How Great Teachers See


Identifying-Talent-at-the-Middle-Man-400x230Talent identification is the holy grail of sports, business, parenting, and education. We dream of having the magical ability to quickly and accurately assess who is destined to succeed; to sort the contenders from the pretenders.

Funny thing is, there was once a clever scientist who figured out how to do just that.

His name was Dov Eden; he was an Israeli psychologist who worked with businesses and the military. In the early 1980s Eden published a remarkable study that showed he could predict with uncanny precision which young recruits in the Israeli military would become top performers.

It worked like this: Eden studied the mental and physical aptitudes of one thousand recruits, then selected a handful of soldiers he labeled as “high potential.” Eden informed platoon commanders that they could “expect unusual achievements” from these individuals.

Sure enough, Eden was right. Over the next 11 weeks, Eden’s group performed significantly better than their peers — 9 percent higher on expertise tests and 10 percent higher on weapons evaluation.

It looked for all the world like an impressive display of talent identification — except that it wasn’t.

Because here’s the twist: the “high-potential” soldiers weren’t really high-potential. Eden had selected them completely at random. The real power was in the act of labeling them as high-potential. In sending a simple signal — these people are special.

That signal had created a massive effect in both the mind of the instructor and the learner — a virtuous spiral between teacher and learner that led to the full expression of potential. (The phenomenon, dubbed the Pygmalion Effect, has been repeated many times, and is particularly powerful in educational settings.)

The story, told in Adam Grant’s marvelous new book Give and Take, gives us a glimpse into the power of labels, and how they affect our subconscious. The underlying picture: the unconscious minds of most teachers are naturally thrifty with energy and attention — after all, they don’t have all the time in the world.  They thus look at each new student with a questioning eye: do they have what it takes? Is this a good investment?

The high-potential label is like a flashing Las Vegas sign reading THIS PERSON IS A GREAT INVESTMENT — that triggers a cascade of positive effects. First impressions are uniformly positive. Early mistakes aren’t treated as verdicts; but as learning opportunities. Progress isn’t treated as luck, but as a happy inevitability.

I remember watching Hans Jensen, a remarkable cello teacher at Meadowmount Music School, teach two students. To my eye, one student was clearly better than the other. After the lesson, I asked Hans which student had more potential.

“Who knows?” he said.

I think this is precisely the kind of thinking that distinguishes master teachers. They share a hesitancy to judge; a stubborn, seemingly illogical optimism. They see failures as stepping stones to progress. They begin each new encounter with a single thrilling thought: this person is special.

And then, more often than not, that thought turns out to be true.

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11 Responses to “How Great Teachers See”

  1. Daniel,

    Your books and articles have been a great inspiration to me. I am an Agile coach to enterprise software companies. Much of what you talk about resonates a great deal with me. I’m on my third read of the Little Book.

    Keep up the great work!

    -Armond Mehrabian

  2. John Brovsky says:

    This is absolutely the best study of talent that is out there. Coyle deals with real life situations and verifies what I’ve done with my students and my own children.

  3. Andy Taylor says:

    A great find and excellent article Dan, interesting how the talent ID “industry” will reflect on it!

  4. Alan Keane says:

    Great article once again Daniel. However my only concern is that labelling performers in this manner may lead to thoughts of arrogance and feelings of being better than what they currently are, therefore leading to complacency and a sub par work ethic.
    Thoughts please?

  5. Bryce says:


    I think the key is in how the “you’re special” message is packaged. If the message is “you’re special because you have innate talent,” the complacency and arrogance are pretty likely because the implicit message is “you’ve got it made, so don’t bother working hard. However, if the message is “you’re special because you have the capacity to work hard and get better,” the learner is much more likely to engage in the learning process and see real growth. In short, a coach, teacher, parent needs to emphasize effort and persistence, rather than ability.

  6. Irwin Hamilton says:

    I believe that if I was chosen by Eden as being special that I would have responded in a positive manner but I also believe that not all of those chosen would have shown positive results. Likely there were some who were labelled as special but reacted negatively and their performance was less than average. I have often been labelled as ” easy to coach” “a self starter” “a quick learner” etc and when I get that type of feedback I believe it and get better. I am usually teamed with those who get similar labels so our coaches look good. There are, however, even in my own family, many whose self perception is such that they will not succeed with such labelling. Their non-success has nothing to do with ability or talent but a seemingly innate feeling of failure. Those with that feeling also tend to get teamed together and their coaches don’t look so good. It distresses me to watch those who seem to plan to fail. I haven’t read Grant’s book or Eden’s study, but I would like to read about coaches who took those who constantly under perform to high performance levels and how they did it. Those coaches, in my opinion, are the truly great ones.

  7. MdM says:

    Beautiful story! Made me feel warm inside just to read it.

    Reminds me a little of the story where a teacher partitioned her class into groups when they were very young, and those groups continued to track in terms of advancement, I believe even as adults. However, she hadn’t used any kind of sophisticated test, but just sorted them according to how nice their clothes were!

  8. Garnet says:

    Very interesting. And I think Alan raises a good point as there are numerous examples, some on this site, about the negative effects of labelling someone as talented (avoidance of competition, reduction of perseverance, etc.).

    Dan can you elaborate on the way the people were labelled? Is it, as Bryce says, a capacity to work harder? Or were they told they had greater potential but it would still take a lot of work to uncover it?

  9. What the article boils down to is this:

    Peoples perception of how they see things will determine the results they will get.

    In other words: If you see potential there is, if if you don’t, there won’t

  10. Bob Feinberg says:

    I am totally enjoying THe Talent Code. I am a chiropractor and I love playing the piano. I have seen great changes in my playing since incorporating slow methodical practice.

    Many years ago I studied trumpet with a fabulous teacher named Carmine Caruso. He had a 15 year old young man come to him for lessons because he wanted to play the trumpet so badly. Carmine told me that for months he would go home and do the exercises Carmine had prescribed. Each week the young fellow would come in and no truly nice sounds would ever come out. Carmine would instruct him to keep the air moving. Because Carmine had faith in the boy’s passion and Carmine knew his drills worked, the inevitable happened. One day after several months of lessons the young man played note after note with clarity and his sound was huge. Practice man practice and find a teacher like Carmine. Thanks again Daniel for your inspiring work.

  11. Robnonstop says:

    At an early stage of their career some people are absolutely convinced they will succeed. This state of mind could be instilled by others or by events. In this video Mike Tyson talks about how rapper Tupac was equally sure of his future success once out of prison:

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