Praising ‘natural brilliance’ harms girls and boys alike

Posted on: 19 Jul 2017

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge, and GSA President, reflects on a study highlighting how children as young as six can be influenced by stereotypes such as the idea that brilliance or giftedness is more common in men.

Research findings publicised earlier this year suggested that girls as young as six tend to believe that brilliance is a male trait and, unlike boys, girls also believe that achieving good grades in school is directly related to innate abilities (as opposed to hard work).

One of the experiments conducted as part of the research presented a group of six and seven year old boys and girls with two very similar games – one described as being for ‘really, really smart’ children, the other for children who ‘try really, really hard’. The boys and girls were equally interested in the game described as being for children who try really hard, but girls were less interested than boys in the game described as being for really smart children.

Why is this troubling? Not just because young children should not have to encounter gender stereotypes but also because of the potential this has to influence children's decisions about the subjects or activities they choose to pursue, to put effort into, or even in which to participate at all. If children are limiting their interests to areas in which they believe themselves to be innately talented they could be limiting their options long before they reach secondary education let alone choose their optional GCSE subjects. As Andrei Cimpian, a co-author of the research from New York University, explains: “because these ideas are present at such an early age, they have so much time to affect the educational trajectories of boys and girls”.

The purpose of education and training is, to state the obvious, to learn. So, to put any premium on innate ability, talent or prior progress seriously misses the point. It is essential that, as educators, we celebrate progress and not the ease with which people achieve a task on first attempt. Children should be free to invest more time in pursuits that they find enjoyable. But it is essential that we don’t allow the perception to prevail that natural talent is more important than mastering a particular challenge. Neither should we allow assumptions that some academic subjects or pursuits require a prerequisite ability that can neither be learned nor taught. Modern research into the brain’s plasticity is unequivocal; neural pathways can be laid down at any time of life in both the male and female brain. There is literally nothing that children cannot get better at with repeated practice. Innate ability should, therefore, be redefined as an understanding that some children are early starters compared to others. In the long run, it is the skills required to commit to honing a craft and overcoming difficulties that will be most useful in years to come – whether as a professional athlete, a surgeon, or an engineer.

So, too heavy a focus on natural talent is detrimental for boys and girls alike. For instance, if children are encouraged to stick to subjects that they find easy, or for which they receive the most praise, and to rule out those that they find difficult, then they will receive a narrowed educational experience. Nationally, three quarters of the A Level English cohort over the past three years were girls. Conversely, only 20 percent of the A Level Physics cohort is girls. But as educators we must be mindful that we don't reinforce society's stereotypes that boys are innately less creative and that girls find Mathematics and Science more challenging. Teachers' and parents' expectations matter. They can perpetuate gender outcomes or they can bring about change.

To counter any suggestions that some children are naturally more brilliant than others, we encourage our students from Junior School right through to Sixth Form to develop a ‘growth mind-set’. We talk about laying down new neural pathways and the endless possibilities of each human brain and, by doing so, we erase the limitations imposed by having a ‘fixed mind-set’. We create a learning environment in which young people are not held back by either gender stereotyping or outmoded beliefs about the fixed potential of each individual.

At our school we understand that, without meaningful feedback, the aspirations described above will be just that; aspirations. Someone who initially struggles with a difficult mathematical problem does not feel that because they didn’t solve it on their own on the first attempt there is no hope. The same is true of a child who feels that they can’t sing, or who is an unconfident swimmer. The way feedback is given highlights that any First Attempt in Learning (or ‘FAIL’) is followed by Second Attempts in Learning (or ‘SAIL’). These second attempts are based on specific feedback and dedicated reflection time. None of us really thinks that if you can’t do something on the first attempt you should give up. So the way we give feedback to children never suggests that we do.

Making it the norm to have more than one round of feedback on a task doesn’t only benefit those who have found it difficult. It benefits those who think they have aced it on the first attempt too. People who are naturally talented in one area can always do better! And they should not be limited by a fear of not looking talented. Gold medallists, scientists who have cured diseases, and engineers who have invented something that saves lives did not rest on their laurels. They moved on to the next challenge in a similar area or a brand new one. So, however impressive or seemingly ‘talented’ in their field, everyone can do better in the areas in which they are not so successful, simply by being committed and working hard.

Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge has recently argued: “if we are to facilitate a gender-balanced workforce of engineers, mathematicians and physicists in the future it is clear interventions at secondary school just aren’t going to be sufficient." She is right. Which is why, at St Mary's School, Cambridge we start in Reception to work hard with our staff, pupils and parents to ensure that as our students develop they achieve their fullest potential and become their best and most authentic selves, measuring their achievements and those of others not by perceptions of gender or innate talent, but by an understanding of the transformative power of hard work and practice.

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About Charlotte Avery

Charlotte Avery is Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President