David Shenk and The Genius in All of Us

[above: David Shenk]

David Shenk and the Genius in All of Us
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 4/22/10

Like most Americans, I was given an IQ test in the first grade and was told I fell just short of what the teachers and parents around me called “gifted.” Several times a week from elementary school through high school, the students labeled “gifted” were separated from the rest of us each week to be given extra attention, extra praise, more diverse and interesting schoolwork, and even a better teacher.

Occasionally as a grade-schooler, I asked to sit in on “gifted” classes because I’d heard the lessons were so interesting. It was true, and in those classes I felt more stimulated and inspired than ever before, but when I inquired about attending “gifted” sessions regularly I was told to remain in “average” classes – where I was frustrated and flailing – and not come back.

To the adults I met as a child, a person’s capacity for achievement could be decided around age six or seven by a simple equation: genes + environment, or “nature + nurture.” Given an extra dose of more expansive learning by dynamic teachers, they thought, a “gifted” child could metaphorically grow from a caterpillar into a butterfly. But they were convinced that the rest of us are eternally mired in the sad-but-true stasis known as being average, wholly incapable of growing wings no matter the effort or interest.

Here’s a shocker: some students labeled “gifted” go on to impressive success and some do not, just like the rest of us. So how does a childhood overachiever, constantly heaped with praise on the way to becoming high school valedictorian, end up dropping out of college and working in a fast-food joint? How does a troubled high school dropout who never stepped foot in a university become a renowned artist and intellectual whose lectures are treasured worldwide?

David Shenk, author of the best-selling new book The Genius in All of Us, has the answer, and it’s a simple one: nature multiplied by nurture.

“No one is genetically bound to mediocrity,” Shenk wrote. In fact, even Alfred Benet (inventor of the original IQ test) insisted that we “protest” against the idea that “intelligence is a fixed quantity.” Instead, our genes interact with our environment, and the success of our scholarly, creative and professional evolution is directly related to the cultural exposure we’re afforded and the demands put on us by our environment and ourselves.

“It’s pretty easy in life to take a mediocre path,” Shenk told me in a brief recent interview. “Bad parenting can get us there pretty quickly. So can lousy schools and/or a limited sense of one’s own potential. But the possibilities of achievement are never fully cut off. We remain adaptable throughout our lives.”

Richard C. Brown, who founded the Contemplative Education department at Boulder’s Naropa University in 1990, wholeheartedly agrees.

“The learning environment is a key element in developing intelligence in the broadest sense of the word,” Brown remarked. “It’s a matter of expanding our learning relationships. What we mean by intelligence or genius has been widened in recent times…but we don’t know how to recognize it and usually our teachers don’t. Part of the reason for that is that we haven’t learned how to actually observe or contemplate individual genius…then if we recognize it, we don’t really know how to cultivate it.”

In a 1958 lab study documented in The Genius in All of Us, psychologists at the University of Manitoba raised two genetic strains of rats (labeled “dull” and “bright”) in three distinct environments – “enriched,” “normal,” and “restricted” (or devoid of stimulation). Expecting to prove that, as Shenk wrote, “each strain would get a little smarter in the enriched environment and a little dumber in the restricted environment,” the results turned out to be astonishing.

The “dull” and “bright” rats – genetically consistent over many generations—maintained the stability of their labels under “normal” conditions but performed almost exactly the same as each other when raised in an environment rich with stimulation or condemned to a boredom-filled upbringing.

Not surprisingly, the game-changing revelation that Shenk calls “the gene-environment interactive dynamic” applies to humans as well. Understandably, a child labeled “average” and simultaneously confined to cultural isolation in a place where edifying books, art, teachers and experiences are all but foreign can easily fade into the indistinguishable masses of unremarkable individuals. But, given the same chance as those we label “gifted” – and a whole lot of what Shenk describes as “deliberate practice” (at least 10,000 hours of focused, singular activity in which our previous limits are painfully stretched)–almost anyone can flourish.

The work has to start early and almost never cease, as evidenced in the extraordinary successes of people like Mozart and baseball legend Ted Williams –accomplished heroes we regularly portray as having “God-given talent.” With Williams, Mozart, Michael Jordan and Yo-Yo Ma as examples, Shenk asserts that what we call “talent” does not exist. Instead, deliberate practice (the crux of Shenk’s idea of how to cultivate genius) functions in tandem with motivation and stimulation (plus the genes we’re given) to create magnificence in everything from mathematics to basketball.

In short, with the exception of those with aberrations such as autism that make one part of the brain much stronger due to the necessity to overcompensate for another, geniuses are “trained,” not born.

Still, none of this new information suggests that schools should stop giving IQ tests to children. However, perhaps we should stop telling children that their IQ circa grade-school represents their promise in life, or even their prospective IQ.

“Humans are not assigned, by genetic code or by IQ test performance, to achievement levels –learning is a matter of participating within social and cultural systems, not bubbling in the correct circle on a test,” says University of Colorado physics professor Noah Finkelstein, a leading researcher in studies of student learning in physics and science.

[above: Noah Finkelstein]

Finkelstein lamented the reality that “our society builds expectations into the way we test and sort students,” adding that “these expectations do not match nor reflect the potential capacities of our students.”

Shenk concurs.

“I don’t think we have to replace the test itself,” he told me. “The test works fine. It’s how we talk about the test that’s the problem. We need to make sure that parents and kids understand that tests reflect current abilities – they do not reveal one’s inner potential.”

That goes for those labeled “gifted” early on, too.

“Childhood achievers are frequently hobbled by the psychology of their own success,” Shenk wrote in a chapter about prodigies who unravel after childhoods spent in the bosom of “praise for being technically proficient at a specific task.” Prodigies often “develop natural aversion to stepping outside their comfort zone,” manifesting the “terrible fear of new challenges and of any sort of flaw or failure.” Thus, post-childhood success can be thwarted, partly due to impenetrable social walls constructed in seclusion amid the effort to sustain acclaim from adults who recognize them only as a so-called whiz-kid.

Getting back to that “promising beginning” is consistently excruciating.

“It certainly can be difficult for a once-prodigy to find his or her way in adulthood,” Shenk said, “and that includes maintaining a passion for one’s craft. Part of it involves a new understanding of achievement as a collection of skills, rather than innate giftedness.” Another part is ungluing oneself from the oppression of imposed identities that can be unbearable.

Shenk’s diversely impressive career trajectory – which has seen him shift from co-authoring a cult-classic on the Grateful Dead to lecturing on information technology and penning a hugely successful book on Alzheimer’s that became a PBS film –also reveals a writer and thinker always eager to remain both iconoclastic and interested. Surely our educational systems could encourage this kind of far-reaching scholarship from kindergarten on.

According to Naropa’s Robert C. Brown, “When we are educating for only a narrow band-width of intelligence, it becomes very fragile and unsustainable. When we start thinking very broadly about the meaning of education, then individual excellence starts to manifest. This kind of education can happen for everyone.”

It’s obviously harmful in many ways for children who are praised for proficiency in one area to be withheld from meaningful opportunities to grow in what Finkelstein calls “a rich mixture of individual and environment.” But how fortunate that each of us has the chance to survive suffocating social and cultural structures and become a whiz-kid at any age.

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