Genius, Ability and Raising Smart People

Five years ago Alicia, one of our most experienced preschool teachers, told me the following story:

“Yesterday, Helen was in the sandbox scooping sand into a bucket with a cup. I came by and (good constructivist teacher that I am) said, ‘So, Helen, how many cups do you think it will take to fill up your bucket?’ Helen looked calmly up from her work and said in a friendly manner: ‘Miss Alicia, why don’t you go teach those two kids over there?’”

“Why don’t you teach those two kids over there?” We should whisper it to ourselves as we prepare our lessons at night. We should keep these words on our blotter as we stand in front of the room talking to the students. As we teach Helen, we must remember that she has a built-in teacher, her genius. We must partner-up with this teacher-within if we are to be successful.
It is our job to challenge Helen, but her genius already knows a great deal about what she needs to do in order be successful in this changing, surprising, increasingly complex world.

This is especially obvious when we watch how children take to technology. They play with it, and in less time than it would take us to teach them, they are ready to teach us how to use it.

All too often we feel we have to test students before we can teach them. We think it is critical that we know their capabilities before we assault them with our curriculum, because we think we need to teach them in their “zone of proximal development,” lest we bore them or overwhelm them. The result is generally bored and stifled students.

The whole process is both arrogant and insulting to children. In the first place, our assessments don’t begin to show all the capabilities that lie within a student. More importantly, ability is not the key ingredient of success– grit, enthusiasm, and discipline are much more important. Educators and parents can help students to continue to develop these powers if we encourage their enthusiasm and focus on teaching the disciplines of rising to a challenge.

Dr. Carol Dweck, has been studying how to maximize learning for decades. She writes:

“Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggest that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.”

Successful people are successful because they work diligently and with discipline to make something of themselves. The children in our schools need and want challenge. We must present them with all the challenges the world will throw at them. Believing in each student’s unique genius will help us be less afraid to do so.


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.