Collaborate! A first encounter with India’s efforts at developing the talent of its youth

A psychologist’s involvement in strengthening support systems for those working with gifted youth in India.

By Rena F. Subotnik, PhD

India’s schools vary widely in their quality and effectiveness, and the country is extremely concerned about the impact of these educational problems on developing the scientific talent of its youth. Crowded schools and absent teachers plague some areas, particularly those serving the poorest children. And each year, teachers and community members watch some of their brightest students leave to study and eventually live abroad.

Jagadis Bose National Science Talent Search (JBNSTS) was developed in 1958 to provide enriched science courses, mentoring and guidance to young people in West Bengal who meet stringent qualifications and evidence of deep interest in science. Named after India’s first modern scientist, Acharya J. C. Bose, JBNSTS focuses on enhancing students’ appreciation of excellence in science, promoting the development of more young people who become creative scientists and engineers, and providing support for developing their talents. More recently, a teacher training component has been added to engage cohorts of teachers who can recognize and enrich promising students in their classrooms. After decades of successful operation, JBNSTS was ready to showcase what they have learned in the form of an international conference that took place in two locations (New Delhi and Kolkata) in order to accommodate more participation. While displaying the outcomes of their work was one objective of the conference, JBNSTS also hoped to learn from scholars about other dimensions of gifted and talented education they could incorporate into their work helping young people achieve their personal and national goals.

I was invited this past February by JBNSTS to share my research at the two conference sites on the psychosocial dimensions of talent development. The talks were based on work that I have been conducting with Paula Olszewski-Kubilius from Northwestern University, and Frank Worrell, from University of California, Berkeley, that synthesizes the psychological literature on giftedness. Our 2011 manuscript, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, presented a model for talent development that featured a number of proposals. 

First, domain specific abilities are often more central to talent than general abilities. Although it seems obvious to some that ability is involved in talent, there is a lot of push back in the popular press about other factors associated with successful performance that surpass the effects of talent, such as being among the oldest in a cohort, being in the right place at the right time, and the results of years of disciplined practice. Indeed these factors are contributors to successful performance, but we argue that their effects are enhanced by domain specific ability.

Rena Subotnik's involvement in strengthening support systems for those working with gifted youth in India.Another important factor in talent development is availability of opportunity to gain mastery of domain skills and knowledge. This also seems obvious, but it’s actually rather complex. For example, opportunity must be offered at the right time in one’s development. One form of opportunity involves participating in competitive or selective venues. Young people are more likely to benefit from challenge and competition if they feel competent and knowledgeable than if they don’t. Introducing competition and selection into programs may be a boon for some and premature for others. Further, it’s possible to demonstrate exceptional mathematical propensities in middle school, and even elementary school, and benefit from accelerated and enriched programming. Other school subjects, however, are less sequentially organized and more closely tied to contextual understandings that come with maturity. Identifying potential talent in social science or leadership does not have a strong research base during the elementary or middle school years, and screening for selective programming in these areas is not recommended for the early grades. 

And third, while it is important to offer opportunities to young people, not every talented individual will take these opportunities. Some young people question their abilities when encountering peers who are also very gifted. Others lose motivation when they realize they have to work hard at something to be good at it, especially if schoolwork has not been challenging up until that point. Others may not see a purpose to what they are studying, or how what they are learning is relevant to achieving their goals. Additionally and tragically, gifted youngsters may be surrounded by peers who discourage their deep interests or commitments to things intellectual.

Finally, how do you coach for addressing these factors, and strengthen the resolve of those who face enormous competitive odds to meet their goals? Olszewski-Kubilius, Worrell and I call this "psychological strength training," which involves borrowing and applying many of the strategies from sport psychology and conservatory music education. For example, students can learn techniques for how to deal with their fears of public speaking or test taking, how to restore their self-confidence when comparing themselves with others, how to persist when they want to give up. This kind of support in the academic realm is generally non-existent, except perhaps in the realm of academic Olympiads and elite science fairs. 

Although India’s primary goal is to expose far more potentially talented young people to highly enriched science, and faces enormous needs to provide universal education to their youth, it is extremely exciting to participate with colleagues in promoting psychological strength training and talent development with current generations of Indian students. I look forward to returning to India next February to pursue this work by meeting with and advising teachers, counselors and psychologists who work with talented young people from urban and remote rural schools in the Indian state of Maharashtra. 

References    

Subotnik, R.F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. (2011). Rethinking giftedness and gifted education: A proposed direction forward based on psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 12(1) 3–54.

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