Genes Matter, But Maybe We Should Learn Like They Don’t

By now, you’ve probably read a few articles or at least watched a couple of videos about the idea of mindset and the connection to learning. Carolyn Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is exemplified by the person who takes great pride in her IQ. She is naturally smart. Dweck explains that an unhealthy emphasis on fixed traits and our genetics when it comes to learning is a disadvantage. When I do well, it is because I am smart. When I don’t, I may get frustrated quickly because a failure might mean that I’m not smart enough. I am also less likely to take risks because failure is a character flaw from this mindset.

A growth mindset is different. This person likely recognizes genetic traits, but doesn’t focus upon that. After all, there isn’t much you can do about your genes. Instead, the growth mindset person is more concerned about how much more one can do with effort, persistence, and the cultivation of new skill. This person is not blind to the fact that some classmates can multiply two four digit numbers in their head faster than others can tie their shoes. However, the growth mindset student doesn’t dwell on such things. She instead knows that she can get better at multiplication with hard work, practice, and persistence. When such a person faces a challenging problem, she is more likely to persist…less likely to give up. She is going to make more progress. This is the spirit of the recent blog post by Salman Khan where he explains, “Why I’ll never tell my son he’s smart.

Some might reply by arguing that you have to be realistic with kids. Know their limitations and make sure they know them as well. Know your students well is a fundamental principles of good teaching and learning, but here is the problem I have with that emphasis. It is hard to truly know limits. Yes, it is true that a person without legs will never be able to compete and win in the high jump at the Olympics. However, what about the 3rd grader who struggles with math or reading. Is that a sure sign that she’ll never be an award-winning author, a scientist who finds a cure for cancer, or the President of the United States. Or, what about the little girl who dreams of being a ballerina, but she lacks any signs of graceful movement? Yes, that is amazingly difficult. Don’t we want kids to strive for amazingly difficult things? Even if they don’t achieve them, they may have made tremendous progress.

I tend to set very high goals for myself. I’ve always done that. I remember a debate with a high school teacher. He argued that we should always set stretch goals that are achievable. I asked how you know if they are achievable. Why not set goals that are possibly or even likely out of reach. Shoot for the stars, knowing that you might only make it half way, but what a view! As I understand it, the rewarding part of goals comes more from the pursuit than the achievement anyway. At the same time, I accept the reason and value behind a mixed of goals, some more reasonable and short-term, but others that go big, really big, even if you or others think you don’t have what it takes.

I’ve heard too many stories of people whose teachers and guidance counselors told them that they could never be a __________ (fill in the blank), or that they are just not college material. In fact, I’ve experienced a number of situations where graduate students wrote worse than the eighth graders I once taught. There was a time when I took that as a sign that they were not leadership material. Do we really want a principal who doesn’t know the difference between to, two, and too? Here is the problem with that judgement. It is wrong. I’ve see great leaders who struggled with basic skills along the way, and many great leaders have weaknesses…but they still became valued and, in the eyes of many, accomplished and effective leaders.  I’ve also heard far too many stories of young people who lacked confidence, but were encouraged by growth mindset teachers, teachers who were more interested in what they can achieve by hard work and perseverance than labeling students and making sure they know their learning limitations.

The truth is that it is hard to know our limitations. Maybe it is fair to say that you will not be an NBA center if you are five feet tall, but most people figure those things out for themselves. What we do need is intentional encouragement, reminders that hard work, perseverance and grit often trump raw intelligence. And we often need coaching on how to cultivate these habits. Instead of declaring what people can and can’t do, why not make education about an experiment in just how much you can do, how far you can go, how much you can learn, and how much of an impact you can make in the world?

Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.