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An Interview with Kenneth Kiewra: Nurturing Children's Talents.

NAJP: How do you describe "talent"?

KK: I agree with psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1985) who studied 120 highly talented people across six talent domains and concluded that almost any person in the world can become talented if provided with the appropriate conditions of learning. My research has investigated what those conditions are and how parents can arrange and facilitate those conditions.

Consider Mozart. Whatever biological leanings he might have had, he only became great because he began musical training in his home at an early age; had outstanding instruction from his father, Leopold, who was | an accomplished musician, composer, and teacher; practiced with intention many hours a day under Leopold's watchful eye; and was raised in Salzburg, a center of music excellence where he could learn from other experts and perform.

NAJP: What talent domains have you studied, and why study talent development?

KK: I and my students have studied talented people from a wide-range of talent domains including: chess, baton twirling, swimming, diving, volleyball, fencing, rodeo, spelling, music, softball, figure skating, speed skating, gymnastics, football, photography, writing, rock climbing, and costume design to name a few. We have investigated national and world champions, prestigious award winners, and Olympic gold medalists among them.

I study talent development because talent is in some ways the pinnacle of learning, and I've long been interested in how to maximize learning. There is much we can learn from the talented, such as how to practice and how to maintain a singleness of purpose.

I also study talent because it is an important human resource. Without the talented, there would be no Raphael Nadal winning French Opens, no Shakespearian sonnets or plays, and no Carl Sagan revealing secrets of the cosmos. The world is a better place because of the talented.

NAJP: As a mediocre jazz guitarist, I know the importance of practicing. But to be really good at any endeavor, how much practice is involved?

KK: As talented as Mozart was in music and Picasso was in art as children, neither created an outstanding work until practicing their crafts for 10 or more years. Psychologist John Hayes (1989) studied creative composers and artists and found that none made landmark contributions in less than 10 years. This 10-Year Rule for attaining expertise holds up well across many domains.

We also know from the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson (see Ericsson & Pool, 2016) that practice must be mindful and deliberate. One cannot simply hit golf balls each day, even for 10 years, and become an expert. Practice must be goal-directed and challenging, focused on small incremental improvements. There must also be corrective feedback about what's right, what's wrong, and what adjustments to make. Most often, that feedback comes from a successful coach or mentor.

As people practice, amazing things happen outside and inside. Outside, they begin to see in one or two strokes of attention what novices might see in ten strokes or never see at all. That's why champion chess players can play near-flawless chess games, while making all their moves in just one minute (instead of the usual two to four hours), or play dozens of players simultaneously. Inside, the brain changes in response to practice. For example, Ericsson and Pool (2006) point out that the portion of the brain associated with spatial navigation grew significantly as a result of training to become a London cab driver, and that years of | practice on a string instrument caused the area of the brain that controls the fingers on the left hand to expand and, in turn, permit greater control of those fingers.

NAJP: Let's talk mentoring--why is mentoring so important in talent development, and is it difficult to find a mentor--say in violin, chess, or figure skating?

KK: As just mentioned, practice is not fruitful unless goal-directed, focused, challenging, and accompanied by insightful feedback. It is mentors who supply these vital conditions. Experienced mentors focus on fundamentals, and they see what the less-experienced cannot see. They see minor flaws and supply the targeted teaching to fix them. Here is what Bonnie Baxter said about her coaching methods for prized student Steffany Lien, a six-time world champion (Kiewra & Witte, 2018, p. 181):
   If you're going to teach someone to spell, you first have to teach
   them the alphabet. So, I'm strict and diligent when it comes to
   teaching good, strong basics, a good foundation ... [When it comes
   to teaching], I don't get out there and spin for her. Instead, I
   her the knowledge she needs to internalize the move and do the move
   give herself. I watch and analyze. I might say, "That trick is not
   working because the baton's off-balance. The baton has to have a
   certain balance." Or, I'll say, "That trick is not working because
   you're moving too slowly. It won't work at that speed. You've got
   to double your speed." I pass along knowledge.

Nearly all the highly talented individuals I studied eventually had elite mentors. Top chess players were mentored by grandmasters, musicians by prominent teachers at universities or conservatories, figure skaters and fencers by coaches with Olympic experience. In most cases, arranging for elite coaching was not easy. There was a figure skater whose parents sold their house, quit their jobs, and relocated 200 miles away so their child could receive top-flight coaching. A violinist and his mother flew hundreds of miles each week for music lessons. Baton twirlers and chess players flew instructors to their homes for extended lessons or flew to coaches' hometowns. The parent of gymnasts arranged for Russian gymnasts to live in his home and train his sons and other local gymnasts. Arranging for expert instruction is one of the most difficult aspects of raising a talented child.

NAJP: You have had some first-hand talent development experience with your own son. Can you briefly tell us about the challenges of parenting a child who shows exceptional talent?

KK: I introduced my son, Keaton, to chess at a young age because he displayed a strong memory and a penchant for skill games like checkers and tic-tac-toe. Introducing was easy, the rest was a challenge. I did not know much about chess so when he quickly exhausted my knowledge, I read books in order to teach him. Soon after, I hired a local instructor. Two others followed as Keaton progressed, including a grandmaster coach from New York. I helped Keaton connect with other players by taking him to local clubs and by initiating and teaching a chess club at his school. I helped build a chess culture in Lincoln, Nebraska where Keaton's talent could thrive and be appreciated.

I ran local tournaments, festivals, and camps. I got chess started in several schools, and I wrote a weekly chess column. I advocated. I helped Keaton get invited to camps for elite players and receive chess mentoring in school. It was a constant commitment, like a second job. I attended lessons, reinforced lesson points while practicing with him each day, and made arrangements for dozens of tournaments a year and attended all of them--some as long as 10 days--helping him play his best. I was a manager, travel agent, chauffer, press agent, and financier.

