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Ability/Effort- my reply


From: Chris (christopherness_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Tue Jul 31 2001 - 16:47:42 PDT

First of all, thanks everyone for your responses. I’ve read a lot recently
regarding Ability/Effort and considered many points of view, but it’s nice
to hear what other art teachers believe. And I don’t think we’re all too
far apart in our opinions.

In my opinion, the majority of students who fail to complete work for my
high school art classes do so because they aren’t satisfied with their
ability. Though process is far from all there is for students to learn
and practice, in my Basic Drawing classes, if a student has come to the
conclusion that “I can’t draw”, then it is difficult for them to find
motivation to try. For these students, to believe that drawing talent is
simply something that some people have, and others don’t, can cause them
to fail. Aware of both this, and the subjective nature of art, I try to
base my grading on “effort.” So though anyone has an equal chance to
succeed (pass), some still do not. Evidently, the student’s lack of
satisfaction with ability outweighs their desire for the opportunity to
pass the class. Though many students who (some may say) have low drawing
ability leave my class with an “A”, I want to help those that don’t. What
I ask of them is practice. We learn new exercises, mediums, and
techniques, but what I tell them is any development of skill will only be
achieved through practice and effort. Each class contains a variety of
student skill levels. I tell them that this is due to each of their “art”
experiences in the past and to try to see success on an individual level,
and not in comparison to others. This view maybe similar to Jane
Altshuler (7/2/2000) who said “I have always explained to my students that
we are all going down a path and that "talent" just means that you start
out further down the path than others.” I’ll explain more, but I want to
respond to your comments.

First of all, yes, I know this sort of thing has been discussed here
before. I remember participating in something of the sort last fall. But
maybe the reason it’s an “age old question” and a “can of worms” is
because any answer is ultimately un-provable. Answers involve our beliefs
and those are different among us. But of course, for any teacher, a well-
thought out and justifiable belief on the question of innate talent versus
acquired talent is important. That’s all I’m attempting. If I am to tell
the discouraged student not to worry, that in time perseverance will pay
off, I must be able to believe and defend that.

So is ability, or talent, something that is nurtured, like the potter that
Lorna Pezanelli (7/28/2001) believed? He said “that people like Mozart
and Picasso had a parent who was also very much into the arts. He said it
would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Mozart grew
up in Picasso's home and vice versa.”

Or is it something we are born with? Some of you called this “natural”
talent, a predisposition, an aptitude, or “real” talent. Most of us seem
to think that there IS some in-born tendency in people. It may just be a
“bent or and interest that we feed as we grow”(Woody Duncan, 7/28/2001).
According to most, this is a small consideration compared to the effort
one must expend to achieve mastery. “My contention is that "talent" is
only a small fraction of what goes into art.”(Jerry Vilenski, 7/29/2001)

But I’m not *totally* convinced that perception of talent in a person is
concrete evidence of something people can be “born with.” Talent, or
ability is constantly in flux. Hopefully, it’s changing for the better,
but it is something which is developed over time. We teach a variety of
ages (I’ve been lucky to teach both elementary and high school students),
and we all encounter students who amaze us. Jerry Vilenski (7/29/2001)
wrote: “I have been an art teacher for many years, yet I can only remember
a handful of students that I would call "gifted" in art.” But are they
“gifted” or could their skill be explained by their environment- their
experiences earlier in life (before we encountered them- whatever the
age)? I’ve read a little about the human brain (Inside the Brain:
Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works by Ronald Kotulak is good;
so is the Discovery channel series The Brain: Our Universe Within by
David Suzuki) and we know that most of our experiences from conception to
around age 12 will determine how our brains are structured and define our
future limitations for tasks such as learning a foreign language or a
musical instrument. So when Susan (ARTNSOUL12, 7/28/2001) says “I
believe that there is also a "nature" component to talent- when a human
being is born with an unusual aptitude to create.” I don’t think we can
undisputedly prove that. Since an infant doesn’t have the ability to
create, we can see evidence of talent until they are older, and by then
they may have already been “nurtured.” The evidence “Michelangelo was
doing drawings at 6” might be explained if we knew he had encouraging,
positive experiences with Art prior to that age. Were it possible to go
back in time and study Michelangelo and several children with similar
environments, we might actually be able to say “Yes he was born with a
gift” or we might find evidence to the contrary. Kevan Nitzberg
(1/02/1904--- What?) asked a good question: “Would, for example, Leonardo
have been any less of a genius had he been raised in another time, by a
different family and under other circumstances?” We’d like to say yes,
because most of us have deserved respect for Leonardo, but in truth, the
question is not answerable.
One example of experience determining greatness might be Einstein. He was
far from an underachiever at school but he was no “boy-genius.” During
his life he received a compass from his father and a book on Greek
mathematics from an uncle. These both intrigued him and he pursued
science with a vengeance. His own words “I, on the other hand, developed
so slowly that I only began to reflect about space and time when I was a
grown-up.” (Most of this comes from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to
Understanding Einstein by Gary Moring) Albert also said “There are many
thousands of people on this planet more intelligent than myself. I,
however, work at it 18 hours a day.”

