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.                                                                                                                                        


  1. This is an important topic, Gail. You cover a lot of ground here. I haven't read the "grit" arguments recently but am somewhat familiar with Dweck. I do think her work has been simplified and misunderstood. That said, I would have liked to have her recognize that there's a difference between explaining giftedness to our kids and putting pressure on them because they're "so smart." I do think they need to understand why they're different. But I also think that avoiding praise is a good idea. I don't think parents should be dishonest with their kids but what I've seen in my clients is that excessive praise from parents can set a child up to feel that they're loved for their achievements and not for themselves. (and that can produce anxiety and unhealthy perfectionism) Again, it's all quite complicated. Your post is thought provoking and courageous. I may have to write a post on this myself!

    1. Paula,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree completely that excessive praise is a problem, especially the damaging "you're so smart" kind. Focusing exclusively on the goal is also a problem. And for kids who are already perfectionistic, it can be a disaster.

      I guess the dilemma is that being inauthentic can ring hollow, and parents need to figure out how to offer support and praise in a way that supports their child's efforts and accomplishments without excessively praising minor successes or diminishing those accomplishments that truly deserve reward.

      I wrote a post a while ago about how not to praise your child:.http://giftedchallenges.blogspot.com/2014/11/how-not-to-praise-your-gifted-child.html. This is a complicated topic, especially for gifted children, who might be high achievers and perfectionistic (and therefore inappropriately seek out praise), or might be intrinsically motivated and be able to sniff out inauthenticity. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this! Thanks again.

  2. As a former public school teacher, I've seen the educational community jump on many a bandwagon of the next, best educational trend, philosophy or method--just like the world of dieting dives into the next, best diet to finally take off the weight. The trend or fad is embraced by all for all as the one best method.

    This growth-mindset is one such example. Sadly, the belief in grit and rigor has been generalized as best for all kids, and no approach to education is best for all kids. Particularly, and as you clearly explained, this approach hurts our gifted students.

    As I was reading the part in your post about praise and how as parents and teachers, we are advised to compliment the effort and not the outcome, my first thought was, "as a mom, I'm tired of all the gimmicks and trendy advice. I just want to be honest with my child." And there was your next paragraph, "The Gift of Honesty". Spot on!

    There is so much good in this post, Gail. This is one I'm going to share widely because parents and teachers NEED this information! Thank you for perfectly parsing through this new grit, growth-mindset trend!

    1. Thank you again, Celi, for your wisdom and helpful words. The analogy to dieting trends is perfect! I think the education community is so desperate for an answer to their many struggles that they assume that one idea can solve all of their problems.

      I think we ALL want our kids to be resilient. That's without debate. The assumption, though, that awareness of one's abilities will somehow inhibit this development is problematic. In fact, what seems to thwart the development of resilience, at least for many gifted children, is that lack of opportunity for truly challenging work in the classroom. So denying and ignoring their talents will create even more problems.

      As for praise, it is also a complicated issue, but I think our gifted children all sense when we are honest with them. Certainly, there are some parents whose identities are so caught up with their children's accomplishments that they may convey this to them, or expect them to excel at all costs. But the majority of parents of gifted children (as opposed to high achievers) seem to know what is praise-worthy, and save their rewards for truly effort-based accomplishments. And most gifted children and teens know when they warrant the praise, awards or recognition they have received, or when it is not really deserved.

      Thank you again for your comments. They are always appreciated.

