I am going to talk today about personal talent. What is personal talent? It is exceptional ability to select and achieve difficult goals that are a good fit with a person's unique profile of interests, abilities, and social contexts (Moon, 2001, May). I am going to argue that it is essential that we recognize that personal talent exists and can be developed. My talk has three parts. First, I will explain what personal talent is so you will understand the construct. Then I will discuss the importance of personal talent for the field of high ability studies. Finally, I will suggest some methods we can use to help gifted children develop personal talent. In other words, my talk is centered around three questions:
What is Personal Talent?This first question is foundational, but I will not spend much time on it today because I have answered this question at great length elsewhere (Moon, 2001, May, 2002). I am defining personal talent as developed expertise in self-understanding, decision making, and self-regulation. The individual with personal talent understands his/her strengths and weaknesses; makes good decisions; has clear, high level goals for his/her life and is successful in achieving those goals even when faced with setbacks along the way. People with personal talent also experience high levels of life satisfaction and well being. They are self-actualizing. Clearly, the development of personal talent is a worthy goal. If we are to develop it, we must first understand it. In this section of my talk, I will discuss four aspects of personal talent: personal talent knowledge and skills, personal talent studies in psychology, the incremental nature of personal talent theory, and individual differences in personal talent.
Personal Talent Knowledge and Skills Because personal talent represents expertise, the individual with personal talent, like any other expert, will have acquired specific knowledge and developed specific skills. A person with personal talent will have a large knowledge base about the psychology of goal attainment and be skilled in applying that knowledge to his/her own life to achieve self-selected goals related to achievement and well being. For example, an adolescent with personal talent would know the difference between positive and negative self-talk. In addition, she would be able to use her knowledge to stop automatic negative thoughts when they occur. Suppose she receives a poor mark on a quiz in chemistry and her initial, automatic thoughts go something like this: "I'm a failure; this material is too hard for me; I can't learn it; I'm just no good at chemistry." She would deliberately stop those thoughts and replace them with more positive ones such as "Wait. I can do this. I've mastered difficult scientific concepts before. I can do it again. I'm going to study harder and ask my teacher for help so I will do better on the next quiz."
As another example, from sports this time, let's suppose an Olympic triathlete with personal talent knows her optimal arousal level for racing and is skilled in strategies for increasing or decreasing her arousal level so that she can achieve her optimal level of arousal at the beginning of each competition. She notices that she is feeling overly excited and anxious before the start of the triathalon at the Sydney Olympics. What does she do? She closes her eyes and focuses on taking slow, deep breaths until her arousal level returns to her optimal pre-race set point. Both of these examples apply knowledge from psychological research to individual situations to improve performance outcomes.
Knowledge can also be applied by a person with personal talent to improve well-being or happiness outcomes. For example, a student with personal talent who is vulnerable to depression would be familiar with Pennebaker's research showing that writing about difficult daily events has been shown to improve many well-being outcomes including mood and resistance to illness (Pennebaker, 2002). When her family experiences a lot of stress because her father loses his job and her mother is ill, she decides to spend 30 minutes a day writing in a journal. She finds that this daily writing keeps her moods and her health on an even keel, even though her family circumstances are difficult.
Because improved performance and increased well being are equally important outcomes in the development of personal talent, a great deal of current psychological research relates to personal talent. Fields like educational psychology, sport psychology, and talent development psychology build our knowledge about strategies to improve academic, cognitive, and achievement outcomes. Fields like personal and social psychology, counseling psychology, and family psychology build our knowledge about strategies to improve relationship and well-being outcomes. In these fields and many others, today's psychologists are creating the personal talent knowledge base.
Personal Talent Studies in PsychologyLet's look at three examples of current psychological research from outside the field of high ability studies that relate to personal talent and contribute to our understanding of personal talent processes. First, some studies in psychology are actually studies of personal talent even though they might not use the term. I would put studies of resilience in this category (Bland, Sowa, & Callahan, 1994; Masten & Marie-Gabrielle, 2002; Werner & Smith, 1982). Resilient individuals have learned how to overcome obstacles and adverse circumstances so they can achieve their dreams. That is personal talent. From studies of resilience we have learned about many individual and environmental factors that contribute to personal talent.
Second, many psychological studies have contributed to the knowledge base of the personal talent domain. For example, studies of noncognitive factors that facilitate achievement such as self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), attributional style (Graham, 1991; Weiner, 1985, 1986), and intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000) have revealed a great deal about internal factors that mediate goal attainment. We can use this knowledge to teach young people about these noncognitive factors and help them develop skill in applying them to their own lives in order to improve their ability to meet their goals. For example, we could explain the concept of self-efficacy to our students and teach them how to use positive self-talk to increase their self-efficacy for specific challenging tasks. This is rarely done in education. It is much more common in sports (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). Sports psychologists work in just this way to help athletes achieve their performance goals.
