Now it wouldn’t be a blog post without me talking about my kids so here goes. My son Jack is edging closer to five, and despite loving story books being read to him and recognising letters, he has had zero interest in any writing or drawing. In fact, I noticed that his little sister when she was 18 months old would do drawings that were pretty much the same as his are now. I persevered, coming up with excuses for him to write his name over and over (I kid you not, for a week our family had to ‘sign in’ for dinner.) And then one day it clicked. He loved drawing, he loved colouring, he even writes notes now (he needs to have every word spelled out for him, but he is getting there.) A teacher at day-care said he was a natural. Now I don’t know if he is, I think it’s partly the effort we put in, and mostly the fact that his brain has developed and he is able to sit still and draw for periods extending beyond fifteen seconds. But next year when he starts at school, I wonder if the teacher will say he’s a natural at it, or recognise the effort that went into it? And I wonder what is better for his education? To see the effort and that he can always try and try and try or just assume he’s smart?
When I think on my teaching experience (which isn’t as long as many others), I would have to say ‘growth mindset’ has been the ‘teacherese’ that has stuck with me the most. We constantly tell students that it is not natural ability that matters, it is the effort they put into their work. Children’s books with a growth mindset theme fill the shelves of our libraries. But a question I have often asked myself is, do we really believe it?
In teaching, we stream students in two main areas – an English or humanities-based stream, and a mathematics stream. Each year, as students get their final-year results, the heads of departments do move students around if necessary. But what about the students who don’t start in the A class, and then clearly are there eventually? They are growth mindset students. They are the poster children for what I jabber on about all the time. But when do we shift our thinking to say they are high achieving? Or are they always ‘the growth mindset kid’? When this student graduates and goes for a job, that employer won’t know that they started Year 7 history in the C class. They will only know about her excellent modern history result. She’s a smart kid. She can clearly analyse sources. Get her a job as a research assistant in first-year uni and she’ll be a journalist by age 21. She’s going places. So in fact, the thinking around this student has shifted from being growth mindset by her school teacher, to being a fixed mindset ‘she’s a natural’ by her employer.
This concept of ‘naturals’ versus ‘strivers’ was recently researched by Chia-Jung Tsay and Scott Barry Kaufman at Harvard University. Their research found that in relation to music, people prefer naturals – the kid who picked up the violin and just knew how to play, versus the kid whose parents had to suffer through weeks of practice before it sounded anything like Old McDonald Had a Farm. “Professional musicians were more likely to rate the audio sample with the natural backstory as higher quality than the audio sample with the striver backstory.” Outside of music, Tsay repeated the study with entrepreneurs pitching for business investment, and the entrepreneurs whose back stories sounded more like a natural’s had a far greater rate of investment.
In a way it makes sense, the natural doesn’t have to work as hard, but does that mean growth mindset is all bunkum? My theory is that it has to do with timing and context (I am a history teacher after all). We change our contexts every couple of years – junior school to senior school, senior school to university, university to workplace and between workplaces. In some of those contexts we are seen as the striver, and in others we are the natural. But when we are seen as the natural are we being pushed enough? Or are we pushing ourselves enough?
Ultimately, as a society, we need to value the strivers even more than the naturals. Because the beauty of the striver is having a rigorous approach to effort. And while the natural may pick up a skill more easily, there is a ceiling to the level of effort they naturally practise.
In the school context, we need to check our own biases and make sure that we are not giving preference to the natural over the striver. We need to recognise that sometimes when we think they are a natural, there’s the possibility they were a striver in an earlier context.
Daisy Turnbull Brown Director of Positive Psychology | History Teacher B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)
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