An Interview with Ken Kiewra: Talent Development

Feb 8, 2019 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Dr. Kiewra, first of all can you tell us a bit about yourself- your education and training and experiences?

I am a professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I earned my Ph.D. in educational psychology from Florida State University and was also on the faculty at Kansas State University and Utah State University. My research pertains to learning and to talent development. On the learning side, I have investigated note taking, graphic organizers, and the SOAR learning method I developed.

On the talent side, I have investigated: highly productive educational psychologists and parents’ roles in talent development. I have authored two books for students (Learning to Learn and Learn How to Study and SOAR to Success), one for educators (Teaching How to Learn), and my recent book on talent development (Nurturing Children’s Talents: A Guide for Parents). I am the former Director of the University of Nebraska’s Academic Success Center, the former editor of Educational Psychology Review, and a frequent public speaker. Readers can learn more about me at: https://cehs.unl.edu/kiewra/.

2) Now, how did you first get involved in talent development?

I was always interested in talent development because I viewed talent and creativity as pinnacles of effective learning. As an educational psychologist, I was naturally curious about how top educational psychologists became so productive so I investigated the talent stories of highly productive educational psychologists such as Michael Pressley, Richard Mayer, Barry Zimmerman, Patricia Alexander, and Alexander Renkl.

Findings from these studies revealed several contributing talent factors such as influential mentors, a center of excellence, conducting pioneering science, collaboration—especially with students, and highly efficient research-management and time-management routines. 

My interest in other talent domains began in an unexpected place—my home. When my first child, Keaton, was born in 1987, I had no intention of introducing him to chess and developing his chess talent. I was not a chess player myself, and like most parents, I just wanted him to be healthy and happy. I never imagined that he would one day win national scholastic championships and earn the International Master title. And, I never imagined what a vital role I would have to play to help nurture his chess talent. This personal experience awakened my data gathering instincts as I investigated the roles parents play in national- and world-class talent development—first in chess and then in many other domains such as Olympic speed and figure skating, baton twirling, music, writing, rodeo, swimming and diving, volleyball, and spelling, among others.

3) What seem to be the main contributing factors?

Talent is made, not born. Whatever biological hand we are dealt can be enhanced as we draw new environmental cards that support or even trump biology. Through key environmental factors, we can alter our bodies and our brains. None of the famously talented people you know or whom I studied could have become who they became without a constellation of talent factors firing in sync.

Those talent factors include: an enriched early environment to set one on the talent path, strong mentors to model and teach talent skills, a long-term and deliberate practice routine, a center-of-excellence training ground, a singleness-of-purpose motivation to master, and a talent manager—usually a parent—who helps make these talent factors fire.

4) When you say “talent” are you talking musical, artistic, theatrical, competitive sports, writing and literary talent?   And do mentors and teachers need different skills for each of these realms?

When I speak of talent, I am referring to any and all talent domains. As mentioned above, my investigations have taken place across a wide range of domains from academic (educational psychology, writing, spelling, and the National Merit Scholars I am studying now), to performance (music, costume design, photography), to competitive (chess, baton twirling, rodeo, swimming, volleyball…).

Mentors, teachers, and coaches share some common traits across talent domains. First, they are target teachers delivering bursts of targeted gold that let their charges know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what to do next in order to build vital technical skills. A swim coach said, “I focus on the little stroke technique things like the pitch of the hand and the height of the elbow. Little things make a big difference.”

Second, they maintain a growth mindset, and they foster that mindset among their students. They believe that all students can progress with proper training and practice, and they emphasize that defeat is inevitable and helpful along the pathway to success.

An Olympic fencing coach said, “Without a growth mindset, losses become a disaster because a kid is afraid to lose, afraid to try.” Finally, talent trainers recognize that parents play a vital role in talent development and often include them in the process. For instance, one music instructor insists that a parent attend lessons, take notes, and reinforce lesson points during weekly practice.

5) Now in a nutshell- what is your book all about? Or could you even provide a synopsis or table of contents?

Nurturing Children’s Talents: A Guide for Parents is a book for all parents (educators too) because talent is made, not born, and parents are in prime position to help children discover and develop talent. Moreover, talent development is continuum along which all children can grow whether the final destination is Carnegie Hall or community band, an Olympic medal or a personal record. Meanwhile, most parents are eager to help their children traverse a talent path but don’t know how. This book offers parents insights into talent development and step-by-step plans to help children reach their potential in any talent domain from chess to rodeo.

Here is the Table of Contents:

  1. Why I Study Talent Development
  2. Introduction to Talent Development
  3. Early Experience and Parents’ Roles
  4. Parents’ Roles in Practice
  5. Parents’ Roles in Mentoring
  6. Parents’ Roles in Creating a Center of Excellence
  7. Parents’ Roles in Establishing Singleness of Purpose
  8. Parents as Managers
  9. Beyond Talent Development: Fostering Academic Success
  10. Conclusion: Nurturing Children’s Talents

6) What would you like to add or elaborate on?

Some might worry that a talent book aimed at parents might add fuel to overbearing tiger moms and helicopter parents hell-bent on raising a talented child for their own benefit. These parents were never among those I interviewed. That’s because the child invariably drives the talent train, and the fuel is the child’s passion and hard work, not the parents’ hope or prodding. Parents can help navigate the train but cannot supply the steam. I never found pushy parents but instead found youngsters pushing for more resources.

I found parents going to great lengths and making sacrifices to nurture talent because they could no sooner ignore a talent need than a medical need and because the pursuit of talent brought children and parents joy. One chess parent remarked, “He is passionate about it, just thrilled by it. It gives him a lot of joy and satisfaction.” The parent of an Olympic skater said, “His skating put him on a path to much more. There is confidence, a strong identity, and pride—so many things other than skating success.”

Another skating parent said, “Skating has brought us the greatest joy. It has made the family united. Skating competitions have allowed us to see the world, learn so much, and join together as a family.” Finally, a chess parent said, “(My talent nurturing) is a labor of love. (I do it) because he’s my son and I want him to be whatever he can be. And, if it happens to be chess, then that’s want I want for him. I love my son, and I love his chess too.”

7) Now lastly, the title of the book and where interested others can get a copy? Is it on line? Available in e-book or paperback? 

The book is titled Nurturing Children’s Talents: A Guide for Parents and it is available in hard cover and as an e-book. This link lets you look inside the book and place an order:  Nurturing Children’s Talents.

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