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Genius: Not a Rare Gift

Gen·ius n 1. The tutelary spirit of a person, place, or institution.
—The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001

One Sunday Helen’s father emailed me this story:

“Yesterday, Helen was playing in a sandbox in the park. Nearby a brawl broke out between a brother and sister. Helen looked up to see them arguing over a shovel, knocking each other to the ground. She watched intently for a while, then calmly looked around, found two more shovels, and walked over to the fighting couple. She handed one to the brother, and then the other to his sister, who smiled as she took it. The fighting stopped. The girl handed Helen the shovel they had been fighting over, and they all went back to playing happily. No words were exchanged.”

Helen was brilliant. The word “genius” does pop to mind; she was only three years old after all. We marvel at Helen’s social skills, her powers of observation and assessment, her creative problem-solving ability, her self-confidence. How skillfully she put her empathy into action! We want students like Helen in our classrooms, in our boardrooms, as our partners in the work place. This is what we want our graduates to look like. We sense that the skills revealed in this social situation will also show up when confronted with academic problems, if we educators play our cards right.

The research of psychologist Carol Dweck makes it clear that Helen may actually be at risk. Here’s how: if her parents and teachers see her as a genius, she may believe it—especially if they start praising her for being so smart. If she believes it, she could easily think that her ability is the source of her success, and this could lead to underperforming, balking when the going gets rough, perhaps even coming apart when she is in college or out “in the real world.”

In the culture of our schools we seem to believe in students’ abilities, but not their genius—their inner compass, their driving spirit. Dweck and her colleagues have done some excellent work on this subject. She reminds us that success is not a function of ability, but a function of disciplined, persistent, courageous pursuit of goals.

Helen may or may not be a genius, but I know that she has a genius: an inner motive that prompts and propels her to engage in the world around her and to make something of herself. The education of Helen is about leading this genius into the world. Noticing, delighting in, and supporting this genius is at the heart of our work as parents and teachers. Education is leading each child’s genius out into the world to function effectively and gracefully within it.

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