Skill and talent are two words that we often use interchangeably, even though you’re probably aware that there is a difference. For the most part this switching of the words isn’t a big deal. If you and a friend go to a concert, and you say that the musician is talented, and they say the musician is skillful, you’re both really saying the same thing – that the musician was good and you enjoyed it (in which case I would say you’ve been to see Bon Jovi because they’re the best band in the world). However, where education is concerned the distinction between the two is important.

A talent is an innate ability. It’s something we’re born with. Although being “talented” is different to being “gifted”, we often call it a gift. We see it in the person who can pick up a pencil and draw a tree without trying, an athlete who can seemingly turn their hand to any game, the person who can add and subtract without wrinkling their brow.

Conversely, a skill is an ability that we learn and work at. The more practice we put into it, the better we get at it. It’s working our way up from piano scales to chopsticks to playing in a concerto, or from dividing single digit numbers to long division.

Why is this difference important?

A lack of ‘talent’ as we’re discussing it here is often used as an excuse by both children and adults. In our classrooms and homes we hear it as the phrase, “I’m just no good at art/maths/ballroom dancing.” As that idea becomes ingrained, that you need some special talent to be able to do these things, students don’t even bother to try. Why would you, if you’re just innately bad at something?

Let me give you a personal example. I have always struggled with maths. As I got further along in primary school it became something that I said I was, ‘just no good at’. Luckily for me, my mum also struggles with maths (although she is much better at it than she gives herself credit for), and it was something she also said she was, ‘just no good at’. We sypathised with each other and we could be ‘not good at maths’ together. Even before we’ve been given an equation, we’ve decided we can’t do it.

For me the world was divided into two types of people – those who could do maths, and those who couldn’t. Like me.

An then, well into my twenties and at home with my first baby, I had a revelation. I watched an interview on morning television with a mathematics lecturer. And he said that we need recognise mathematics as a skill that can be learnt and practised. That you might not find maths easy, but that doesn’t mean you can learn it.

And, conversely…

Having a talent for something can also give students the impression they don’t have to try. Not just that you don’t have to, but that you shouldn’t. After all, why waste time practising or studying when you’re just good at something. But the truth is when we see people in any field who are at the top of their game, they have a combination of talent and hours upon hours of hard work behind them. And in all fields there will be people who struggled for every scrap of success they had, driven on not by talent but by some other motivation.

So, what’s the point?

As educators, either professional educators or parents trying to help our children with their education, we need to change the way kids (and we) frame the idea of talent and skill.

Having a talent for something is a head start. It’s a nice thing to have. And we ALL have a talent for something. But even without that head start, any skill can be learnt. Maths, art, singing, dancing, sport – you can learn these skills.

A small catch

People who excel, those tall poppies in their field, they have a mix of skill and talent. Writers who take our breath away and transport us to different worlds, for example, have a way with words and have spent years and years honing their craft. We are not all destined to be one of the greats. I will never be a leading mathematician, even if I had had my epiphany while still a child.

But I can still learn my time tables, check my change and add up my mini golf score. Because I got skills.

If you’re interested in reading more about this fascinating topic check out this article here.

What’s your take on talent v skill? Have you ever heard your kids say, ‘I’m just no go at….’?

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