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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Leading Genius into the World

One day when my daughter Brooke was one, she decided to take a walk. She opened the screen door to our summerhouse, stepped onto the flagstone walk, and headed down the dirt road that led into the woods. She walked with a purpose. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. In fact, it was as if I weren’t even there. She just stood up from the pots and pans she had been banging on the kitchen floor, made for the screen door, and pushed it open.

As you can imagine, my first reaction was to stop her. I thought, “I can’t let a child that age, who has barely learned how to walk, just walk out the door without even checking with me. Where could she be going? All sorts of things could happen to her. A responsible father does not let his one-year-old daughter take off into the woods on her own. It’s just too dangerous.” In that first second, another thought arose: “Wait—there is no immediate danger. Let’s just keep an eye on her and see what happens. I don’t have to act … yet.” And so I just watched.

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