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.                                                                                                                                        

Monday, May 11, 2015

Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school

Young gifted girls embrace learning with a burning drive and passion. For the most part, they delve into elementary school with confidence, excitement and energy. They tend to love school...

Until they don't.

Something happens between elementary and high school that dampens the spirit for far too many gifted girls. Middle school is difficult for most children, and certainly creates challenges for gifted students. But gifted girls face social, academic and developmental hurdles that can reduce their burning drive to smoldering ashes.

Here's what we know:

1. They lose confidence 

Numerous studies of middle school girls have found a gradual drop in self-esteem that develops over time. For example:
  • Measures of academic self-concept and motivation were lower for 6th grade girls than for boys, but the differences were even greater in comparisons of gifted girls and gifted boys (i.e., the gifted girls felt much worse about themselves than the gifted boys). 
  • Self-concept scores for both gifted and average ability girls dropped between 3rd and 8th grade, but the gifted girls had worse self-esteem related to their intellectual abilities and popularity.
  • decrease in self-esteem and confidence among gifted girls developed between 1st and 12th grades, along with an increase in perfectionism, hopelessness, discouragement and emotional vulnerability.
  • Loss of self-esteem continues throughout high school and beyond. One study found that 3/4 of girls who graduated from a school for the gifted did not think they were smart. And Reis cited findings that female valedictorians lost confidence when they were in college, despite achieving good grades.

2. They lose interest in STEM subjects

Although gifted girls enjoy math and science as much as boys during elementary school, many believe that boys are intrinsically better at math. By 8th grade, boys are twice as interested in math and science as girls. According to Jensen & Nutt, 74% of girls show interest in STEM fields up until middle school. But by high school, only .3% consider computer science as a major. Another study found that 2.5% of girls thought of pursuing engineering or computer science, compared to 15% of boys.

3. The neuroscience makes it harder

We certainly know that the hormonal changes of puberty create a roller coaster of emotions. But there are other biochemical and neurological differences that set girls apart:
  • First, estrogen increases the desire for bonding and connection and discourages risk-taking, while testosterone (10 times higher in men) fuels risks. 
  • Secondly, the amygdala develops 18 months sooner in girls during early adolescence. Women's amygdalae are activated more easily in reaction to stressful situations, contributing to a tendency toward worry and forming strong emotional memories in response to negative events. 
  • In addition, the anterior cingulate cortex is larger in women. This relates to weighing choices and options, scanning the environment for threats, and noticing errors. 
All of these factors contribute to a tendency toward caution, worry and emotional reactivity that increases during puberty.

4. Girls are relational and this complicates matters

Girls are more relational and define themselves within the context of relationships. Even in infancy, girls are more interactive and smile at an earlier age on average than boys. Theorists from the Stone Center at Wellesley College defined the concept of "self-in-relation," where women develop within and through their relationships with others. Carol Gilligan first noted how women are rewarded for their caretaking abilities and pride themselves on their capacity to nurture others. This identity may create conflict, though, when assertiveness, competiton and placing personal interests above others are required for success.

5. Middle school girls face difficult choices

They modify their behaviors to fit in and conform to societal views of femininity, sexuality and beauty. Appearances become critical, both in terms of physical attractiveness and peer expectations. Often forced to choose between popularity and remaining true to themselves, many gifted girls downplay their intelligence, avoid competition, and "dumb themselves down" to gain acceptance. At the very least, they don't want to alienate other girls or intimidate the boys. And some school environments are so hostile that masking their abilities may seem the only option to prevent bullying and isolation.

6. Stereotypes, assumptions and expectations hold them back

Some research has shown that stereotypes about girls' abilities still persist. Teachers may underestimate girls' potential, assuming boys have more innate ability and girls just work harder. Parents also may underestimate their daughters' abilities, particularly in math, and are more likely to expect their sons to work in STEM fields. And gifted middle school girls receive conflicting messages. They know they are capable and talented, yet are quite aware of these muted expectations and the social drawbacks associated with achievement.

What can you do to help?


  • Challenge any bias, misconceptions and stereotypes among educators, parents, or the community. This may require ongoing continuing education for teachers and administrators, personal introspection and behavior change among parents, and advocacy in the schools. But false beliefs about gifted girls' abilities or giftedness in general need to be acknowledged and eradicated.
  • Help gifted girls appreciate their innate abilities. Gifted girls need to be reminded that they are smart. This contradicts recent claims from "growth mindset," advocates, who imply that informing gifted children of their abilities will somehow destroy their drive to achieve. Yet, most research related to gifted girls has shown that they lack confidence, doubt their innate talents, and already attribute their accomplishments to hard work. They need to recognize their abilities, and also receive encouragement to challenge themselves, work up to their potential, and take risks.
  • Introduce them to female role models.  Girls benefit from meeting women who have achieved success in non-traditional fields, who represent STEM fields in particular, and who have managed to balance work and family commitments. And role models not only include successful CEOs or aerospace engineers. Engaging, dynamic female teachers and moms may be the best role models of all.
  • Encourage risk-taking. At an age when caution and worry increase, gifted girls need encouragement to take as many academic risks as possible. This might involve exploring new areas of study; trying something difficult even if they risk failure; allowing themselves to compete, despite possibly upsetting their friends; challenging perfectionistic behaviors; and putting themselves first when appropriate. The more risk-taking and "failure" experiences they have, the more likely they will build the confidence they need to succeed in later careers.
  • Offer ability grouping. Gifted girls benefit from ability grouping where they no longer have to hide their talents and may feel less conflict about competition. Their intelligence is respected rather than ridiculed, and they can engage in challenging interaction with peers. This is not only beneficial from an educational standpoint, but serves to increase their self-esteem and belief that that it is OK to be smart.
  • Get them involved in competitive activities. Some studies have shown that girls who participate in team sports in high school are more likely to graduate from college, earn a higher salary and work in male-dominated fields. But if sports just don't grab their interest, competition can be found in music, chess, robotics, hack-a-thons, reading olympics and many other venues. Helping girls learn to compete without guilt is useful preparation for later academic and career challenges.
  • Address insecurities and fears. Help these talented girls overcome any lurking fears and self-doubt. Middle school is a time when anxiety, depression, body image concerns, and social anxiety may develop. Address any tendencies toward perfectionism, procrastination, test anxiety, underachievement and low self-esteem. They may need help with social skills, particularly if there is asynchronous development, if they have accelerated a grade or two, or if their values and sensibilities are quite different from those of other students. Help them find like-minded peers, even if this means seeking out extra-curricular activities or summer programs. If they need counseling, find a licensed mental health professional who can help them.
  • Engage their giftedness. Recognize their heightened sensitivity, concern with fairness and justice, and need for creative and intellectual stimulation. Help them find outlets for their passions, an opportunity for creative expression, and volunteer activities where they can extend their caring and compassion for others. Challenge them to excel, but avoid pressure or coercion. Even if they are bored or unhappy at school, help them recognize that they can always find some interests that will enliven and entertain them.

Gifted middle school girls deserve every opportunity to reach their potential. As teachers or parents, you can guide them to through this difficult transition and provide the foundation for their future development.


In addition to my work with gifted individuals, I have specialized in women's issues and eating disorders for over 30 years. This blog post is one in a series about gifted girls and women.

Other posts about gifted girls and women include:

Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths
What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Gifted women, gifted girls and mental health
Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?
What stops girls from learning math?