Are some people just innately smarter?

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I don’t know about you, but I’m used to hearing academics talking about how some people are just inherently brilliant. That there are people with oodles of raw talent, that just needs to be molded, and it’s our job as academia to find them and raise them up.

Consider for example, a competition run by the people who run the big International Science and Engineering Fair. You know what they call it? The Science Talent Search.
They run a national competition to identify the “best and brightest young scientists.” There’s a huge organization that is, in name and in action, designed to identify and celebrate talent, rather than cultivate it. (If there is any cultivation, it just comes secondarily from the imprimatur of the brand.)

Others think that process of molding raw talent is indistinguishable from the cultivation of expertise in a non-expert. That brains in adults can develop with experience and work to become more talented.

Academics can be sorted into two categories: People who think that academic talent is fixed, and those who think that academic talent can develop with cultivation and effort. These are often referred to as people with a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset.”

Does our mindset matter, in our day-to-day lives, in how we do our jobs?

The answer is, resoundingly, YES. This paper, which came out a few months ago, demonstrates that faculty with fixed mindsets are exacerbating racial achievement gaps and in general are less motivating for all students.

I once ranted about colleagues from highly selective institutions who go on and on about the “quality” of the students at their universities. I realize, now, that these people who think their job is better with “high quality” students are the people with fixed mindsets. These colleagues of mind think that they’re privileged to teach in an environment where they think the students are inherently smarter, and that the selectivity of the institution gives them some kind of access to greater talent. And these are the same people who think that the lack of selectivity in my own institution is associated with less talent.

I’m assuming that the fixed mindset crowd places higher stock in standardized tests. And grades. And any other ephemeral measure of performance, because this information supposedly says something about a person’s future as well as their past. Of course, these measures themselves have bias packed into them, but to whatever extent they might measure something real, does this mean there is constrained capacity for growth?

It should come as no surprise that the expectation that some people are just smarter than others comes along with implicit biases. Academics in their fields often think that groups underrepresented in a particular field are less capable. This mistaken notion perpetuates the inequities that are responsible for underrepresentation.

The problem with the Science “Talent” Search is that allocates effort and resources to identify Greatness, instead of using those same resources to cultivate excellence. Too many folks want to be on the receiving end of talent, to be the destination of the Great Ones and the beneficiaries of their labor, instead of getting into the business of building excellence.

The universities with the greatest resources in are the ones that are most selective. The ones with the greatest capacity to cultivate talent are trying their best to avoiding choosing people who can most benefit from its cultivation. This is a travesty. Perhaps excellence is a consequence of the culture and resources in selective institutions, rather than the selectivity itself?

If you’re a fixed mindset person, please ask yourself: What’s the empirical basis? Is this merely based on your own biased set of anecdotal observations? Have you had the opportunity to spend time in an environment that embraces a growth mindset and a group of students prepared to grow, and observe the impact? Is it possible that your experiences with the development of scholars haven’t given you adequate information to evaluate the validity of the growth mindset?

If you’re a growth mindset person in a selective institution, ask yourself, what is the best application of your time and resources? Have you fallen prey to the conceit that you can train The Greatest Scientists by filtering out people who can’t get past the gatekeepers, or are you focused on training people who are prepared to grow to higher potential?

5 thoughts on “Are some people just innately smarter?

  1. (sorry for the long answer, I did not have the time to keep it short…)

    A very interesting blog post, and I agree in many respects. Also I find the linked article very important. I was not aware that such a “growth” mindset exists, and that it is scientifically still defensible, at least in the way it is worded. To my knowledge (which is very limited) people do differ in intelligence, and these differences are innate and largely heritable (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability_of_IQ). From standard textbooks on education of gifted (highly intelligent) children, and also from consultation of a psychologist who specialises on diagnosing gifted children, I learnt that intelligence is almost entirely determined before birth and in early childhood, and remains stable after about the sixth birthday (apart from diseases, malnutrition and accidents, of course). The linked article, and also this blog post, do not differentiate among intelligence and “ability”. This may be a matter of defining intelligence, but I think this distinction is important. If I had received the questionnaire (in the linked article), I would strongly agree with the sentence “To be honest, students have a certain amount of intelligence, and they really can’t do much to change it”, which would classify me as “fixed mindset”. I do however think that the motivation, attitude towards learning, learning capability and critical thinking can evolve (“growing mindset”). In other words, I think that a student’s potential is fixed long before entrance to university, but very few students actually exploit their full potential.
    And I think that this is also the heart of the problem. A certain fraction of highly intelligent children will be correctly diagnosed as gifted already in preschool or school – they will have a good chance of receiving enrichment material or participate in acceleration programs, and go to science fairs. Their initial success (preschool/school) will cause positive feedbacks, and by the time they enter university they will have acquired all skills that make a “talented” student: self-motivation, critical reflection, capability to learn etc… in other words, they live up to their potential. Unfortunately, the percentage of correctly and early diagnosed children is small – many others will not receive challenging material, and accordingly not learn how to learn. The psychological toll of boredom and of being different is also devastating (frustration, aggression, depression and mobbing to name just a few*), so many of those will not be able to use their full potential. Now let’s guess which group is more prevalent at high-profile universities (hint: students from disadvantaged poor communities and minorities are 2.5 times less likely to get identified as gifted : http://www.giftednessknowsnoboundaries.org/welcome ; http://www.nagc.org/sites/default/files/Advocacy/Emergent%20Talent%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf)… With that in mind I can understand that lecturers from high-profile universities receive mindsets as fixed, while lecturers at other universities see it as developing.
    The overall point I want to make is that we should acknowledge the existing differences in intelligence, and stop treating them as a taboo (see also: doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1364718). We should rather concentrate on helping those students were high intelligence and achievement do not match. How to do that? I have no idea, and there seem to be very few resources that address gifted but underachieving academics (just came across this special issue, but have not read it: https://doi.org/10.1177/0162353218783396). In any case I would be happy to hear about strategies that help this very special group of students.