NAJP: Tell us about "centers of excellence" and why they are important.

KK: Olympic gold medalists Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen are two of the greatest American speed skaters all-time, but neither would have likely stood atop the podium or ever started skating had they not been raised near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a speed-skating center of excellence. At the time, Milwaukee had the only full-sized skating oval in the nation, and it attracted the best skaters and coaches who gravitated there to train and compete among the best.

Centers of excellence, training hotbeds, are commonplace across talent domains. Top musicians seek admittance to Julliard School of Music in New York. Budding actors flock to Hollywood, the technologyminded to Silicon Valley. Tennis star Jack Sock used to live around the corner from me. But, he and his family relocated to Kansas City when Jack was a boy so that he could train daily at a prestigious tennis academy. Parents can also create a more homebound center of excellence for their children by flying them on occasion to talent hotbeds, such as music conservatories and chess camps, or by flying elite coaches to their home for extended instructional opportunities.

NAJP: I play chess, but I would be embarrassed to compete and lose. How do parents help their kids compete against far superior players?

KK: In some cases, parents act as emotional buffers. One chess parent said:
   I don't understand the game of chess very well, but I understand
   the psyche of winning and losing and pressure. I just try to keep
   him upbeat and let him know I'm there for him. They are just young
   kids, and they need a lot of support. We're not over the point yet
   where when he loses he might be fighting back those tears as hard
   as he can. So, he needs mom or dad there for him.

Although parents do certainly provide emotional support, my observation has been that most children do not fear losing nor are they negatively impacted by it. That's because they seem to have growth mindsets. They recognize that losing is the pathway to talent growth and success. Moreover, most competitors are passionate about their talent area whether they win, lose, or draw. They simply love learning and competing. Here is what chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley said about his chess play: "I think the process is the most delicious part of the struggle...that part of chess, learning about chess, is just fabulous... For me, the process is the joy."

NAJP: Your book cites Ellen Winner and her "rage to master" idea. How does this fit into talent development, and where does this rage come from?

KK: Talented people seem to have a singleness of purpose. They have an intense focus and deep passion for one particular thing, be it music or tennis. Here is what chess parents said about their son's chess passions:

"The extraordinary time we put toward this one activity takes him out of a lot of fun and games. The kid gives up an enormous amount to dedicate himself to the sport the way he does."

"He is sort of one dimensional. He's just dedicated his life to chess. If he didn't have to go to school and you would deliver meals to his room, he would stay there all day. He just lives and breathes chess. We once took chess away as a brief punishment and it was like yanking out the soul."

The common belief is that children should be well-rounded, jacks of all trades. I don't believe that's true. First, the world is becoming increasingly specialized. The world is a better place because Frank Lloyd Wright focused on architecture and the Beatles focused on music.

Second, according to psychologist Ellen Winner (1996), some people can't help being laser focused because the rage to learn has a biological root. Border collies are naturally driven to work hard, and perhaps creative innovators like Thomas Edison, who had over 1,000 patents, are as well.

NAJP: Juggling a student's interests (chess, violin, basketball) while attending school is a challenge. How do children and parents address this challenge?

KK: This is handled in different ways. Several families I studied homeschooled their children giving them the flexibility to focus on the talent domain and travel as desired. One family had their chess child sit out 9th grade, while the child played several international tournaments and pursued the grandmaster title. Another chess champion took a gap year to focus on chess before attending an Ivy League college.

Others simply made time for both their talent pursuit and school. A champion baton twirler was practicing five hours a day on top of school. Same for a rodeo champion. Time management was a priority in talent families. Schoolwork was completed on car rides or poolside between practice dives. There was no time to waste.

NAJP: Is there anything you'd like to add?

KK: In the talented families I studied, the parents never imagined they would one day be on a talent journey. They had no idea that their child would be a champion twirler, a chess grandmaster, a National Spelling Bee champion, or an Olympic gymnast. It was never something that they planned or set out to accomplish. It happened gradually as the child found an interest and then a niche and then a burning passion that could not be doused. And, that's the thing. In all cases, it was the child who powered the talent train. Parents helped steer, of course, but the children generated the steam. When parents try to push, the train barely leaves the station.

The steering role is crucial, but the parents I interviewed seemed lost as to how best to steer their children, even those well along the talent path. My hope is that Nurturing Children's Talent: A Guide for Parents can supply that direction for all parents wishing to steer their children forward along some talent continuum be it music or math and whether the destination is Carnegie Hall or community band. Talent development is for all who enjoy the talent process and wish to be better at something on Friday than they were on Monday.


Bloom, B. (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballentine Books.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hayes, J. R. (1989). Cognitive processes in creativity. In J. A. Glover, R. R. Ronning, & C. R. Reynolds (eds.), Handbook of creativity. New York: Plenum, 135-145.

Kiewra, K. A. (2019). Nurturing children's talents: A guide for parents. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger

Kiewra, K. A. (2009). Teaching how to learn: The teacher's guide to student success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kiewra, K. A. (2005). Learn how to study and SOAR to success. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Kiewra, K. A., & DuBois, N. F. (1998). Learning to learn: Making the transition from student to lifelong learner. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Kiewra, K. A., & Witte, A. (2018). Prodigies of the prairie: The talent development stories of four elite Nebraska youth performers. Roeper Review, 40, 176-190.

Winner, E. (1996). The rage to master: The decisive role of talent in the visual arts. In K. A. Ericsson (ed.). The road to excellence. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 271-301.

Kenneth Kiewra

University of Nebraska

(Interviewed on behalf of NAJP by)

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Michael F. Shaughnessy, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, New Mexico 88130
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Author:Kiewra, Kenneth
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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