Finally, a few studies have investigated ways of helping people develop personal talent. So far, there aren't very many of these intervention studies, but a few exist. For example, many studies have shown that the trait of optimism is beneficial to well being (Peterson, 2000; Seligman, 1991). However, only recently have researchers begun to take this knowledge and use it to create interventions that will help people develop a more optimistic explanatory style. When they have done so, their interventions have been effective in increasing well being and alleviating depression (Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, & Seligman, 1995).
Personal Talent is an Incremental TheoryI would like to turn now to another important characteristic of personal talent: it is an incremental construct. What does that mean? It means people aren't born with personal talent, they develop it through learning and experience. In an extensive program of research, Carol Dweck has shown that the beliefs people have about their abilities and personality traits make a difference (Dweck, 1999). She classifies these beliefs into two categories: incremental and entity. People with incremental beliefs see their abilities and personality traits as malleable. They believe their abilities can be increased and their personality traits can be improved. Entity theorists, on the other hand, believe that their abilities and personality traits are fixed at birth and can't be changed very much by either people or the environment. People with incremental beliefs about their abilities and personality traits are far more resilient than those who hold entity beliefs.
I am an incremental theorist when it comes to personal talent. I don't believe people are born with high levels of personal talent. Instead, I believe that personal talent can be developed. Indeed, I define personal talent as developed expertise in the domains of self-awareness, personal decision making, and self-regulation. Until now, however, the domain of personal talent has been largely informal and those who have developed expertise in the domain have been largely self-taught. One of the goals of this talk is to change that. I believe that personal talent is so important to life satisfaction and success that we should be systematically teaching personal talent knowledge and skills in educational settings so more children, especially more high ability children, develop personal talent.
Individual DifferencesThe final thing I want to point out about personal talent is that it is the high end of a continuum. Most people are personally competent. They have sufficient knowledge and skill in the personal domain to live ordinary lives. A few are personally talented. These individuals have exceptional ability to create lives that fit their goals and circumstances. Personal talent will be especially obvious among those who are achieving very difficult goals or those who are working on balancing multiple competing goals.
A few people, notably those with malfunctions in the executive centers of the forebrain due to trauma (Damasio, 1994) or chemical imbalances (Barkley, 1997; Brown, 1999), will have great difficulty with the core personal talent processes of personal decision making and self-regulation. They will have trouble developing even basic levels of personal competence.
SummaryPersonal talent is exceptional ability to select and achieve difficult goals that fit your interests, abilities, and social contexts. It is developed expertise in the domain of self management that is directed by the individual toward self-selected outcomes that include well-being, happiness, personal relationships, hobbies, and career achievements. It exists on a continuum. Those in the middle of the continuum possess personal competence. Those at the high end of the continuum possess personal talent.
Why is Personal Talent Important?Personal talent is important for those of us interested in high ability for at least four reasons. First, personal talent is a relatively new and uncharted talent domain in its own right. When mountain climbers are asked, "Why would you want to risk your life climbing a treacherous wall of ice like Mount Everest?" they often reply simply: "Because it is there." I would reply similarly when asked why I might want to study personal talent. "Because it is there." Mountain climbers enjoy the challenge of climbing mountains. Researchers and scholars in the field of high ability studies enjoy studying talent development processes. Now we have a new domain on which to focus our efforts.
The second reason personal talent is important for us is that gifted children need personal talent if they are to maximize their potential and build satisfying lives. By definition, gifted children have the potential to select difficult goals for their lives. By definition, gifted children have long and arduous career paths ahead of them. Often gifted children have multiple talents and so need sophisticated skills in managing competing priorities and goals, an aspect of personal talent. Hence, we need to get better at helping gifted children systematically develop personal talent if we are serious about helping them self-actualize.
The final two reasons that personal talent is important to the field of high ability studies are more theoretical: personal talent theory broadens our focus and expands our understanding of motivation. Personal talent theory broadens us because it increases the range of outcomes that are the focus of our interventions and research. Historically, our field has focused heavily on achievement outcomes and neglected other important outcomes such as happiness, well being, and life satisfaction. Incorporation of personal talent into our thinking would shift our primary focus to life satisfaction and lead to more individualized and humane approaches to the talent development process. This shift would be especially beneficial for talented individuals who wish to respond to the social complexity of the 21st century by building lives that balance personal and professional goals. In the school setting, the shift would remind us to focus on helping students develop self-awareness, independence, and self-regulation in addition to our usual emphasis on mastery of academic domains like math, science, and creative writing. It would also remind us to assess variables like happiness and well-being, as well as achievement variables, when evaluating the success of gifted education programs.
