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THE PIIRTO PYRAMID OF TALENT DEVELOPMENT

© Jane Piirto

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From Piirto, J. (1999). Talented children and adults: Their development and education. 2nd Ed. Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall/Merrill.

© Jane Piirto

 

"Talent is simply a Step 1 requirement, and many possess it who never amount to anything; talent is impossible to quantify because it only promises but doesnít deliver . . . what delivers . . is being there, present to do the work. And needless to say, luck, too."

óRichard Ford

 

Since the identification of talent potential is not an exact science, we must seek to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The Piirto Pyramid framework may be helpful to all students and their teachers since it identifies influences that are significant in the development of talents. For example, one high school teacher of Advanced Placement English classes uses the Pyramid of Talent Development at the beginning of the year to establish a framework within which they will be learning more about literature. Others use the Pyramid in helping students do biographical studies of talented people; some find that the Piirto Pyramid is helpful in explaining to colleagues and parents where the school or home needs to puts its emphasis in helping develop studentsí talents The framework is also useful for teachers in many fields who teach many grades.

 

The Piirto Pyramid Itself

1. The Genetic Aspect

People begin with their genetic heritage. They have certain predispositions. Studies of twins reared apart at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere have indicated that as individuals become adults, genetic heritage becomes more dominant (Plomin, 1997). The early childhood environment is more important to children than to adults.

2. The Emotional Aspect: Personality Attributes

Successful creators in all domains have certain personality attributes in common. For example, the studies done at the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at the University of California, Berkeley, assessed the personality attributes of many world-class creators (e.g. Barron, 1968; 1995; MacKinnon, 1975). These attributes are the affective, or emotional aspects of what a person needs to succeed, and while some of these are traits or temperaments (that is, by and large inherited), others can be developed in people.

The literature on genius, eminence, giftedness, suggests these factors as important in talent development. Among the personality attributes are androgyny (Barron 1968; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen 1993; Piirto and Fraas, 1995); creativity (Piirto, 1992; Renzulli, 1978; Tannenbaum 1983); imagination (Piirto, 1992); insight (Sternberg and Davidson, 1985; Davidson 1992); intuition (Myers and McCaulley 1985); openness, or a sense of naivetť (Ghiselin, 1952); the presence of overexcitabilities, called OEs (Piechowski 1979; Silverman 1993); passion for work in a domain (Benbow 1992; Bloom 1985; Piirto 1992; 1999); perceptiveness (Myers and McCaulley 1985); perfectionism (Silverman 1993); persistence (Renzulli 1978); resilience (Jenkins-Friedman 1992; Block & Kremen, 1996); risk-taking (MacKinnon 1978; Torrance 1987); self-discipline (Renzulli 1978); self-efficacy (Zimmerman, Bandura and Martinez-Pons, 1992); Sternberg and Lubart, 1992); tolerance for ambiguity (Barron, 1968; 1995); and volition, or will. (Corno and Kanfer, 1993).

This list is by no means discrete or complete, but indicates that this work has converged to show that effective adults may have achieved effectiveness by force of personality or that talented adults who achieve success possess many of these attributes. These form the foundation; parts of these attributes may be innate but other parts can also be developed.

For example, Csizksentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen (1993) said such personality attributes make up the autotelic personality, where "flow," or the ability to tap into optimal experiences is accessible. Likewise, Winner (1996) in her synthesis of research listed among the nine myths about giftedness that an intelligence score should not be used or is an inefficient determiner of who should receive special programming. Personality factors might be more important. These aspects of personality are present in some way in highly effective people. One could call these the foundation, and one could go further and say that these may be innate but they can also be developed and directly taught, as some teachers have found.

3. The Cognitive Aspect: Intelligence

The cognitive dimension, or IQ, has been over-emphasized. The field of the education of the gifted and talented is a test-score driven field, but we err when we let the tests define what we are looking for. A test score is only one descriptive aspect of a personís whole being. The Piirto Pyramid uses the cognitive dimension as a part of the whole. On the Piirto Pyramid the intelligence level is designated as a minimum criterion, mortar and paste, with a certain level necessary for functioning in the world and in the domain. Different domains of talent require different levels of intelligence as a minimum requirement.