    • For more examples, see e.g. the TOC of https://journals.sagepub.com/home/jeg

  2. I wonder whether part of the issue is the distinction between ‘talent’ and ‘ability’, which I used to emphasise to students on my research skills module. The parallel I drew is with athletics. Some people are naturally built with innate attributes that make them gifted at particular events. But most of the realised difference between individuals comes down to training and practice. I personally have the ideal physique for a track cyclist, but someone with even a modicum of actual experience would thrash me because I have no training. This is a message of encouragement because it tells students that regardless of their starting point they can only improve with practice and will often overtake others with perceived advantages.

    I do share your misgivings, and those of Jens above, about trying to pick winners early in their development. In athletics this is probably better than random but not always reliable. For cognitive aptitude it’s so wrapped up in class, family background and education that it can only serve to reinforce existing inequalities.

  3. Yes, this is an unfortunate perspective of many, but not all, at “top tier” institutions. Looking for ways to change this….

  4. I like to distinguish between three parameters
    1. Ability. The combined total of
    2. Talent and
    3. Skill.

    Ability is the capacity to accomplish some task. If it’s quantifiable – almost everything is quantifiable in a more-or-less meaningful way – then ability can be given a score, and comparisons between individuals or within an individual before and after some event can be made. Talent is the innate level of ability present from whatever happened before the person started training in the specific task. Skill is the accumulation from training, study, practice, and available resources that increases total ability.

    Markus’ total Ability in track cycling is higher than the average of a reasonable sample of people in the same geographic area, but that is because Markus has high Talent due to genetics and aspects of childhood development. Another person might have less Talent but because they have spent time and effort training, they have considerable Skill, and because A = T + S, this hypothetical person performs measurably better on a cycling track than does Markus.

    This simple model is compatible with the “fixed mindset” / “growth mindset” dichotomy, but it adds another dimension. I’ve met this dichotomy before, and it’s accurate in at least a few circumstances. The “bad at math” vs “not yet skilled at math” example so often brought out seems pretty well supported. If you’re not familiar, many people believe themselves or others to be inherently bad at math (e.g. slow and likely to fail or get the wrong answer when attempting to solve mathematical problems). Others recognize failures but can see or hope for improvements through practice and instruction. A person with a growth mindset can become “good at math” by building their skill. A person with a fixed mindset will always be “bad at math” and attempting to build skill is pointless.

    But, recognizing variance in talent (in this case, the range of abilities of people when you first meet them) is not the same as having a fixed mindset.

    For fun, I like to apply the model to ridiculous circumstances. I believe I have accumulated some Ability at drinking alcohol; quantifiable by consumption per unit body mass per unit time until some benchmark loss of mental function is passed. My initial Talent can be traced to my genetics, again quantifiable through what we know about liver function. Skill comes from, well, practice and experience, in that I have been drinking pretty regularly for most of my adult life. That’s perhaps not my best or most proud Ability, but the model seems to work, in that people certainly vary in alcohol tolerance and there is a clear correlation with previous exposure to alcohol.

    Getting back to selectivity in higher education, if highly prestigious universities are picking the “best” students, they might be choosing high Talent, or high Skill, or both. A good starting point is presumably correlated with later achievement, but there must be some value in having relatively low Talent but having the experience of building Skill through other Abilities, such as the meta-skills and meta-cognition practices that some people develop early in life. This, I guess, is what effective teaching, and learning how to be a better educator, is really about.

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