Finally, personal talent enriches our conceptions of giftedness because many of our theories of giftedness include motivation. Some of our theories view motivation as a component of giftedness (Renzulli, 1978, 1986; Tannenbaum, 1986). Examples include Renzulli's three ring conception of giftedness and Tannenbaum's psychosocial definition. Both of these theories suggest that giftedness only exists when high levels of dedication, task commitment, and resilience are present. Other theories depict motivation as a facilitating, internal factor in the development of giftedness (Gagne, 1985, 1999, 2000; Sternberg, 2000). For example, Gagne’s dynamic theory of giftedness depicts motivation, volition, and self-management as intrapersonal catalysts that help convert "gifts" into "talents." In both types of theories motivation is prominent. Yet, these theories provide little guidance in how we can assist high ability youth in developing motivation. Indeed, they tend to take a trait or entity view of motivation rather than a dynamic, incremental view of it. Personal talent theory provides something that is currently missing in our theories of giftedness. It gives us a map of the terrain of motivation and an incremental belief system about motivation. It also provides tentative guidance on how we might begin helping gifted children systematically develop motivational knowledge and skill--the final topic in my talk this morning.
How Can we Help Gifted Children and Adolescents Develop Personal Talent?Gifted children need to develop personal talent in order to fulfill their potential and find happiness in their adult lives. Yet, much in modern life and schooling mitigates against the development of personal talent. Gifted children today spend most of their time in artificial environments where conformity and passivity are rewarded. Such environments are not conducive to the development of personal talent. Indeed, they may inhibit it.
Personal talent is developed expertise in life management. How can gifted children develop such expertise? First, they need to acquire knowledge about themselves, their environments, and relevant psychological principles. Second, they must develop skill in personal decision making and self-regulation i.e. goal selection and goal attainment. Gifted children who develop personal talent will be far more likely to fulfill their potential and achieve happiness as adults.
If we want our brightest young people to develop personal talent so they can construct an extraordinary and satisfying life, we must recognize the existence of talent in the personal domain and make concerted efforts to help gifted children develop personal talent. How can we do that? There are many ways. Teachers, parents, counselors, psychologists, and community leaders can all contribute. This morning, I am going to limit my discussion of ways to develop personal talent to things teachers can do in classroom settings. First, I will discuss indirect methods of personal talent development. Then I will provide some suggestions for the development of more direct methods.
Indirect Methods of Developing Personal TalentIndirect methods of developing personal talent will seem familiar to most of you because many of these methods are recommended practices in gifted education. Gifted educators have intuitively gravitated toward instructional strategies that simultaneously develop content expertise and personal talent. I learned this early in my career. My dissertation was a follow-up study. I surveyed and interviewed seniors in high school who had participated in the PACE program six to nine years earlier (Moon & Feldhusen, 1994; Moon, Feldhusen, & Dillon, 1994). PACE was a pullout program based on the Purdue-Three Stage Model for gifted and talented children aged 8-11 (Feldhusen, Kolloff, Cole, & Moon, 1988; Kolloff & Feldhusen, 1981, May/June). The program stressed the development of creative and critical thinking skills, creative problem solving skills, and independent projects rather than the teaching of core content in traditional academic subjects like mathematics. The children in the PACE program I studied were grouped together and taught by a teacher with training gifted education. They met for two hours a week, 7 months a year--a minimal educational intervention by any standards. I wanted to know if such a minimal intervention would have any lasting effects.
It did. Why? My answer today would be "Because it developed personal talent." PACE students learned personal talent skills like creative problem solving, persistence, and time management. PACE graduates made comments like "PACE gave me self-confidence--enough to go out and achieve goals for myself" and "I learned it's not bad to be smart. It's fun! ... I mean it's okay to be different; It's okay to be curious about everything; it's okay to be excited about learning ... I think PACE helped a lot. That's where it all started." (Moon et al., 1994). In summary, PACE helped participants develop self-awareness and resilience, personal talent skills that they perceived helped them feel better about themselves (a well-being outcome) and succeed in high school (an achievement outcome) (Moon, 1993).
Achievement outcomes.Many of the traditional models of gifted education that have been developed in the United States are like PACE. They emphasize instructional strategies such as interest assessments, creative problem solving, and independent learning that build the personal talent skills needed for achievement. Examples of such models include Renzulli and Reis's Schoolwide enrichment model (Renzulli & Reis, 1985) and Bett's autonomous learner model (Betts & Kercher, 1999). Like PACE, these models are content-free. Instead of prescribing curriculum, they prescribe learning processes. Students have choices. They select the content they study based on their own interests and pursue in-depth, real life investigations of the topics they choose. Such programs are assisting students to develop the goal selection and goal attainment skills that comprise personal talent.