Having a high IQ or a very high IQ is not necessary for the realization of most talents (e.g. Baird, 1985). Rather, college graduation seems to be necessary (except for professional basketball players, actors, and entertainers), and most college graduates have above average IQs but not stratospheric IQs. Simontonís work has been very influential in designating which IQs are "normal" for which talent domains (Simonton 1986, 1988, 1994, 1999). There is a minimum IQ threshold that is different for different manifestations of talent. Simonton (1986) thought it was about 120. British researcher Joan Freeman (1986) thought that after two standard deviations above the mean, IQ is not terribly predictive of innate ability but of home environment: above 130 IQ should be regarded "as reflecting achievement as much as native intelligence" (p. 10).

Renzulli (1978) also pointed out that above-average scores on an intelligence test seem to be enough for the manifestation of talent, because social effects and talent also enter into the determination. A high intelligence test score does not hurt, and is necessary, especially in science talent. However, depending on the test given, IQs will vary. People who score high on IQ tests seem to have such cognitive characteristics as good memories and the ability to solve unfamiliar problems. People who score very high on IQ tests are also thought to be constitutionally different, " asynchronous." These are a special type of gifted people, those with the high IQs, but they are not the only gifted people. The different intelligence requirements of different domains were recognized as early as 1971 with the U.S. Education Departmentís Marland Report.

4. The Talent Aspect

The talent itself -- inborn, innate, mysterious, is absolutely necessary. Talent is the tip of the Piirto Pyramid. When a child can draw so well that he is designated the class artist, when a boy can throw a ball 85 miles an hour, when a girl is accused of cheating on her short story assignment because it sounds so adult, then talent is present. Most talents are recognized through certain predictive behaviors. For example linguistically talented students often do extensive and passionate reading of fiction (Piirto, 2000); or mathematically talented students may prefer to do the statistics for the basketball games rather than be the cheerleaders at those games (Piirto, 1999). These talents are demonstrated within domains that are socially recognized and valued within the society.

5. The vocational aspect: Feeling the "thorn"

Although absolutely necessary, the presence of talent is not sufficient. Talent is cheap. Just ask the many struggling actors going from audition to audition while making a living as waiters in New York and Hollywood. Many people have more than one talent, and wonder what to do with them. What is the impetus, what is the reason, for a person with multipotentiality (a common characteristic of students with high IQ scores, for example), to choose to work on one talent, to develop passion and commitment toward the development of that talent?

Carl Jung (1965) described the passion that engrosses; depth psychologist James Hillman (1996), described the presence of the daimon in creative lives. This model calls vocational passion the thorn, because it bothers, it pricks, it causes obsession until it has its way, until the person with the talent begins to work on developing that talent. The development of talent is helped by experts in the domain, and once a person begins working on the talent, responding to the sting of the thorn, the domain experts can be helpful. The talent development education teacherís job becomes to place the talented student into the river of the domain, into the hands of the experts in the domain. Progressively more advanced teachers teach progressively more advanced students. An example is shown in the movie Madame Sousatska, about a middle-level piano teacher whose feelings are hurt when her most talented students inevitably move on to more advanced teachers.

Every domain develops talent differently. In science and other academic areas, the talent is developed by course-taking, and no talented scientist or mathematician is taken seriously without having obtained the Ph.D. In sports, the talent is developed by coaches who choose the talented athlete for progressively more advanced teams. An academic education is not as vital, as witness the recruitment of high school basketball players for the professional leagues in the past few years. The talented builder is brought into an apprenticeship system much like the old guild system, and may attend a special trade school. The military services and technical colleges provide advanced training in many of the trades. Each field in each domain has its own established ways of developing the talents of its most promising novices.

Many people have more than one talent. This is called multipotentiality. How does a person with many talents recognize what should be worked on? The person should pay attention to when she feels a positive challenge that makes her lose track of time. The reverie state common to all creative processing in the development of talent has recently come to be called "flow," a term fortuitously coined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1991). Flow happens when a person is engaged in an activity that is challenging and rewarding at the same time. The person enjoys the activity and seeks to repeat it. This activity produces a positive feeling. While doing the activity, the person experiences deep concentration, a sense of being removed from present worries and cares, a sense of control over the activity, and an altered sense of time. In fact, time flies by. This state is most often experienced in solitude or in working with a group with whom one has little conflict, or creative conflict together. One can begin to focus on what talent to develop by noticing what puts one into a state of flow.

Hillman (1996) described the vocational aspect of talent development in a way similar to Platoís and Jungís: "The talent is only a piece of the image; many are born with musical, mathematical, and mechanical talent, but only when the talent serves the fuller image and is carried by its character do we recognize exceptionality" (p. 251) Hillmanís idea is similar to the notion of "vocation" or "call." The author would call it inspiration or passion for the domain. Philosophers would call it "soul." "Soul" puts one into "flow." Of course, "flow" is the word of the moment, but the feeling has been called other names. Poet Brewster Ghiselin (1952) called it "oceanic consciousness." A trancelike state, it has been called the "visitation of the Muse" by the Greeks. The muses provided imagination with inspiration. Many artists have spoken of the inspiration of the muse.

