“You should major in Chemistry!” In my first year of college, Dr. Harrelson had no idea of the power of his words. His encouragement struck me because he obviously believed that I could do it. I never considered this possibility but his words increased my confidence and so I choose that path. How often have the words of someone else given you the encouragement to go beyond your initial thoughts of your own ability to achieve a level of accomplishment that stretches you?
In Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching1, Wilson & Conyers explore the concept of human potential. The idea that success depends primarily on innate abilities beyond our control is disproved through a large body of research. Certainly we have a genetic propensity for ability, but if we consider brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to continually change and develop with hard work, a belief in one’s ability and an optimal environment) we have a better picture of the potential for an individual.
It is also important for children and adolescents to understand the idea of neuroplasticity and that their ability (and yes, their intelligence) can be increased through hard work. The fact that the brain physically changes as connections are formed through practice can give children hope who struggle in an area. In the book Outlierss, Malcom Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. This rule basically says that practice in the amount of 10,000 hours results in the development of expertise and he provides wonderful examples ranging from Michael Jordan to the Beatles to Bill Gates.
Hard work and an attitude of persistence and resilience have a huge impact on potential. Carol Dweck3 talks about a “growth mindset” which postulates intelligence and ability can be developed through hard work as opposed to a “fixed mindset” which assumes intelligence and ability are unchangeable. A person with a “growth mindset” is more likely to have a mastery goal orientation in which a person is internally driven and they work and persist to accomplish goals (and actually enjoy it!) whereas a person with a fixed mindset is more likely to have a performance goal orientation in which the person is driven externally for praise or to please someone else.
Access to opportunities for learning is another important factor which impacts a child’s potential. Opportunities include environment, structure, education and the time spent to nurture and help a child develop. The average number of words that a child in a low income household typically hears is 10 million words at home by age 3 but the average exposure for a child in a high income home is typically 30 million words. This leads to an incredible advantage that is difficult to overcome.1 Ongoing reading, conversations, and educational experiences have a significant impact. Understandably, many people with lower paying jobs must work longer hours and do more physical work which leaves little time and energy for reading and conversation.
The importance of positive encouragement and feedback for a child’s effort rather than simply assessing results alone cannot be overstated. Providing ongoing feedback of the process as well as the results serve to foster persistence within the child. It is also important to highlight successful examples or role models to which the child can aspire and to celebrate growth or the accomplishment of milestones along the way.
Summarily, it is not a child’s innate ability that determines potential. Rather, when a child will make the most of brain neuroplasticy, have access to opportunities, persist in working hard and have caring people who provide encouragement and support….they soar.
1Wilson, Donna, & Conyers, Marcus. Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. Teachers College, Columbia U, 2013. Print.
2Wilson, Donna, & Conyers, Marcus. Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. Teachers College, Columbia U, 2013. Print.
3Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.