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Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise

reviewed by Brady K. Jones

coverTitle: Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise
Author(s): Robin J. Fogarty, Gene M. Kerns, & Brian M. Pete
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758728, Pages: 192, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise is in many ways an answer to a personal plea I sent out into the universe. I read a number of the publications that inspired this book (e.g., Ericsson and Pool’s Peak and Colvin’s Talent is Overrated) during my first semester as a faculty member at a small liberal arts school. As I worked my way through this body of knowledge about how experts become experts, I felt alternately inspired and at a loss as to how to apply it to my instruction. How might I take the strategies used by master music teachers or golf coaches (individuals working one-on-one with highly dedicated students) and help an entire classroom excel? How can the principles of deliberate practice be scaled? And is talking about expertise even useful when you are teaching students who have not yet specialized in a particular area? Unlocking Student Talent aims to answer these questions.

The authors, Robin J. Fogarty, Gene M. Kerns, and Brian M. Pete, all educational speakers and consultants, introduce educators to the best research psychology has to offer on the development of expertise and suggest a series of practical ways this science might be applied in the classroom. The book is aimed at teachers in the K-12 system, but many of the ideas presented might be useful to college instructors as well. It’s divided into three parts: a chapter on motivating students to aspire to excellence, another on teaching them how to engage in deliberate practice, and a final section focused on the process of coaching students effectively. Each ends with short examples of how to incorporate the main ideas into classrooms of various levels and with a series of questions for professional learning communities (groups of teachers who work together to systematically improve their practice).

The book has its strengths. First and foremost, it is a book that needed to be written. In education, the divide between researchers and practicing teachers is notoriously wide. These three authors bring together names that should often appear together but rarely do; for example, they discuss the applied work of Doug Lemov alongside a summary of research by Dweck, Ericsson, and Pinker. The authors also touch on, at least briefly, what it means to move students toward excellence as a teacher in a school context as opposed to a coach of a single musician or athlete. As an aside, these types of discussions normally ignore the reality that exceptionality is a moving target; by definition not everyone can be above average. Finally, the authors should be commended for suggesting important ways in which schools need to change in order to better accommodate the development of expertise without miring themselves in the politics of education policy. The book ultimately does what I hoped it would do: provide a concrete list of strategies to motivate students and coach them toward progressively higher levels of achievement.

I would be remiss not to note, however, that I wish the authors had more often taken their own advice about the pursuit of excellence. The book feels hastily put together. Much of it centers on a discussion of popular press books rather than the original empirical articles on which those books were based, giving it a copy-of-a-copy feel and calling into question the rigor with which the underlying research was explored. There are also major editorial issues. The three main sections seem to be written by separate individuals with differing styles and skill levels. There are enough typos and repeated passages that it distracts the reader. And the organization can be confusing. Most of the book consists of one- to three-paragraph subsections, with titles that are hard to distinguish from one another or which are repeated for no obvious reason. Furthermore, these sections are so short they often give insufficient detail. The text ends up reading like an assorted list of ideas rather than a coherent set of steps to move students toward higher achievement. The authors spend the book arguing that students must exercise the discipline needed to methodically identify and improve weak spots. If they had asked the same of themselves, I believe this publication would have been much stronger.

This is still, ultimately, a helpful book. There are gems of ideas buried throughout the text; for example, a valuable section on how to use what we know about neuroscience to get students interested in a question, and another that encourages teachers to implement a “Genius Hour” into their courses in order to allow youth to work on personally meaningful projects. Certain passages, such as one in which the authors urge educators to minimize high-stakes tests and instead focus on formative assessment, might even make teachers reconsider some of their most ingrained grading practices. In the end, these are enthusiastic authors who have begun the important work of integrating cutting-edge research across academic fields and made helpful initial suggestions about how to integrate these findings into the real world of schools. Unlocking Student Talent, then, will be a useful read for educators willing to do a little digging.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22393, Date Accessed: 1/19/2019 6:28:58 PM

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