Similarly, many of the principles of differentiating curriculum for gifted and talented learners encourage the development of personal talent. For example, the learning environment adaptations suggested by Maker and Nielson include an emphasis on complex, learner-centered instructional environments that foster independence, flexibility, and high mobility (Maker & Nielson, 1996). Such learning environments are much more likely to foster personal talent than more traditional teacher-centered classrooms that emphasize lectures on academic content. As another example, the recommendations for science curriculum for gifted learners proposed by VanTassel-Baska foster personal talent because they combine challenging scientific content with investigations of real scientific problems (VanTassel-Baska, 1994).
In summary, the field of gifted education has been at the forefront of the movement to create more adaptive learning environments that foster positive achievement motivation and skills in creative problem solving and independent learning. Such learning environments build personal talent along with academic talent and should be stressed by educators who believe, as I do, that personal talent development is as important for high ability students as domain-specific talent development. To build the personal talent skills needed for achievement using indirect methods, we only need to do what has already been proposed i.e. stress instructional methods that build on student interests, allow student choices, and provide opportunities for challenging problem solving and independent learning.
Well-being outcomes. To build the personal talent skills needed for well-being outcomes with indirect methods, however, we need to do more than we have been doing. The instructional methods of gifted education are heavily weighted toward learning and achievement outcomes. Rarely, are well-being outcomes considered in the development and evaluation of gifted and talented programs or the recommendations of leaders in the field for curriculum development and teaching strategies. Why is this the case? Perhaps because disciplinary boundaries traditionally lead educators to focus on achievement outcomes while psychologists and counselors focus on well-being outcomes.
I know because I have training in both fields. My training as an educational psychologist emphasized helping children learn and achieve; limited attention was given to strategies that would help children be happy. In my training as a family therapist, this was reversed. The emphasis was on how to help my clients build positive relationships that would foster happiness and well being; limited attention was given to helping family members achieve personal or career goals.
To enable high ability students to develop the personal talent skills that lead to happiness and life satisfaction, these disciplinary boundaries must dissolve. One way to do that is to create interdisciplinary teams consisting of educators, counselors, and psychologists. Such teams can help our field provide more emphasis on well being outcomes. Recently, the National Association for Gifted Children in the United States has made a commitment to increasing our knowledge about the well being of gifted and talented children. In 2000, NAGC created a Social and Emotional Needs Task Force to review the literature on the social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children. This past year, the Task Force produced a book edited by Maureen Neihart, Sally Reis, Nancy Robinson, and myself called The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? (Neihart, Reis, Robinson, & Moon, 2002). This book summarizes current knowledge about many issues impacting the well-being of gifted and talented children.
This fall, I will join colleagues from across the world at the first meeting of a related task force called the Affective Curriculum Task Force. This Task Force will build on the work of the Social and Emotional Needs Task Force. It will create a publication for teachers that provides practical strategies for addressing the affective development of gifted students within the context of classroom curricula. The Affective Curriculum Task Force includes educators and counselors. Both its charge and its composition blur traditional disciplinary boundaries in order to shift the focus of our field from achievement outcomes to well-being outcomes. The book that results from the work of the task force will provide teachers with a handbook of methods for enhancing the well-being of high ability students, which, in turn, will provide indirect support for personal talent development by enhancing the social/emotional development of high ability youth.
Another avenue for indirect development of personal talent skills that promote well being is through training programs that teach teachers how to model specific personal talent skills. For example, Ziegler and Heller have developed a training program to teach teachers how to give gifted females feedback that will foster adaptive attributions for success and failure in math/science classes (Ziegler & Heller, 1997, 2000). They first teach the teachers about attributions, gender-related patterns of attributions, and the effects of attributions on self-efficacy and motivation. This is direct teaching of personal talent knowledge. Then they show the teachers how to provide students with verbal and written feedback that encourages adaptive attributions i.e. ability attributions for success and effort attributions for failure. This is a personal talent development skill that teachers need if they are going to foster positive attributional patterns in their students. This attribution retraining program has been shown to be effective in improving both affective and performance outcomes for gifted girls in math/science classes. Ziegler and Heller's work is pioneering and a step in the right direction. It shows us that we can develop short-term teacher training programs that will facilitate the development of specific personal talent skills that facilitate well being in a vulnerable population of high ability students.
