Can Genius Be Learned Or Is It Preordained?
According to Darwin, height, eye colour, mathematical, scientific, sporting and musical excellence all hinges on the right genetic inheritance. We use the word "talent" to rationalise this idea. Brilliant mathematicians, scientists, sportsmen and musicians are born with excellence encoded into their DNA. But what if this idea is wrong?
A recent investigation of British musicians, found that the top performers had learnt no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment. Hour after hour, the various groups improved at almost identical rates. The difference was simply that top performers practiced for more hours. When top performers seemed to possess an early gift for music, it was because they had been given extra tuition at home by their parents. More and more evidence is emerging that excellence is not just hardwired but also comes from practice.
There is not a top performer in any sport or scientific endeavour who has bypassed the 10 years of hard work necessary to reach the top. Tiger Woods was the youngest-ever winner of the US Masters in 1997. But he was actually given a golf club five days before his first birthday, by the age of two he had played his first round, and by five he had accumulated more hours of practice than most would achieve in a lifetime. While some children will start out better than others, whether at maths, English, golf or music the key point is that, as the number of hours devoted to practise escalates, the relevance of these initial differences melts away. Over time, and with the right kind of practice, the average learner can change. It is how hard we work and the opportunities we are given which can help determine future excellence. But, how do we unlock the power of motivation, particularly with maths exams?
A few years ago, Carol Dweck, a leading psychologist, took 400 students and gave them a simple puzzle. Afterwards, each of the students were given six words of praise. Half were praised for intelligence: "Wow, you must be really smart." The other half were praised for effort: "Wow, you are really hard-working." The results were remarkable. After the first test, the students were given a choice of whether to take a further hard or an easy test. A full two-thirds praised for intelligence chose the easy task (maybe they did not want to risk losing their smart label), but 90 per cent of the effort-praised group chose the tough test (maybe they wanted to prove how hard working they were). The experiment then gave the students a chance at another test of equal difficulty to the first. The group praised for intelligence showed a 20 per cent decline in performance, even though the second test was no harder. The effort-praised group increased their score by 30 per cent. This reveals a new approach to the way we can engage with learners. We should praise effort!
Challenges should be seen as learning opportunities not threats. While there are definitely talented people who seem to achieve without trying, for the average student, praising effort should transform their attitude and their future grades. The key is to keep striving. As Thomas Edison put it: "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward". It is a message that should be stapled to the wall of every school.