Is Talent A Thing?

As something a bit different, today i want to share a really thoughtful and interesting radio broadcast from the UK BBC Radio 4, on the subject of talent.

It comes from the perspective of how people get employed for jobs and how the typical recruitment interviewing process does a rather poor job of matching the right people to the right role opportunities. The presenter, having done a pretty good job of debunking talent as a reason for recruiting people, goes on to explore what would be effective and sensible criteria for recruiting.

Along the way, she takes inputs from Google HR, Carol Dweck (on Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (on Grit). She also explores the concept of ‘cultural fit’, growth in intelligence (at the individual and society level) and some techniques for better interviewing that gets us beyond simply employing the people we like.

BBC Radio 4 – Is Talent A Thing?

These are issues that go to the very root of how we ensure that, as often as possible, we get “the right people on the bus.” Maybe there are no organisations where this is more important that schools. I believe it’s so critical that we be given the support of our school communities to recruit for character and attitudes, rather than paper qualifications etc. However, when companies employ for attitude they do so in the knowledge that they then give themselves the time to train for the skills specifically required on the job. However, in schools, parents have a direct interest in the skills levels and their expectations are immediate. Therefore, often, a parent will want that the person with the better immediately applicable skills (subject knowledge, classroom management techniques etc.) is employed as that immediately impacts their child’s education, even though that person may not have the best attitude or be the best person to have in the school for the longer term.

In International schools where the Principals and other campus leadership are on relatively short fixed term contracts, these short term vs long term issues are even more critical. The teacher who can deliver something today will too often be preferred over the one with much to offer in the longer term. When compared with other types of organisations, i fear this puts schools at too big a disadvantage. can you recruit for immediate skills and teach/ train/ mentor for attitude? I rather fear that is a long and bumpy road. I’m really not sure that schools are ready or able to train teachers for those things.

For us as educators, there’s another dimension that is critical. This is that we must also be helping our children to acquire these attitudes and attributes to enable them to have the best possible choices available to them and the best chances for success in their future lives. Grit, Mindset, resilience, EQ and other factors have to figure prominently in our thinking for the pupils – and they won’t come from drilling syllabus in to them! Further, teachers with Grit, growth mindset and positive social and emotional skills are most likely to be equipped to help pupils acquire those skills and attributes.

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Growth Mindset in Sports

Physical education, games and sports are a vital and integral part of a fully rounded holistic education. I also believe that for many children they also provide some of the most powerful and transferable experiences of what it means to be an effective learner. A child who develops a strong inclination towards a particular student quickly learns the natural connection between effort and outcomes – the more I train and apply myself, the better I become and the more success I can achieve in the sport.

So, as the concept of ‘Growth Mindset’ has developed over the last few years, it was important that specific attention be paid to its application in the area of sport. So, I was very pleased to see from this article that a book has been written on that subject;

Mindsetworks – Blog – Put Me In Coach – Growth Mindset in the World of Sports

Whilst I’m very keen to read the book, the article suggests that the writers have done a good job. One of the points that struck me was one where from time to time i’ve deliberately chosen to have provocative and thoughtful debates with teachers – how should children be chosen for school sports teams? All too often, the child with the high level of innate early talent gets called up for the team over the child who may be starting from a lower base, but who has the growth mindset and potential to work and strive to develop the technical skills.

The other thing the article talks about is the areas where sports coaches can sometimes have ‘blind spots’. Whilst they may pride themselves on a growth mindset approach towards the children and their technical skills and competence in the sport, they may harbour fixed mindset attitudes towards things like resilience, motivation and mental toughness. It’s important that coaches recognise that these are all things that can be learned and tailor their approaches accordingly.

Higher quality coaching that utilises and harnesses the power of growth mindset thinking can ensure that more children get more rich and rewarding experiences from their engagement with games and sports.

Training The Brain

Generally, on at least 20 days in each month, I set a bit of time aside to do the online ‘free’ tests available on the Lumosity website. Most often, this is with my morning coffee when i get up. if not, at some time later in the day when there’s a logical time to pause for breath. Many years ago, the fad was sudoku puzzles and off and on over the years I’ve got in to the crossword habit.

Does all this activity make me more intelligent? Do the memory exercises boost my memory, the task swapping exercises boost my ability to focus? Or, should it just all be treated as a bit of fun? If I’m having fun and it ‘gets me up and going’ in the mornings, does it really matter?

To my mind there are two specific reasons why it should matter to us what these online programmes are actually achieving;

a) They make some pretty big and grandiose boasts (claiming to back them with genuine hard scientific research data) about the benefits,
b) Some varieties of these programmes are being marketed more aggressively towards schools and parents as ways to boost the ‘brain power’ of children – by implication boosting their academic abilities. These are tempting claims, sometimes tied in some way to the ideas of growth mindset propounded by Carol Dweck of Stanford University.