    2. Hi my son is only 29 months and is very high gifted & talented reading spelling up to 9 letter words ect. praise wise, I found I make a big deal the first few times he succeeds at something and then wind it down to a just "well done" once his mastered that. I was an International athlete in my younger years and believe that you are right about adopting that approach to academic pursuit

  3. I am a teacher and I am also a parent of a highly gifted child. I really enjoyed reading your post it makes a lot of sense. My husband has jumped on the band wagon of fixed versus growth mind set. He is convinced that the only reason our son who is in first grade reading at a third grade level, and doing math at a 6th grade level is because we work with him to encourage him to stay challenged. I on the other hand have worked with a enough students to realize there has to be the innate abilities in order for such great growth. I would welcome any thoughts or advise for your experiences. He is very much of a perfectionist, and when he hits a new concept that is difficult will tend to shut down, evade and regress to not being able to complete components that he does understand. He is a very sweet and tenderhearted child that doesn't want people to laugh at him and I think for that reason he does not want to be wrong. Thank you for your post.

    1. Traci, I would agree with you that most children don't read above grade level as a result of parental encouragement. I hope he will have an opportunity for more challenging school work that will encourage him to challenge himself; otherwise, he may retreat into what is safe and easy. I assume you have spoken with the school about encouraging him, meeting his academic needs, and working with his perfectionism. Good luck as you advocate with the schools to get him the enrichment/acceleration/support he might need.

  4. So well done - THANK YOU! A partner and I have started to give a talk at state and national conferences (SENG - Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted, California Association for the Gifted and National Association for the Gifted) on this EXACT topic. This is very well done. Would love to talk to you more about this - This NEEDS to change..... trying to put the word out.

    1. Sharon, Thanks for your kind words. So glad you are also pursuing this topic. I would be happy to discuss it further with you! Feel free to contact me with my e-mail link.

  5. I agree... unfortunately when my kids were in public school I often saw as notes on papers things like "perfect" and "brilliant" and "so smart!" and the praise was for 100%'s and not for the effort into anything. It's frustratingly painful for a perfectionist child who isn't usually challenged in school to get this kind of feedback.

    1. Anonymous, You bring up a good point. A lot of people think they are being helpful by making these comments without appreciating the context and the impact it will have. Sometimes speaking directly with the teacher about it can help. I hope things worked out for your kids and they got past their perfectionist thinking.

  6. Gail,

    I am one who loves the idea of fixed vs. growth mindset, and started using it in my gifted classes last year. I took a course by Jo Boaler on Stanford Online called "How to Learn Math," and she focused heavily on growth mindset specifically in math. The area that showed the most improvement with my students was in not giving up on challenging math problems, and in fact choosing more difficult problems in order to improve. They truly began to see struggle as growth opportunity. When they encountered a problem, they didn't just quit, but instead started looking for other ways to improve. When discussing the difference, they did acknowledge they were afraid to make mistakes because others give them such a hard time about it. The "you should know this, you're gifted" statements eventually worked to silence them.

    That said, I had a question that went the other direction from yours. I was concerned that the impression given was that everyone could train their brain to be gifted if they worked hard enough, and that everyone could train their brain in the highest levels of math. I wrote the professor to clarify this, but never received a response. In my opinion, this is in line with the "every child is gifted" thinking that we constantly battle. That was my only discomfort with growth mindset until I read your blog post! ha!

    I do believe there are some good things to glean from Dweck's studies. I think gifted kids do tend to get too comfortable with easy problems and classwork, and start taking easier paths instead of challenging ones, and that sets them up for average. Growth mindset, as it is being used in my classroom, has transformed that thinking. I just need to make sure I can speak to the flip side to this coin.

    Stacy in Texas

    1. Thank you so much, Stacy. It sounds like you are doing a wonderful job, and are so thoughtful about how you are working with your students. I agree that Dweck's work is valuable, and that many gifted children stop challenging themselves because they are afraid to fail. I think some of this is because of the image that others have of them (and they have of themselves), but also because many have rarely received much of a challenge in school.

      I completely agree with your concerns about the assumption that anyone can be gifted if they push themselves hard enough. I think this is an example of how Dweck's work has been oversimplified and distorted. It is ironic that research into the complexities of learning has been simplified into something that is so all or nothing. Most people are not either "fixed" or "growth" in their mindsets. We all need to take risks and challenge ourselves.

      Thank you for your very helpful response.