Another example is Michael Jordan. I had a chance to see the IMAX film,
Michael Jordan to the Max, recently (on the 80 ft. screen) and if any of
you want a testament to effort to show students, this is it (I think it’s
on video & DVD). Again and again we hear how Jordan had to put in
extraordinary practice and effort to become what he did. I think his
ability was only referred to as a “gift” once.

But it seems it’s easier for people to understand Einstein as a genius and
Jordan as a superman than to believe how much work it took both of them.
Art is similar. Jane Altshuler (7/2/2000) wrote “My father is an artist
and so am I and people who are not artists are always going on about how
"talented" we are with a total disregard for all the work that goes into
each of our pieces.” This is part of the “magic” of Art. I remember
elementary students ooo-ing and aah-ing in amazement when seeing examples
of my Art. Adults are they same. Good Art, like Einstein’s genius and
Jordan abilities, seems amazing if it is far beyond the viewer’s
abilities. It may be easier to believe in a magical gift than to face up
to the frightening amount of lifetime commitment that it took.

So we may believe in genetics if we see something like Lorna (menchino,
7/28/2001): “I will see members of the same family who have an ability to
meet the assignments successfully, sometimes surpassing expectations. It's
not always kids from families who take them to art lessons, etc. -- some
are definitely from disadvantaged families.” She may be right- talent may
be inherited. I can see she’s using logic, but it’s not totally
conclusive to me because we can’t know everything about the environment of
those “disadvantaged” kids. They may have had relatives that encouraged
them in art- it might have even been Sesame Street or some other show
which encouraged drawing. For Larry Seiler (7/29/2001), it was a
neighbor, a “a retired artist from Disney” who showed him “step by step
how to draw” characters like Donald Duck and subsequently made him a star
at school, where he received more encouragement. Larry later tells a
fascinating story about how as an adult, he met his birth-mother and half
brother; and like him, they were both musicians! It’s a good argument
for genetics, it really is. I guess I could buy that a tendency for
artistic talent could be passed on to an offspring. Or it might just be
coincidence, hard as that may seem to believe.

 Many people might say “I believe that there are always going to be people
who have more ability in some areas than others.” (Kevan Nitzberg, 1/02/
1904-- when?), but our perception of this talent may be ignoring the years
of formative experiences these people had.

“Talent may be a fun concept to toss about and discuss but other than for
the practitioner it is a pretty meaningless distinction.” wrote Henry
Taylor (6/29/2000). In the end, there is no scientific evidence either
way, though I am, like Woody Duncan (7/28/2001) “a strong believer in
effort being the major factor in the talents we show.” To be a teacher,
with hope for your students, I suppose we must.

Again I thank you for your responses. I respectfully read and considered
them all. I’m sorry my response was so long. Believe me there were more
people I wanted to comment on. For those of you who made it this far,
thank you and I welcome your further suggestions.
Chris in Chicago-land, IL