Are you innately gifted?

This post has been stewing on the back burner of my mind for quite a while now. Looking back, it almost surely began on the day that the ultrasound technician informed me that I would be the father of a girl. Since that day, I have found myself noticing, and taking the time to read, more articles related to parenting and education, but in particular, those relating to issues of gender inequality, and challenges that are unique to women. I mean, as a heterosexual male-identifying bearer of a Y chromosome, there are a lot of issues that fall outside of the realm of my personal experience. Anyhow, one day I read an article entitled “The Trouble With Bright Girls” that really stood out to me. It addressed the stereotype that “girls are bad at math”, which is essentially a way of saying that men and women learn differently because of their chromosomal composition. There are countless articles written about this issue, and a plethora of studies examining whether or not there are gender-related differences in learning, and what factors contribute to the outdated notion that women are not as good at some skills, such as math. What made this article so interesting was that it focused upon the notion that girls and boys interpret their success or failure differently, with the result being that bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.”

Why would this be the case? The answer to that question is related to the type of praise that girls and boys receive as they are growing up, which relates to more than just math skills. The type of praise, or feedback, that children are given is often the result of ingrained stereotypes that seem utterly harmless, and are continually perpetuated by even the most progressive and well-meaning parent. I think of all of the times that I have heard people say things like: “Well, I have boys, and you know what a handful boys are…“, or “I am so glad that I had a girl, because they are so much calmer and easier to manage than boys.” Really? I can tell you from experience that my little girl climbs on anything that she can, and investigates everything around her. I have trouble imagining how a son would be much different at this age. Still, that is not the point. This attitude, while it seems harmless, is a bit insidious. As children grow, girls are expected to mature more quickly, and to be far more manageable and patient than boys of the same age. Boys, on the other hand, are expected to get into trouble and have trouble sitting still. So then, when a girl does something well, she might be praised for being so smart, or clever, whereas boys are told that they need to sit still and pay attention, or to work harder. The result is that girls learn that their success is due to their natural ability, whereas boys learn that their success is due to hard work.

Of course, this is a bit of an over-simplification…there are a lot of factors that come into play in these scenarios, but the message here really jumped out at me. It gives me a lot to think about as a parent, and as my daughter grows, I find myself thinking a little more carefully about the way that I praise her and encourage her. I might not have given this article much more thought, except that some time later I happened to hear a fascinating piece on NPR discussing the difference in the approach of “Eastern culture” versus “Western culture” towards education, but in particular the differences in the approach taken by each towards the experience of intellectual struggle. The idea put forth is that Americans tend to relate struggle (in the sense of struggling during the process of learning) to weakness, that is to say, if you are having trouble solving a math problem, it is viewed as a sign that you are innately inferior, or not as smart, as someone who solves it effortlessly. This is in stark contrast to the view that many Eastern cultures seem to take, in which struggle is seen as more of an opportunity, or a chance to demonstrate achievement by working hard and overcoming the problem. I could relate to Jim Stigler’s observations about his response to sitting in on a 4th-grade math class in Japan. While observing the class, Jim noted that the child brought up to work out the problem on the board was not the child who knew the answer, but rather the one that had no clue. While watching the child struggle and fail repeatedly, Jim noticed that he grew more and more anxious while watching this play out. I have experienced the same thing while sitting in class, fearing that I might be called upon to answer a question, anxious that I might answer incorrectly and betray my stupidity to my classmates and teacher. How horrible that students should feel this way! I am sure that I was not alone in this feeling.

I related this piece to the first one I had previously read, and saw an interesting parallel when professor Jin Li discussed her observations of the differences between “learning beliefs” in Asia versus the United States. Very telling were the two conversations between a mother and child that she provides as examples. The American mother describes her son’s actions to him as being “a pretty smart thing to do”, whereas the Taiwanese mother explains to her son that he won a contest because he practiced and worked and persisted in his efforts to improve his skills. Here we are, coming back to this idea that we often have in America that we succeed at certain things because of our innate gifts or abilities. The problem with this approach is that saying “I figured out the problem, therefore I am smart” can often lead to the conclusion that “I did not figure out the problem, therefore I am stupid.” We grow up learning to fear the act of struggling, to be ashamed of our inability to accomplish the goal easily because of the seemingly obvious implications that makes about our natural gifts, which we are taught to value so much. This is not to say that everything we do in America is wrong, or that everyone makes this mistake. There is room for improvement in education whether you belong to an “Eastern” or “Western” culture. The point to be taken from this is that, as an educator or even as a parent, we should consider the approach that we use in the classroom, or the manner in which we provide praise/feedback to children. I think that this especially hold true for those dealing with the youngest children, since so often these lessons are learned at a very early age.

In terms of a practical application to building lessons, I liked the observation Stigler made that, in many Japanese classrooms, “teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.” I think that this observation relates to some of the problems that our society faces when it comes to education, especially in regards to treating information as a commodity to be dispensed to students. While this may present students with the challenge of memorizing and recalling large amounts of information, there is no challenge or struggle to solve the problem and to reach for concepts that lie just out of your grasp. That is a skill that we must often learn much later in our educational career, perhaps as graduate students or professionals. I found it interesting to make the connections between these two different articles, and assumed that I was probably not the first person to make this connection. As it turns out, a very recent article in The Atlantic makes the same observations (naturally relating it to math skills), and addresses the idea that a student’s belief in his or her ability has a very direct effect on how well that student performs…a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. In other words, if a student believes that intelligence is a fixed property that cannot be changed, this can have a very detrimental effect on his or her performance, relative to students who believe that intelligence is malleable and can be altered by a little hard work.

There is certainly a lot of information available on this topic, but I found these three articles to weave a particularly compelling between them. It is interesting to consider the idea that, relative to boys, there is a tendency in our country to praise girls more for their innate abilities and to provide less encouragement for working to overcome a problem and reach a solution; however, when “zooming out”, so to speak, and looking at our country as a whole, relative to Japan or other Asian countries, it seems that our overall tendency is to rely upon the idea that our success is dependent upon innate skills, and to fear intellectual struggle. This tendency reinforces the idea that we are born with certain gifts that will not change: that we are born with only a certain amount of intelligence, or athletic grace, or whatever. What a seductive idea, that I might be inherently better at some thing than others around me, and how destructive if you believe that you are not able to change your fate. From my own personal experience, I can tell you that I grew up being certain that I had no athletic skill, and had no musical gifts. Why? Because neither one came naturally to me. I was bad at sports, plain and simple, so why bother trying? It was not until I went to college and got tricked into participating in a sport that I learned that maybe I could be an athlete after all. Not only could I be an athlete, but I could be good at it! Perhaps it is misleading to say that I was tricked. I took up the sport of fencing (you know, Olympics, funny white outfits, mesh masks, ‘swords’, etc.) without really understanding that it was actually a sport. I thought it sounded like fun, and that was the distinction that allowed me to become invested in this activity, since I knew that sports were most certainly not fun for me. I eventually realized that I was competing in a sport, but fortunately by that point I was hooked. I was not interested in quitting, and I wanted to get better, so I resorted to the only thing that made sense: I worked hard. Harder than anyone around me, and harder than anyone else I knew until I started attending serious tournaments. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had understood that concept when I was a child. I wonder if I could have been convinced that maybe I was not inherently bad at sports?

Think about this the next time you start to praise a child, be it at home or in the classroom. What mattered the most? Were they just ‘smart’ or ‘good’, or did they accomplish a goal by hard work or determination? This is something that I am going to be thinking about a lot as a parent, I can assure you…


Category(s): Education, Fencing

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