Wallas (1926) called this initial stage incubation. Mystics, creators, athletes, long-distance drivers and computer hackers have all entered the state of oceanic consciousness, or flow, willingly and with a sense of purpose and direction. It has been induced by fasting (remember, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and what did he do? He fasted and prayed before he committed his ultimate creativity, the sacrifice of his life). It has been induced by chemicals (Jack Kerouac typed the whole book, On the Road on a roll of butcher paper in the kitchen, while high on amphetamines. It has been induced by aerobic exercise and called the "runnerís high." (See Piirto, 1998, Chapter 2 for many other examples of what initiates the creative process.)

The asterisk, or "thorn" on the Piirto Pyramid is there to exemplify that talent is not enough for the realization of a life of commitment, but that one must have a call, a vocation, a desire to pursue oneís development in a talent domain. (See Note 1 for another take on the positioning of this thorn.)

Without going into the classical topics of Desire, Emotion, Art, Poetry, Beauty, Wisdom, or Soul (Adler, 1952), suffice it to say that the entire picture of talent development ensues when a person is pierced or bothered by a thorn, the daimon, that leads to commitment. Feldman was close when he described the crystallizing experience (Feldman, 1982), but the thorn is more than crystallizing; it is fortifying. One of the definitions of "gift" comes from Old French for "poison" (see OED) and this is what the talent that bothers may become to a person if the person doesnít pay attention to it. As well as a joy it is a burden. As well as a pleasure it is a pain. However, the person who possesses the talent also must possess the will and fortitude to pursue the talent down whatever labyrinth it may lead.

6. The Environmental Aspect

These five faces, or aspects, of the Piirto Pyramid could theoretically be called the individual person. From the ground of genes, the base of personality, the cement of cognitive ability, the presence of talent, and the call, comes the person. In addition, everyone is influenced by five "suns." These suns may be likened to certain factors in the environment. They are the sun of home, the sun of school, the sun of community and culture, the sun of gender, and the sun of chance.

The three major suns refer to a child's being (1) in a positive and nurturing home environment, and (2) in a community and culture that conveys values compatible with the educational institution, and that provides support for the home and the school. The (3) school is a key factor, especially for those children whose other "suns" may have clouds in front of them. Other, smaller suns are (4) the influence of gender, and (5) what chance can provide. The presence or absence of all or several of these make the difference between whether a talent is developed or whether it atrophies.

(1) the "sun" of home and family is key: talent seems to be nurtured in families (Feldman & Piirto 1995). Actors breed actors (the Fondas, the Redgraves, the Sheens); professors breed professors (Margaret Mead); race car drivers breed race car drivers (the Unsers, the Pettys); athletes breed athletes (the Ripkens, the Roses); artists breed artists (the Wyeths, the Renoirs); writers breed writers (the Updikes, the Cheevers (Cheever, 1984); musicians breed musicians (the Graffmans, the Bachs) (Albert 1990; Brophy and Goode 1988; Goertzel and Goertzel 1962; Goertzel, Goertzel, and Goertzel 1978; Simonton 1984, 1988, 1992, 1999). Family propensity or interest must be taken into account in any consideration of development of talent although there are many people who demonstrate a talent that the family has not nurtured at all, showing that having a supportive family helps but that talent can be developed with the help of the other "suns" in the pyramidal framework, especially the help of the school. Another family factor to consider is birth order. First children have the most chance to obtain exclusive time with parents and often seek to live up to their parentsí high expectations. Younger siblings are more rebellious and divergent (Sulloway, 1996).

(2) The "sun" of community and culture is absolutely essential: social psychologists describe the effect of the Zeitgeist on whether or not a person's invention will be recognized or valued. At a macro level, the simultaneous invention of insulin by Banning and by others, the simultaneous invention of HZT, the simultaneous or near simultaneous appearance of similar theories, indicates that the Zeitgeist is ready for the paradigm shift. On a micro level, for example, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who would today have been called an "at risk" child, credited his mother, his church, and his school sports and academic participation for keeping him on the path to developing his strong rhetorical talents (Frady 1992).