There’s potentially a great deal of money at stake here (not from me, I’m only using the free version!) so it’s inevitable that any new research or authoritative statements in this area are going to have an impact and be hotly contested. So, it was with all these factors in mind that i read the following article published recently in ‘The Atlantic’. It sets out details of a recent review of all the scientific papers identified to date on the subject. The overall conclusions suggest the complexity of measurement in this area and highlight that the companies marketing the programmes have, at least, been guilty of some exaggeration of the direct benefits.

The Atlantic – The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

If I believe that by doing such exercises regularly, day after day, my brain will work better, faster, with more creativity, dexterity and deliver me superior results AND as a result of that belief, I get those benefits, then can it be said that the programme itself did or didn’t have the positive effect? If i got the positive effect i wanted, does it matter how it was achieved? Has similar research looked at the issues of weight training or other physical fitness based techniques? If I do bodyweight exercise three times a week, and as a result find that I can carry heavy loads easier and for longer day to day, do i need scientific evidence to conclusively and quantifiably link the two things? Surely, it’s enough that there is no evidence of adverse impact from the bodyweight exercising? In other words, it’s not harming me, I have benefit that may directly or indirectly flow from the exercising – then surely I will consider it’s in my best interest to carry on exercising.

As for me, as long as I feel that these exercises are a fun accompaniment to my early morning coffee I will continue to do them. I am certain as I can be that they’re doing me no harm. If I feel that afterwards, I start my day with a bit of extra mental ‘zip’, energy and feeling like the engine’s properly cranked up, then I’ll not worry too much whether that was the games or the coffee that did it for me.

Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Tenby Educators – Academic Year End

Dear Tenby Educators
Following on from my end of term letter to you all, I promised you some more information here!
As educators who espouse the virtues of ‘lifelong learning’, it is vitally important that we too make lifelong learning a natural part of our day to day life. As educators, we are in a unique position to model the values of the school for our children.
I also happen to believe that this value of ‘lifelong learning’ is a win-win for all of us – growing feels positive, learning is enriching. I also believe that educators share knowledge, so for me that’s the biggest reason why this blog exists.
Vacation time is important for us to recharge our batteries, to reflect on our professional practice and to set goals for ourselves that motivate, inspire and excite. I believe humans are a bit like bicycles – we’re at our best when moving forward and standing still really does us no good at all.
I take this opportunity to share with you my personal selection of great reading, perfect for vacation.

1. Mindset, Carol Dweck
This is a book I’ve been very fond of recommending to both colleagues and parents, ever since I read it for the first time. I believe it deserves to be right up at the top of the reading list. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her book explores, through research findings the impact of the Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset. The starting premise is a simple one, but as the book highlights the implications are massive. Educators and parents who are not aware of the findings in this book can be inadvertently reinforcing fixed mindset that can blight the lives of children as it infects their beliefs about academic abilities, propensity and skill in learning, creativity, sports and physical skills and abilities.
If you choose to read only one of the books on this list, this is the one I recommend.

2. Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar
A small slim book, but one of of my favourite books. The book is a bi-product of Tal’s course that he used to teach at Harvard – the most popular and most attended course there. Yes, indeed, the young under and post-grads of Harvard are smart enough to realise that they can have all the skills, intelligence and ability to get in to one of the world’s great academic institutes, they might be destined for great professional success – but, none of that guarantees them happiness in life. Tal is a part of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement that is applying the rigour of academic research and thinking to what might previously have been strictly the domain of the self-help movement.
Very thought provoking and well worth exploring.

3. Flow or Finding Flow, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I’ve read both of these books twice, and took something new away each time. Both are fascinating and well written books about how to ‘get in the groove’ so that tasks don’t feel like tasks and we get more done of what we need to do to achieve our goals and aspirations.
These have occasionally provoked some really interesting conversations with students about how to create meaning and purpose in mundane tasks. I talked about how when I had menial manual jobs as a youngster I would set myself targets related to how quickly I might complete a task, how accurately, estimating various aspects and then seeing how close I could get to those estimates. As I did this I found time on task flew by, I avoided boredom, got the job done and felt satisfaction afterwards.

4. Linchpin by Seth Godin
In a changing world, everyone needs to pay careful attention to how they ‘make meaning’ in the world, carve out a niche for themselves and do work that is engaging to them.
On my first reading of this book I found so much that was significant both for us as adults and for children in school, being prepared for life.
In short – it’s about how people make themselves indispensable (and that includes reading and learning!)

5. Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen
A Harvard Business School professor who has built his reputation on work about how technology does so much more than just lead to incremental changes in any industry, turned his attention to how technology can radically disrupt the field of education.

6. Schools That Learn by Peter Senge
This certainly wins the prize on this list for the biggest and heaviest of the books – maybe a bit too heavy for your hand luggage if travelling. Peter Senge is one of the world’s leading authorities on Systems Thinking. In this book he turned his attention to schools, education and parents. There is an accompanying website that provides more information:
http://www.schoolsthatlearn.com

7. Good to Great by Jim Collins
One of a series of books that looks at companies and organisations from various fields, exploring how they get beyond just merely being good companies or organisations, but become outstanding – and, maybe more important, sustain it.

8. The Leader Within by Stephen Covey
Most people know Covey for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and subsequently, the Eighth Habit). In this book he translates the habits in to a set of principles that can be used to create a school culture, following through in some detail some of the first schools in the USA that did so.

9. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson
The man best known for his groundbreaking TED talk that challenged some of what he perceived as wrong in education today. It’s the most watched TED talk ever and has been the inspiration for many educators to bring meaningful change to schools and their teaching.

10. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, or
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
A somewhat controversial and provocative, New York based educator who has published many books setting out well-reasoned arguments that challenge some fashionable and accepted orthodoxies when it comes to teaching, schools and parenting. Reading Alfie Kohn’s work leads us to start to question things we may have taken for granted in many ways about children.

Bonuses:

11. Drive, Daniel Pink
As a long time reader of Pink’s books and his blog this book had been on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time. It’s a fascinating exploration of human motivation. It’s relevant for us to understand our motivation as adults, but also to understand children’s motivation to learn.

12. Giving Voice to Values, Mary C Gentile
I originally received this book as a gift from a professional colleague. Ms Gentile is a professor of Babson College, USA and the book explores the issues of finding courage to lead through values and inspire others. It explores how values can be the driving force for an organisation and for leadership.

Growth Mindset – Revisited

When a new idea comes along, educators can be just as guilty as any group of people for seeing it simplistically and as a holy grail. In recent years there have been few concepts that have made more waves (or been more abused) than Dr Carol Dweck’s concept of Mindsets.

So, it’s great to see a video presentation like this where she sets the record straight on some of the key issues. She also does an excellent job of reminding all how potentially significant this research is when treated with proper sense and in the full understanding that anything concerned with human nature will be inherently complex.

Firstly, this was never about a new way of putting labels on people, children or teachers. Whenever this has been done, it’s caused more harm than good. Too many teachers have felt the need to be very phony and workplace pressure has, at times, led teachers to pretend they matched up to the growth mindset, instead of really reflecting and thinking about what they could change in their teaching practice and communication with children to reflect more of a growth mindset approach. The plain, simple, honest reality as Dr Dweck makes clear – is that we’re all a mixture of the two mindsets and each one can be prevalent in different circumstances. I loved the idea that she’d picked up from a colleague of naming our fixed mindset part, making it easier to acknowledge, to own up and be honest about it (and when it tends to emerge or get stronger).

Second big issue – Mindset was never just simply about a simple equation with effort, grit, rigour or whatever other label we choose. This was very clear to me from reading Dr Dweck’s book. However, she acknowledges that too many teachers have made a simplistic connection and simply latched on to the idea that if they praise effort then they are “doing mindset”.

I loved her emphasis in the video on teachers and adults ‘walking their talk’ on growth mindset, especially when communicating with children and how this needs to reflect that this is not some simple, short term project, but a lifelong journey that’s never complete. She goes out of her way to emphasise that it should not be seen as a simplistic tool for ‘fixing’ children, or for boosting their scores in standardised tests.

The final thing that stood out for me was her ideas about using mindset as a perspective to look at whole school culture. This was an aspect that had occurred to me and that I had discussed off and on with colleagues over the last couple of years. I think it is a topic worthy of action research and closer, deeper exploration for how it can be used to strengthen whole schools and make them more empathic, shared learning spaces in which children don’t fear failure or experimentation – in fact where all community members celebrate and support efforts to innovate and try different strategies towards effective learning.

Here’s an article that reflects on Dr Dweck’s presentation and key thoughts;

Education Week – Nurturing Growth Mindsets – Six Tips From Carol Dweck – Rules For Engagement

Amazon Dives in to Maths Education

It's intriguing to see one of the giants of online business diving in to the online Maths market

The Seattle Times - Amazon Launches Math Education Movement

The article suggests a particular aim to overcome fear of Maths which can pose such a very real challenge for some children. Interestingly, they have latched on to the concept of the Growth Mindset of Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University.

They are promising resources to support teachers, so this is going to be a very interesting initiative to follow.