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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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.

Resilience

Resilience is a critical attribute for any person to grow up to be a fully healthy, self-actualizing person. However, until recently, really relatively little was known about resilience – how important it is, what increases a person’s ability to grow up with a healthy level, what are the impacts of childhood trauma and stress on it?

There was a time when the prevailing ideas were that all stress was inherently bad and that children should go unburdened in every way possible. Far more importance was placed on boosting self image, by telling children positive things about themselves, praising them endlessly and avoiding talking about weaknesses or shortcomings. Today, many believe that the prevalent views of the self image movement has resulted in a generation of young people who struggle to handle feedback, who can’t take strain or stress and who believe that they should be praised for every little thing they do. These young people all too often come across as needy, overly dependent on extraneous motivation and incapable of handling pressure effectively.

In more recent times a new word has become a strong force in education, especially in the USA. That word is ‘Grit’, which to me is another name for resilience. Much of the work, received with mixed feelings by others in the education field, has come from writer and academic, Angela Duckworth. Here’s a TED talk in which she explains her viewpoint on the role of Grit. One of my favourite lines – “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

This concept is also tied to issues of perseverance and also Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset (see earlier writing on this blog). I believe that the more we acknowledge this, the more we realise how much education has been failing children when it asked nothing of them, failed to stretch them and didn’t make sure they followed through adequately. These are young people now moving in to the world of work believing that life should be easy, rewards should come to us simply for showing up and that failure is a reason to immediately back off/ give up or take the path of least resistance.

Somehow, persistence, sticking at things through difficult or challenging times, went out of fashion. There was some kind of notion that really smart people didn’t need to break a sweat – that sweating the tough stuff was for the plodders. The self esteem movement positively railed against anything that looked or felt like hard work in schools, claiming that this was harmful to the vulnerable developing child. Instead, they wanted us to praise every effort, however small. Out of this came many things including primary school sports days where nobody should be a winner or a loser, everyone got a medal and the key was turning up and participating, mass handing out of classroom stickers for everything and a reluctance to ask children to stretch.

For those of us right now enjoying the four yearly feast that is the Olympics, the question is simple – would any of those athletes even be there, let alone be winning without grit, perseverance, resilience or a growth mindset? I think the answer to that one is pretty clear.

There is an interesting additional aspect to this question. Some children, sadly, are subjected to levels of challenge, strife or stress inducing trauma or tragedy in their young lives that we may wish would not afflict any child. In the past, conventional wisdom suggested that it was almost inevitable that such children receiving an excess of challenges beyond all reasonable levels of grit, perseverance or resilience will almost inevitably carry scars and negative impacts. However, we always knew that despite this – there were individual cases of children who appeared to have shown enormous levels of grit to rise above the circumstances and to flourish later as adults. So, I was very interested to see that there’s been recent research in this area seeking to understand better individual levels of resilience and how some children appear to ride out levels of trauma that would be beyond the capacity of the vast majority.

Quartz – Children Need Some Stress in Their Lives

Reading this article, I’m left with the feeling that research still has a long way to go. However, we do appear to be at least a step or two closer to understanding how to help children achieve optimum levels of stress in their lives so that they are capable of building grit and resilience and also how to help children whose young lives are impacted by extreme negative events or trauma so that they have a better chance of riding them out and maintaining functional ability to fulfil their potential.

This is going to be a fascinating area to follow.

Student Engagement

Student engagement can be considered the opposite of ‘bored students’, though I believe our aims should go higher than simply trying to prevent children from being bored. As educators, we should aspire that every student in our care develops the habits and inclinations of a lifelong learner.

This is a phrase so glibly batted around in the education environment today with little regard to what it truly means or why it matters. To me, to be a lifelong learner means;

a) A person has the inclination to continually learn throughout life, in both formal and informal ways. Too many adults let themselves off the hook by saying – ” I learn from the people around me and my experiences. That’s lifelong learning.” In the meantime, those people never pick up a book or a journal related to their professional field while slowly they and their peers slide slowly in to irrelevance. That’s no different to what all but the worst have done in workplaces since the industrial revolution (and even before that). This is something way more than that – it’s about being what I call a ‘learnivore’, hungry to acquire new knowledge directly and indirectly related to one’s professional field.
b) The person’s open and flexible to ‘unlearn’ and doesn’t cling on to old dogmas,
c) The person sees learning as a ‘pull process. They’re not waiting for someone to ‘do learning to them.’ There are telling examples here when you see the reactions of some teachers to new information technology. When you put new hardware or software in to the hands of a youngster, they experiment in order to figure out how they can use it and what it can do for them. When you put it in the hands of a teacher, all too often you hear, “when am I going to get a training programme on this?” Of course, part of the reason for this is an unconscious need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and to always know more than the students.
d) Related to that, lifelong learners are prepared to be vulnerable, to admit what they don’t know enough about and to seek out new knowledge from wherever they can find it. They don’t just try to bluff their way out or avoid.
e) Lifelong learners leave clues – they read, they consume high quality media (e.g. TED lectures, online educator debate forums etc.)
f) Lifelong learners actually relish and enjoy the learning process, in fact, so much so that sometimes they may need to place restrictions and some restraint on themselves regarding how much time they devote to furthering their learning.
g) They have developed the skills and the wherewithal to learn, to reflect on their own learning and to plan a course of learning for themselves that never ends, but always moves them forward.

