This column was originally published in the Times Education Supplement.
The Psychologists Benjamin Bloom and Anders Ericsson both came to believe that almost anyone could do almost anything. Their research (which, in Ericsson’s case, is still ongoing) led them to conclude that under the right circumstances – with a supportive environment, skilled and devoted mentors, and sustained, ability-stretching practice throughout childhood – most people can achieve at the very highest level.
According to this view, our students have the potential to become the next Jane Austen, David Hockney, Marie Curie or John Lennon.
So what’s wrong with telling students, “You can do anything!”? For one thing, even if Bloom and Ericsson are correct about human potential, the climb to great achievement is long and arduous, requiring lots of preparation, support and perseverance.
Neither Bloom nor Ericsson would say that achievement happens by simply telling people that they can do it. Unfortunately, many educators, in the name of a growth mindset, seem to believe that it will.
To clarify, a growth mindset is the belief that you can consistently develop your talents and abilities. This stands in contrast to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that your talents and abilities are carved in stone and cannot be further cultivated.
Research has repeatedly shown that a growth mindset fosters greater motivation and achievement in students. However, a growth mindset does not promise that your ability will develop, let alone develop to a high level, regardless of what you do. Nor is there any evidence that saying, “You can do anything,” teaches students a growth mindset. Consider the following examples.
Imagine a student confronting a hard maths problem without the skills and knowledge to solve it. “You can do anything,” might be quite useless and even frustrating for the student. It conveys that he should be able to do it – so he may feel particularly inept when he can’t.
Or imagine the situation with a high schooler who wants to be a physician, but does not have any of the prerequisites. “You can do anything,” says the teacher. But without further guidance, this would be a misleading reassurance.
It implies that if she simply continues on the same path that she is currently on, she will arrive at her goal. Not helpful.
In addition, many children living in poverty already have high aspirations – they just don’t know how to fulfil those aspirations. So, we are not doing students any favours when we ply them with hollow reassurances, thinking that we are boosting their confidence or conveying a growth mindset. Of course, we’re not doing them any favours either by telling them that what they aspire to is impossible. Many of our most successful people were told this and the world would be a much worse place if they had listened to the naysayers.
Our job, as I see it, is to help students find out what it would take for them to reach their goal. In other words, we tell them the truth.
For example, if a medical career is the aspiration, then we need to describe to that student what it might take in order to become a doctor. The same goes whether your students want to be a coder, scientist, stonemason, teacher, and so on. Help your students do the research that they need to find out about their goal. Ensure that they have a realistic understanding of what is required.
Talk about what students might do right now to embark on that path. They might find people in that field to talk to, find mentors to take them under their wing, volunteer in appropriate settings or take courses that shore up the required skills and knowledge. They could spend time on extracurricular hobbies that will further develop the important abilities or form clubs of like-minded students.
Finally, help students develop the mindsets and practices that will serve them well on their path to achievement. This is where a growth mindset comes in. The knowledge that you can develop your abilities, along with the knowledge of how to do it, is an important part of that journey.
Our job as educators is to help our students understand where they are now, where they would have to get to, and what they will need in order to get there.
Can almost any child, under the right circumstances, become an adult who achieves at the highest level? I honestly don’t know, but let’s give students the tools and find out.