Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The grit-talent dichotomy: Creating false expectations for gifted children

What is the grit-talent dichotomy?

A hot topic in the education community, stemming from Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck's research, champions the importance of a growth mindset and grit in the role of achievement. While few would disagree with the benefits of building resilience, learning from failure, and nurturing a desire to succeed, a false dichotomy has unfolded. The implication is that "grit" (the drive to push yourself to achieve) is thwarted by believing you have talent or receiving external praise. At best, this view disregards the role of innate ability, and at worst, it demonizes it.

Why is it assumed that being smart (and being aware of your abilities) necessarily destroys drive and determination?

Why has praise become taboo?

Dr. Dweck's research emphasizes the drawbacks inherent in recognizing how "smart" your child is, and notes how a "fixed mind-set" can develop when children assume their accomplishments are based solely on their abilities and therefore cannot be changed. This attitude presumably inhibits the child's willingness to take risks, either due to fear of failure, or by developing a sense of hopelessness. Why should I bother if I have no chance of improving?

Unfortunately, many educators and critics have proclaimed that "getting a growth mindset" is the next great solution in education. Dr. Dweck's research has been narrowed into oversimplified sound bites, throwing out the term "growth mindset" as a panacea for every educational hiccup and crisis. Yet, problems and limitations of the model are ignored. Grit may be difficult to cultivate in some children, does not foster creativity, and leaves many questions unanswered. The model is often misapplied in schools, and it has been suggested that grit is code for compliance and may be the fallback excuse when schools fail to meet students' needs. And as one writer noted:
"My objection is to the way in which Dweck's conclusions are rapidly metamorphosing into something completely different and thus reinforcing the set of existing bonkers principles which are largely shaping education policy. Dweck's well-meaning and perfectly reasonable research may well end up producing toxic outcomes if we don't nip it in the bud." 
The growth mindset model has contributed to a false dichotomy between hard work and ability. Giftedness is viewed as a barrier to achievement. The theory proposes that telling children they are gifted will create an inflated sense of self and inhibit their drive to succeed. They will focus on upholding their gifted status at all costs and refuse to challenge themselves or take risks. It implies that if you don't tell kids they are gifted, they won't know, and therefore, will be more open to challenging themselves. And while Dweck and Duckworth's arguments may not be this simplistic, unfortunately, the widespread adoption of the model has perpetuated this view.

But is misinformation really the answer? Even those gifted children who doubt their abilities usually sense that they are different. They see how they learn at a faster pace, grasp material with more depth, and typically respond to the world with more sensitivity. Explaining what it means to be gifted can be accomplished without fanfare, without judgment, and without overvaluing their talents. Ignoring this reality by denying their giftedness not only limits their potential, but is misleading and confusing. Their acute sensitivity and awareness tells them that they are different, and they may grow to distrust the adults in their lives who dismiss what they know to be true about themselves.

And many gifted children (and adults) don't even realize they are gifted. Some gifted individuals, particularly women, suffer from the belief that they are imposters, and are mistaken as smart. They avoid competition, fail to succeed and mask their abilities. One writer poignantly described how failing to recognize her intelligence as a child resulted in many lost opportunities. She pointed out that "we have the best chance of overcoming the pitfalls and attaining the potential when we have a reasonable, clearheaded view of ourselves."

In Smart is not a dirty word, Elaine Tuttle Hansen notes:
"In a widely disseminated TED Talk, Ms. Duckworth claims data from her 'grit' scale show grit 'is usually unrelated of even inversely related to measures of talent.' This leads to the belief that success comes not from innate skill but hard work. One proponent of this so-called 'growth mindset' told NPR that 'smart is like a curse.'
I'm troubled. Is this true? Or does it just reflect pervasive myths about intelligence and potential - myths that keep us from understanding and meeting the needs of all students."
Kaufman and others have emphasized that there should be no debate about the importance of both innate talent and the role of effort when it comes to achievement. Giftedness is not a choice and is far from a curse; it presents challenges and opportunities that require nurturance and support.

How does praise hurt your child? 

Praise has also come under fire from growth mindset advocates. They have clamored to point out that it is better to comment on the process of what your child does. Point out what you observe in his work. Notice her efforts. Don't just say "good job" or "great drawing," even if you believe it to be true. And Dr. Dweck's research points to drawbacks inherent in acknowledging your child's intelligence.

A recent blog post not only offered useful alternative statements parents could use to acknowledge accomplishments, but suggested that they could eliminate praise altogether. The implication is that too much praise creates a dependency on external feedback and sets up a pattern of either approval-seeking or rebellion against authority.

Certainly most would agree that unwarranted, excessive praise for just showing up has become rampant. Celebration of each minor accomplishment, or the ubiquitous soccer trophy dispensed to every grade school team, regardless of success, are clear examples. And conveying to a child that his or her worth is dependent upon achievement is clearly harmful.

But is it realistic to sidestep praise altogether? If you are filled with pride about your child's artwork, can you really say, "I like your use of color and shading" rather than "I love that gorgeous painting!"  If your child has slogged through a difficult research project, has done an amazing job, and received an A, is it really best to say, "I noticed how hard you worked" rather than "Wow, such a great job. You must be so proud of yourself!"

Clearly, there are benefits to learning how to pick and choose when and how to praise your child. Carefully and compassionately helping your child understand what went right and what went wrong in any endeavor is key to learning and taking on future challenges. But restraining your enthusiasm and spontaneous support for your child will destroy any sense of credibility. A stiff, inauthentic approach will ring hollow and serve no useful purpose.

The "gift of honesty"

Perhaps we could take a lesson from athletes, who know how to acknowledge and appreciate their own and others' potential, and also understand the importance of hard work. There is no false dichotomy. They recognize their talents (and weaknesses) and work with what they've got. Their success depends upon what they put into it. This attitude should be no different in world of academics.

Let's sort out authentic, honest and reasoned means of acknowledging our child's or student's accomplishments. Let's be straightforward about their potential as well as the need for hard work. Gifted children deserve the "gift of honesty." Otherwise, we create a disingenuous and confusing environment that contradicts what they sense is real, and deprive them of valuable information that will help them succeed.