Returning to the issues of children in school – if that’s the ideal of the adult lifelong learner, then what do we need to be doing in school to provide the right climate and environment to create lifelong learners. This is not just a side issue. Vast numbers of schools today proudly declare lifelong learning as a core value and principle of their school.

First – we must start off remembering that every child starts out innately in love with learning, fascinated in the world around them, ever curious and inquisitive. Too often, the poorest educators destroy that love so totally that the student will never get it back. Moving beyond ‘do no harm,’ educators need to work to keep each child connected with that part of themselves and to give them all the reasons to apply that love to the syllabus learning and beyond.

Secondly, I believe, in age appropriate ways they invest significant time in helping children to develop the habits and skills of learning, to understand their own learning, to reflect on it and to plan for future learning towards desired knowledge goals. In other words, there’s attention to the process of learning as well as the content and the end goals.

Thirdly, the educators exhibit being lifelong learners themselves, including showing vulnerability when things come up where the students may know more than them.

Next, teachers are courageous and bold in planning lessons. This does mean that some of them won’t come off – and that’s OK. They will also build genuine differentiation in to their lesson planning, supporting each student in the appropriate way. This means avoiding the traps of simplistic categorisation and pigeon-holing of their pupils. They will also invest considerable effort in knowing the pupils (not just those who actively speak up and volunteer information during classroom discussions. Perhaps more teachers would be sitting down to lunch more often with their pupils.

Student motivation is a critical factor. Attention to it should be built in to the agenda of the whole school and every member of staff from the Principal down. This also touches upon issues of student voice, agency and continually monitoring real engagement. On the latter topic, I recently came across an interesting article that highlighted the need to go below the surface to explore genuine engagement – not to get lulled or fooled by pseudo-engagement;

KQED – Mindshift – Are Your Students Engaged? Don’t Be So Sure

The article makes very clear why, and the extent to which, engagement matters. Engagement levels carry direct clues to future potential and achievements. It goes on to dissect some of the dangerous myths regarding engagement and especially the false evidence that can lead a teacher to believe a student is engaged. Pupils know their teacher wants to see engagement. As a result, many have learned strategies to ‘fake it’ within wider school cultures that motivate them to give as little as they can get away with – the path of least effort.

Quite rightly, it also points out that a classroom where everyone’s having carefree fun and a good laugh isn’t a substitute for engaged learning. As it says – there’s real effort involved – rigor, relevance and stretch – what Angela Duckworth termed called ‘grit’. Children aren’t afraid to sweat in athletics or other sports training – if they’re not ready to ‘sweat’ a bit in their classroom learning, we’re still doing things wrong.

Grit and Perseverance

Closely associated to ‘Growth Mindset’ on which i wrote a few days ago, recent months have seen increasing focus on grit and perseverance as qualities that reflect the positive inclination to stick at tasks and to see effort and ‘trying’ as the means to effective learning (as opposed to the fixed mindset belief that intelligence and ability to learn is just innate and shouldn’t require effort).

I was so pleased to find that Edutopia had done a great job of bringing together a wealth of resources on these subjects.

The first link contains a curated collection of articles, websites, videos and other resources related to grit and perseverance:;

Resilience and Grit – Edutopia Resource Rounup
(Click on the link above to access all the resources)

The next is an interesting article about the value and merit of the growth mindset as applied to teachers and professionals, as opposed to thinking of it purely from the perspective of students:

Edutopia – Developing a Growth Mindset for Teachers and Staff

Finally, an article about strengthening and building executive functions – the skills related to controlling one’s own mind, points of focus and ‘mind management’

Edutopia – Strategies for Strengthening Executive Functions

For anyone who wants to know and understand more about these areas, this is a great set of resources with which to begin.

Great Teachers Teach Commitment

Seth Godin – spot on !!

Seth Godin – Blog Post
(Click on the link to read)

A short blog post from Seth Godin, but with big implications and a lot to think about for all thinking, caring educators.

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