The Director's Corner: On Achievement

Susan Smith attracted our attention on a program titled “What makes a genius?” broadcasted on Public Radio International's To the Best of Our Knowledge show Oct. 6, 2013. Two guests were interviewed, Geoff Colvin, author of “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” (2008) and Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (2006). Colvin explained that what really distinguishes higher achievers is not innate talent, but hours of “deliberate practice,” tolerance for being constantly pushed out of one’s comfort zone and the ability to overcome years of failure and setbacks. According to him, this requires finding what someone is passionate about, because only internal drive fueled by passion motivates such dedication; no external reward is ever sufficient. This applies to artists, athletes and scientists alike.

Dweck argued that praising a child’s intelligence or talent actually backfires, rendering children less eager to undertake difficult tasks and reluctant to practice for fear of appearing less smart. Instead, she advocates praising process, effort, strategy and persistence, as well as “teaching” children to fail and not cringe at failure. Children thus learn the “growth mindset,” whereby one can change one’s intelligence and abilities through effort. They learn to enjoy difficulties and keep on going.

Dweck’s work is referenced in Paul Tough’s more recent book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” (2013) that we discussed last February in the context of stress. Tough, too, argues that life success has more to do with skills such as perseverance, conscientiousness, curiosity and self-control than with higher scores on academic tests.

As always, this makes us ponder over our own practices. Emphasizing process over product and encouraging students to do their best and keep trying as we do at The Magnolia School does go in the right direction. But we feel we still have a few too many students who simply cannot stand making a mistake and melt down in the face of even constructive feedback. We may need to revisit our 2010-11 theme on Happy Accidents, designed to demonstrate how one learns from one’s mistakes. We also need to provide our students with a better way to gauge their own progress, so they “see” their abilities improving through effort, thus becoming more in charge of their own learning, or becoming better active learners (or, according to the latest education jargon: improving their “agency”).

This has prompted Susan to offer the staff a training on student self-assessment that teachers will be experimenting with in the coming months. Stay tuned!