Debunking the talent myth

Posted by Senay on Feb 15, 2016

I have looked back through the previous tasks and cannot see anything that obviously conflicts with any of the messages about learning and memory given by Matthew Syed and Daniel Willingham in the article. If anything this seems to add to the concepts and notions already discussed about how all students are capable of success given the right support and can achieve real learning with the right techniques. This is one of the founding principles of the Khan Academy which we have already considered in detail.

Syed’s ideas about the destructiveness of the concept of natural talent present an interesting angle on the way success is viewed (particularly in Western culture). It is now so clear to me that describing success in any field in these terms is not only unhelpful but clearly damaging. It strikes me how important the language that teachers use is to the overall progress of their students. Praising effort and not talent is paramount, but I fear that the disease of praising talent is so far imbedded in our language and culture that this is not something that will be easily changed. I wonder whether the culture of celebrity which seems to have grown over the years is a barrier to changing this mind-set. As a society we seem to instil in each other the idea that some people are naturally good at things and celebrate this (without considering the effects on those labelled as “untalented”). Willingham touched on the ideas of natural talent in an article we read in an earlier module when he stated that maths is often considered a subject that people are either naturally good at or not. This clearly complements the ideas of Syed. Importantly, it was in the same Willingham article that the importance of culture in learning and maths in particular was explored. Culture is clearly central to the way people learn, progress and succeed.

Willingham sets out a clear structure as to how we can make the most of our memory (and by definition how teachers can help their students to as well). Both Syed and Willingham highlight the importance of engaging with material. This is key in how memories are created and recalled. Syed’s emphasis on “high quality practice” sums up the key to success in a nutshell. This is for me what it all boils down to. Willingham’s ideas about how to train memory are very useful in terms of micro-managing individual students and helping them develop strategies to retain more information and achieve more conceptual understanding. The idea that we need to learn how to learn is often overlooked in the modern education system. Perhaps if more time were devoted to this in the formative years better student engagement could be achieved in the long run and following on from this more successful students.


  1. pepsmccrea
    19 February 2016

    Great analysis here, especially how you see the ideas in this thinkpiece adding to ideas from previous thinkpieces. You talk about quality practice – I’d be interested to know more about what this looks like, and what low quality looks like too.

    • Stephen
      22 February 2016

      Nice piece. I found your thoughts interesting as they run so counter to my own. Do you feel it is more the way students are encouraged rather than whether talent exists? Clearly there are genetic differences between people and it is natural to assume that this may allow for people who could be better at something than others. That is not to say that practice doesn’t have its place, but I feel Syed is actually just presenting the idea of Growth Mindset using different terms.

  2. Glen
    22 February 2016

    Lovely thinkpiece, my question to you though, is how do you account for students with psychological limitations such as dyslexia and dyscalculia? do you feel that the application of the memory techniques put forward by Willingham would have the same impact on those students even though there is a stark difference in perceived “ability and “talent” before any teaching?

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