(3) The "sun" of school is a given. For example, the schools train scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and certain inventors, through a process called course-taking. Musicians, dancers, visual artists, and athletes need special talent development, usually through a coaching model. Allen (1992) differentiated between "two orders of artists-- creators and performers." He called creators "creative artists," and performers "re-creative artists" (p. 199). Special schools such as conservatories and studios should exist to serve those who need intensive talent development in the arts or sports. Schools have a duty to find, and help, those children whose "luck" may not have permitted them to be born into an environment that will nurture their great potential. In all cases, the school is merely an environmental factor in the development of talent, but the school can be either a powerful shaper or a deterrent to that development.

(4) The "sun" of gender is a very important factor: The "sun of gender" is called environmental, although many gender differences are genetic and innate. The influence on talent development of gender, though, is mainly environmental, according to current feminist thought. Boys and girls may be born with equal talent, but something happens along the way. Creative and productive talented men and women show few gender differences in personality attributes and in intelligence test scores (though boys consistently score higher in spatial ability in mathematics and girls score higher in verbal areas), and so we should look at how the environment influences the development of talent according to gender. For example, Subotnik, Kassan, Summers, and Wasser (1993) in their study of high IQ students who attended the Hunter College Elementary School noted that the women averaged $40,000 in income per year while their classmates had a mean income of over $100,000, even though the women had more Ph.D., M.D., and J.D. degrees. Even with equal educations, the female students ended up earning less.

(5) The "sun" of chance may be essential. The mere accident of geography, where one is born, can have an important influence. For example, when the author was the principal of a school for high-IQ children in New York City, casting agents for theater, movies, and television would often visit, for they liked our children's verbal ability. They would choose children to audition by seeing whether they had the "look" needed for the project: the children's acting talent was second. The children's luck for living in Manhattan, New York City, USA, was a mere accident of birth that launched several on their acting careers.

For example, when one or the other or all of the suns of home, genes, community and culture, gender, or chance are not shining brightly in a child's life, the sun of the school must expand and shine very brightly, in order to compensate. When all the suns are shining with full light, the sun of the school can take its equal place. When one or some of the suns are dimmed, the school must become a warm spotlight of talent development.

Unfortunately, it could be said that when a student emerges into adulthood with his or her talent nurtured and developed, it is a miracle, because there are so many influences that encroach on talent development. We all know or remember people with outstanding talent who did not or were not able to use or develop that talent because of circumstances such as represented by these "suns." For example, a student whose home life contains trauma such as divorce or poverty may be so involved in that trauma that the talent cannot be emphasized. The school's role is to recognize the talent and to encourage lessons, mentors or special experiences that the parents would otherwise have provided had their situation been better. The "suns" that shine on the pyramid may be hidden by clouds, and in that case, the school plays a key role in the childís environment.

As another example, the genes that produce oneís race are acted upon environmentally; a person of a certain race may be treated differently in different environments. The school and the community and culture are important in developing or enhancing this genetic inheritance. Retired general Colin Powell has said that he entered the army because he saw the military as the only place in racist society where he would be treated fairly, where his genetic inheritance of African American would not be discriminated against, where he could develop his talents fully.

Direct Teaching Can Help

Perhaps the situation that students often do not make use of their talents, can be helped when they are directly taught about the factors that lead to optimum development conditions; when we do not do things to children, but instead we work with students as they are empowered to work with themselves, to develop personality attributes that will contribute to the development of their talents.

Challenge, trial, and tribulation often ensue in the development of talent. In fact, it would seem that if all five of the "suns" shine evenly and brightly, creativity may not develop, for creativity requires risk-taking, openness, and fortitude, and these may not be developed without some little adversity (Miller, 1990; Piirto, 1992; 1998; 2000). Oneís resilience is crucial; oneís creating an image or metaphor out of experience, even out of pain, is also crucial. The image is worked on through the domain where talent exists.

Perhaps the model here discussed can help look at the process of talent development as ongoing, combining the genetic, the personality attributes, the intelligence, the talent itself, the thorn, and the factors of the environment.

END

 

NOTE 1: The conceptual drawing of the Pyramid itself has benefitted from criticism and critique and from chance factors. Thanks to Michael Piechowski, the visual in the first edition (1994) of the textbook, Talented Children and Adults, was modified to include genetics not as a sun, an environmental influence, but as a prior influence. However, in the 1998 2nd edition of Understanding Those Who Create, a graphic artist took it upon himself to add a level called "thorn." I had added the thorn as an asterisk on the tip of talent domains, but this graphic artist, reading the text, thought it should be a level itself. I did not find out until the book was published.

 

 

 

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