Bright Is as Bright Does

Heading into 40 years as a teacher, I would agree with the maxim that says that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

One constant I have observed throughout my career: It is very, very important to parents that their son or daughter be officially labeled “bright” by someone passing as an expert.  In fact, amazing as it may seem, I don’t recall ever meeting a student who wasn’t labeled as such. There may be problems with work ethic, but raw intelligence is never at issue. To quote Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura – Pet Detective: “Ra—heeeee—al—eeeh?!?”

When you think about it, when it comes to adolescent academic profiles, there are essentially four possibilities, each depicted in the simple diagram below:

Not only do I see almost exclusively Q4, I NEVER see Q1 or Q2. (Well, let me clarify that: According to the parents, I have never seen a Q1 or a Q2.)

During a recent family conference at a Hyde Family Weekend, a rising freshman girl said something to the effect of “I’m beginning to see myself as someone who is not very bright but who counters that by being a very hard worker.” As soon as she said that, both parents let out audible gasps of disagreement and immediately began assuring their daughter of her unquestioned “brightness.”

Meanwhile, I sat there pondering two thoughts:
1) What an astute comment (true or false) for a young girl to make about herself!
2) These parents ought to back off and simply permit their daughter to play with the idea for a while.

As long as I’ve been teaching, academic assessments of students always begin with how bright a given student is deemed to be. It’s like it’s a law or something. Effort is always the secondary consideration.  One of the reasons I have worked at Hyde for so long is that we have consciously tried to order these priorities in reverse. Recently I have become encouraged by the realization that we are not alone on this.

While we Hyde folks may have arrived at our theories as practitioners in the field, people like Carol Dweck of Stanford University have arrived at hers through extensive intellectual research.  The first sentence in “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids,” her 2007 article for Scientific American, strongly suggests that we are kindred spirits:

“Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are [i.e., smart].  More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort — not on intelligence or ability — is key to success in school and in life.”

Dweck (See her book Mindset – The Psychology of Success – Ballantine, 2008) and others have come to advance a simple formula: Praise kids for their effort and they’ll keep working through ups and downs. Praise them for their intelligence and not only will they learn to view their failures as evidence of stupidity, they’ll start to dodge challenges holding uncertain outcomes, the very challenges that are necessary for character development and personal growth.

Dweck explains: “Kids are exquisitely attuned to the real message and the real message is, ‘Be smart.’  It’s not, ‘We love it when you make mistakes and learn.’”

Study after study shows that resilience trumps intelligence. So, let’s make it the primary emphasis within our schools and families.  In my experience, if kids work hard, brightness tends to follow. However, the fact that they’re bright doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll become hard workers. And in the very challenging future our kids will inherit, the absence of an exemplary work ethic will most assuredly be perceived as a sign of suspect intelligence.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld