very interested, but I doubt any exist.)

This is OK if you're running the US Defense Language Institute, where the number of applicants vastly outstrips the number of places available as they can afford to turn lots of possibly good candidates away -- heck, they really have to turn lots of possibly good candidates away.

It's also OK if you're producing a programme like Hidden Talents, because you only need one.

However, it's a horrible message to be sending out -- that people have specific talents.  On the surface it seems like a positive message (when everything goes wrong, it's just that you haven't found your talent) but it's actually pretty corrosive.  How many people give up on languages and say "I haven't got the head for languages" or "I'm no good at languages"?  People genuinely believe that they are inherently incapable of learning languages, with no real evidence, and it gives them an excuse to give up.

If talents exist, we still have no way of genuinely identifying them.  Furthermore, these talent characteristics are miniscule compared to the potential for education.  A 16-year-old coming out of a 21st century school knows almost as much about the world about them as some of the top scholars of the ancient world, and that's all down to education.  As the old phrase has it, most of us are nothing more than "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants".

Isaac Newton did not invent this phrase -- here's the original citation for the phrase (taken from Wikipedia)
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

Now, whenever I say there's no such thing as talent, someone always mentions sportsmen and physical pursuits.  I could claim it's a bad analogy, but actually, I don't think it is.

International competition sports can only be won by one individual (or team) out of the billions in the world, so yes, the most physically gifted generally win... if the training and equipment is equal.

But what if the training and equipment isn't equal?

I apologise for repeating myself, but I've used the example of marathons in a previous post.  The reason I'm repeating myself, though, is that it was in the comments section, so people may well have missed it.

The marathon: one of the great challenges of distance running.  And yet there are now people who run the length of six marathons in six days...in the Sahara desert!  And that's not to mention finishing times.  In the first modern Olympic Games (ooh, topical!) in 1896, the marathon was won by Spiridon Louis, in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds.  As I said previously, in the 2011 London marathon, 939 people beat his time.  The world record for the marathon currently stands at 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds (Haile Gebrselassie).  How much of these improvements is down to better training regimes and better race-day nutrition?  How much is down to choice of footwear?

Overall, the lion's share of skill in any field appears to be teachable.  The talented will always be "best", but only by a whisker.

We can all be "good at" anything, as long as we don't expect to be the best.  After all, out of 7 billion people, it's pretty much impossible to be "best" at anything.

PS.  Sorry I haven't progressed with the study of novels.  I was with family at the weekend, and I never got my momentum back afterwards.  I'm travelling at the weekend as I'm starting a new job on Monday.  If the weather's bad where I am, I might make some progress in the evenings.  Otherwise, I'll be out exploring.


Anonymous said...

Great post!

Owen Richardson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Owen Richardson said...

[Deleted and reposted cuz I realized I put my email address in plain format. No idea if bots trawling the net for addresses to spam is actually a problem worth bothering against, but whatever.]

Hey! I discovered you as "Cainntear" on HtLAL. Your posts on the Michel Thomas Method were great! Really lucid and informative. I just learned (by reading back through your blog), that you were actually banned from the forum there! Bloody ridiculous...

Anyway! I really want to talk to you about the Michel Thomas Method. I think I’ve managed to track down the actual theory behind it! And I do mean “theory” in the true scientific sense of the word!

Like, a real “Theory of Instruction” that you can use to find an optimized way to teach anything to anyone.

I think it should allow you to create highly efficient instructional programs in kinda the same way Computer Science allows you to create highly efficient computer programs. Ya know, empowering the art with a solid logical and empirical grounding.

Everything in MT’s courses that made ‘em work so well was cuz he used a fair approximation of it. (As far as I can tell, he developed his approximation independently. That* would* fit with what we know about general patterns in the history of science, but it aint really important anyway.)

Jonathan Solity actually talked about it in that franchise-supported “The Learning Revolution: The secrets of the Michel Thomas Method revealed”.

It’s just that rather than “revealing” it, per se, he more “didn't reference it until a hundred pages into the book, and then failed to properly explain its relevance or highlight its importance from the tangled mass of basically useless junk it was embedded in.”

Remember the “Siegfried Engelmann and Direct Instruction” bit? Yeah, that’s actually the key!

It wasn’t until WAY into following up on the reference that I realized just how important it was, though. Took a lot of studying before the “aha!” moments started flowing.

Anyway, I’ll cut this short until I know you got this message. I got a bunch of resources I can give you, and I should be able to make it easier for you than it was for me to get from the stage of:
- “Huh?”
- “Okay that’s... neat, I guess?”
- “So... what?”

to the stage of:
- “...Holy shit, the engineering possibilities!”
- “This. Changes. EVERYTHING!”

It’ll still take a fair bit of struggling on our part to actually get a handle of APPLYING the theory, but it’s definitely doable.

Hell, I think that one MT quote, “My intention in creating my method was not to teach languages quickly. I created it to change the world” might be more than just bullshit.

I mean, I’d give well better than 50% odds that a real “learning revolution” is actually possible. Like, it could actually be all that: dramatic and extensive. And (mad props to Malcolm Gladwell) accessible, tangible, and replicable.

Anyway yeah. My email’s:

owen [dot] a [another dot] richardson

and it's at gmail.com

Gimme a shout!

Nìall Beag said...

If you're here because of the HTLAL discussion on Direct Instruction, you may be interested in this post giving my views on the topic.

Owen Richardson said...

And not that I really expect anyone to read it, but in the interests of full disclosure, in principle, just to have it out there, may I also post our email exchange that followed this comment?

Just thought I should be classy and ask if you was down wit dat.