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?