Dr. Siamack Zahedi, Co-CEO & Director of Education and Research, The Acres Foundation
The word “talent” is most often used to describe a set of skills that are believed to be purely innate to a child or adult. However, such a conception of talent ignores the role of practice in success. When we hear about a cricket player being talented or a singer being talented, the implication is usually that they are gifted with some special abilities and that’s why they have achieved the success they have. To me, this is a very narrow definition of talent. To me, being talented means that two equally important forces came together to work towards one goal. The first force is “nature” and includes the innate predispositions or unique behavioural traits that each of us is born with. The second force is “nurture” and includes the effects of the unique environment we have grown up and interacted with – the adults in our families, friend circles, neighbours, peers, the activities in school, sports and arts coaching classes, etc. I believe it is important to acknowledge the influence of both these forces on building talent. That’s right, I don’t think talent is something just sitting inside us, but rather it is something we build through practice.
As an educator and parent, I know that I don’t have control over the nature piece – I can’t control what predispositions my child is born with or not. But, I do have some control over the nurture piece – I can structure the social environment and various learning engagements during my student or child’s day to help bring out the best in them. And this is precisely what schools should be thinking over very deeply.
The first responsibility of schools is to build foundational reading, writing, and maths skills, along with foundational knowledge related to socio-emotional development and citizenship, in ALL students. There is no individualization in the learning program at this level, it’s a generic curriculum that is relevant for every child and is critical to put in place as the building blocks of creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and all the other 21st century competencies we want kids to develop. Schools should be expected to use the most cutting-edge scientifically-proven methods to build such foundational skills and knowledge. This mandate takes up a surprising amount of time during the school day, leaving little for enrichment or co-curricular activities that help students discover and nurture their unique interests. This time constraint implies that schools should be very strategic about their co-curricular program.
I recommend a three-point strategy to nurture excellence and interest in co-curriculars and academics. First, all programs during the school day should focus on providing students with as much exposure to different sports, arts, and academic activities as possible so that students have opportunities to identify what they are interested in pursuing more seriously. Once their interests have been identified, after-school elective programs conducted may be offered, where experts in different disciplines can help students pursue excellence in specific areas. A certain minimum dosage of hours per week is required in order to attain excellence in any arena, whether it be debating at a Model United Nations convention, playing soccer at state level, playing the guitar on stage, or any other pursuit. This dosage cannot practically be provided within the school day, and so providing a variety of high quality after school activities is critical. Also, parent partnership is essential here. Parents might enrol children for additional classes during the weekends and other downtime during the week when students might not otherwise be engaged in productive activities on their own. Finally, once children have identified interests and received sufficient weekly practice they might wish to pursue higher and higher levels of engagement in those areas through interschool, regional and national competitions. At this point, the school should encourage students to compete by identifying appropriate competitions and supporting them with registration at such events. This encouragement might include school team members accompanying students to competitions if needed, and even allowing students to be exempt from attending school on competition days and providing additional help to catch up with the missed work.
Our students are mines rich in potential! It is our responsibility as schools and parents to help children realise and further hone their talents by creating a supportive environment – one that nurtures their nature to its fullest potential!