However, their work does not go far enough because the students are not yet in control of the process. They have not developed a skill. They have been placed in a facilitative environment where positive, psychological changes occur without their conscious awareness. I believe we need to go further. We need to provide the same training to students that was provided to the instructors in this research. We need to provide high ability students with an explanation of the ways that attributions affect self-confidence, motivation, and performance. We need to teach high ability students to continuously monitor their self-talk until positive attributional patterns will persist even in unfavorable environments because they are under the control of the student. In other words, we need to develop direct methods of increasing personal talent.
Direct Methods of Developing Personal TalentTo develop personal talent more directly, we will need to do things differently than we have in the past. We will need to create personal talent curricula so we can teach high ability youth about the findings of studies of personal talent processes. We will also need to develop instructional activities that can help high ability youth apply this new knowledge to their daily lives. For example, in a unit on self-talk, we might teach our students that research has shown that an optimistic explanatory style facilitates a number of positive outcomes including better physical health, greater achievement, and enhanced well being. We would then give them exercises such as role plays and simulations so they could practice cultivating an optimistic explanatory style until optimistic thought patterns become automatic.
This would be new for us. We have done very little of this in the past. Indeed, education in general has done very little of this. Our attention has been focused on academic subjects and content, not on personal talent development. The pioneers of personal talent development have not been educators; they've been psychologists, especially sports psychologists. Sports psychologists have developed personal talent programs to enable elite athletes to improve their performance (Hardy et al., 1996). The strategies they teach include goal setting, relaxation, imagery and mental rehearsal, and self-talk. These are utilized to increase the athlete's self-confidence and motivation; to give them control over their arousal levels; to enable them to counter negative psychological states such as stress, anxiety, and depression that can impair performance; to enhance their concentration; and to assist them in coping with the inevitable setbacks that accompany the path to elite athletic performance.
I believe we need to begin doing the same for our elite students. We need personal talent psychologists who can show us how to turn the findings of psychology into curricula and instructional strategies that can assist high ability students in developing personal talent so they can accomplish high level goals in adult life while simultaneously achieving personal happiness.
An example of the kind of curricula we need to develop comes from the work of Sternberg and Grigorenko's work on helping students develop personal competence in order to increase learning and achievement (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000). Their book Teaching for successful intelligence, is one of the few existing curriculum guides that provides concrete suggestions for things teachers can do to help students develop a broad array of personal talent skills such as controlling fear of failure, managing self-pity, setting priorities, managing time, overcoming procrastination, and developing self-confidence. For example, lesson 27 is on completing tasks. It includes a targeted skill--finishing--and identifies a stumbling block--inability to complete tasks and to follow through. Then it provides suggestions for things teachers can do in 8 different subject areas to build this skill. The suggestion for language arts is to encourage students to realize when to end a poem by choosing to end it at the last stanza they feel proud of. The suggestion for social studies is to ask students to recognize when it is time to wrap up their work on a term paper the night before the paper is due even if the paper is not as thorough as they would like. This type of curriculum guide is a start toward the creation of personal talent curricula, but again does not go far enough. Most of the strategies suggested are indirect and superficial. They are also not sufficiently high level to develop personal talent or facilitate elite level academic performance.
I believe our field should take the lead in developing instructional strategies and articulated curricula that facilitate the development of personal talent among high ability youth through direct teaching of personal talent knowledge and skills. Our efforts should provide equal emphasis on strategies to facilitate achievement and strategies to enhance well being.
What topics might be included in such a curriculum? Let me suggest a few possibilities:
If I had limited instructional time, and could focus on only one of these, I would choose time management, especially for adolescents. Why? Because it is our choices about how to allocate our time, that ultimately define who we are and what we accomplish in life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). In the words of Csikzentmihalyi "time is the ultimate scarce resource that we have" (p.8). If we want to live extraordinary lives, we must become experts in managing time. If we want to balance high level careers with strong family relationships and interesting hobbies, we must become experts in managing time. If we want our high ability youth to succeed and be happy, we must teach them advanced time management skills.
ConclusionIn conclusion, personal talent facilitates both high level achievement and life satisfaction. It is especially important for high ability youth because they often pursue difficult goals over long periods of time and have complex sets of priorities. We must learn how to assist high ability youth in developing personal talent so they can make the most of their abilities and achieve happiness. In schools, we can do this with both indirect and direct methods. To build personal talent indirectly, we need training programs that teach teachers how to design learning environments that foster personal talent and model personal talent skills. To build personal talent directly, we need personal talent curricula, and time in the crowded school day to teach those curricula to students. In closing, I encourage everyone in this room to consider what you can do to help the talented youth that you serve develop personal talent.
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