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How much wasted intelligence is out there?

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As a result of standardized testing and the importance placed on performing well, there is the strong potential that we have plenty of wasted intelligence out in the world.

Many parents like to find out that their child is special – of course, because who wants a “normal” child, when you can have a “gifted” one? It makes parents feel good when they are told that their kids are gifted, or have performed well on a test, particularly a test that is designed to measure intelligence (in whatever form that is). But what about those kids that don’t do well on standardized tests – are they doomed, or have they been left behind by the system?

Think about Jamie Esacalante, the famous teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles (of Stand and Deliver fame) who took a group of washouts and asked the question, “how can I teach them,” rather than, “can I teach them,” and “how will they learn,” rather than, “can they learn?” (Dweck 63-64) Escalante not only taught kids Calculus, when they could even barely spell the word algebra, he took them to the top of the country in the advanced placement tests. Did these kids just needed to learn how to take an exam? Were they kids who were truly gifted? Or were they kids who fell through the cracks of the system and just needed a different approach to learning? That’s the difference between a growth mindset vs., a fixed-mindset.

The world is filled with child prodigies who never achieved their full potential. Dweck posits that perhaps it wasn’t Mozart’s inherent musical ability, but the fact that he worked on his music so long that his hands became deformed. Or was Darwin’s scientific ability just that inherently magnificent, or was it the fact that he collected specimens nonstop from early childhood (Dweck 63). Or as Thomas Edison said, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Some people do have natural ability and are identified through standardized testings early on, but they need to continue to practice to grow and learn. Meanwhile, others fly under the educational radar, yet spend thousands of hours focusing on their special skill set and become “gifted,” going on to be some of our most noted performers, scientists, and even astronauts.

Dweck also notes:

  • The true “gift” may be the ability itself – but what feeds it is that constant, endless curiosity, and challenge seeking
  • Many of us hold fixed-mindsets in some areas, and growth mindsets in others
  • All people are born with a love of learning but the fixed-mindset can undo it (Dweck 53)
  • The fixed mindset limits achievement; it makes other people into judges instead of allies (Dweck 67)

With your kids, praise their effort not their intelligence; say, you must have worked really hard, rather than you must be really smart (Dweck 72-73). Praising effort encourages more effort – praising intelligence can actually discourage kids (and adults) from pushing their limits and taking on new challenges because they are afraid of doing something that would reveal they aren’t really that smart. The fixed-mindset enmeshes people in their own talent and specialness and when things go wrong, they lose focus and their ability; the growth-mindset helps people cope with setbacks, points them to good strategies and leads them to act in their best interest (Dweck 92-93).

Want your kids to be gifted – give them the gift of curiosity and lifelong learning.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.

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