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Our obsession with ‘natural’ talent is harming students

Sorting high achieving students from their peers may be sending the wrong message. AAP/Dean Lewins

Results released from a major Victorian study on student learning show high achieving children’s performance in tests is “flat-lining”.

The study, by Professor Patrick Griffin, followed 36,000 students from years three to ten for six months. Student achievement in maths, reading comprehension and critical thinking was assessed at the commencement and end of the study. On the basis of the first assessment, students were placed in four achievement groups for each subject.

For students whose results were initially poor – the bottom 25% - the results of the study are very encouraging. By the end of the study these students had experienced achievement gains at five or six times the expected rate. The news was not so encouraging for students in the top 25%: their scores flat-lined.

The reception these results have received is interesting, particularly for a nation that prides itself on egalitarianism. Instead of delight that the strugglers have made great gains, an article in The Age yesterday dwelled on why students who were initially doing well did not go on to do even better. Attempts were made to find an answer in Australia’s decline in international standing on tests of student attainment. A number of answers are proposed, including that teachers don’t know how to instruct able children.

But a more plausible answer can be found: one that draws on decades of research into attitudes and their influence on behaviour, including achievement.

Stars aren’t always born

As a nation we love high achievers and enjoy the spectacle of gifted athletes, sportspeople and musicians performing at the highest levels. In our cultural belief system, those who make it to the top are the “naturals”, people born with extraordinary talents and abilities. As a result, we go searching for the talented few to recruit them into training programs, so that they may “realise their potential”.

This also applies to intellectual capacity and there is whole industry in promoting the need to identify intellectually gifted children and to provide them with special educational services.

The model of ability that reigns in Australia is that talent of any sort is an inborn gift. As a corollary, effort is to be denigrated, deplored even, because if one has to try hard, one is demonstrating that he or she is not a “natural”.

The belief that stars are born not made is demonstrated by the portrayal of genius in the media and popular entertainment. Higher achievers such as Mozart and Michelangelo are shown in plays and movies as having prodigious abilities from their earliest years, their talent the result of possession of some mysterious in-built gift. The role of studying and working at mastering anything – art, craft, intellectual pursuits or sport – is glossed over or ignored.

The fixed idea of greatness

Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, has studied people’s models of ability for several decades and demonstrated the outcomes of holding differing beliefs about achievement. Dweck calls these different models “mindsets”. The “fixed mindset” is the one that represents ability as innate and unchangeable.

Holding a fixed mindset about any ability comes with many disadvantages. People may decide ahead of time that they do not have the “right stuff” and never make an effort at all. Girls who believe that they “can’t do” maths because of their gender and avoid its study are a case in point.

And, perhaps unexpectedly, being identified as having ability in an area can be a source of difficulties for people with a fixed mindset. The marked tendency for such folk is to defend the original judgement and guard against anything that calls it into question, most notably any situation where effort is expended but failure follows. After all, if one doesn’t try, failure can always be attributed to that rather than any lack of ability.

Effort is seen as the enemy of “natural ability” in this way of viewing talent: “If I have to try I am not really smart/a natural swimmer/talented musician”. So challenging tasks are avoided, learning opportunities passed up and the preference develops for comparing oneself to those who do more poorly rather than learning from those who know more or do well. Instead of improving, achievement stagnates.

Regrettably, when clinging to an identity as a natural winner, any means to come out on top without trying can seem acceptable and the temptation to cheat can be hard to resist. Research has shown that those who have been identified as very competent are more likely to take short cuts and, quite frankly, cheat.

Changing mindsets

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. These people see talent as a work in progress: they don’t see musical talent, intellectual capacity, sports ability or anything else as something inborn but as something that can be grown with hard work, good teaching and consistent effort. People with a growth mindset relish challenge, seek out opportunities to learn from failure, after which they apply more effort and seek feedback that will help them improve.

Mindsets themselves are not inborn either. They are acquired. It is terrifyingly easy to push someone into a fixed mindset with all the disadvantages this entails. Praising a child for being “smart” will do it, and being put in the top group is arguably equivalent to such praise.

Rather than any defects in teaching or teachers’ “unreasonable” extra assistance to those children who were achieving poorly, mindset may explain why the top students in Griffin’s research experienced little academic growth. Having been identified as “top” students, the children’s efforts turned to holding onto that identity rather than learning and growing.

We label children at our peril and to their detriment. Parents aspiring to hear their children described as “gifted” should carefully consider the possible consequences, as should those policy makers and educators who advocate for different treatment and special provision for the talented few.

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