In her book titled Limitless Mind, Professor Jo Boaler discusses six keys of learning to create opportunities for students, adults, and workers to excel in areas they want to. This article will summarize one of the points in the first key: The Problems of Giftedness. She has conducted sixty-two interviews in six different countries with people from different walks of life. Dr. Boaler developed her “The Limitless Approach” to learning and education. The core principle of this approach is that anybody can learn any subject as long as they think positively about their talents and abilities, and put in a lot of effort and practice.
In her interviews, Dr. Boaler met people that had a wide array of myths and psychological pitfalls that prevented them from accomplishing their goals. The interviewees came from all walks of life and indicated that they gave up studying subjects that they loved including math, science, and English. They believed that they lacked the right mind for these fields, or that they were incapable of learning them, because they struggled in learning them. They also gave up on all math related subjects, such as engineering, science, and technology.
To address these problems, Dr. Boaler had collaborated with brain scientists to learn more about the brain and how we learn in order to help teachers, students, and parents in their subject learning. There is a common misconception among subject fields, especially math, where many children grow up believing that they either are a math person or are not. This is partially due to math anxiety that is widespread in the US and the world. This has become a major hinderance in millions’ mathematics learning. For example, according to one of Dr. Boaler’s studies 48% of young adults working in a work-apprentice program and 50% of students taking introductory math courses (cited in Boaler 2019) have math anxiety. Boaler claims that this might be affecting half of the population.
The idea that people are born with fixed learning abilities is a false misconception and is similar to the misconception that some of society’s highest achievers are successful simply because of their genetics. The idea that our brains are “fixed”, and that we are naturally predisposed to be good or bad at different subjects or activities, is a myth. Research in the last decade has revealed that our brains are incredibly adaptable. Our brains change and reorganize each time we learn something new. These discoveries are all thanks to the research on brain plasticity—neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticitiy was first discovered in the early 20th century by Anders Ericsson, a Swedish-born psychologist, and is one of the pioneers who became aware of the brain’s amazing ability to grow and change.
He designed a study to investigate the limits of people’s ability to memorize a random string of digits. He showed that people could improve their ability to memorize with a study that he published in 1929. He chose an average person—Steve—who happened to be an athlete. He started working with the researchers to memorize digits. His performance was average and he memorized seven numbers in the first day. Steve spent four more days to memorize only nine numbers. Although Ericsson and his research team thought he reached his limit, something remarkable happened: Steve continued to improve and then memorized ten numbers. He did not stop and regularly improved until he had successfully memorized eighty-two random digits. He was just an average college student that had unlocked his learning potential to accomplish a very unique challenge.
Later, Ericsson tried the same study with another average college student, Renee. She started better and learned twenty digits without any trainings. Then, she received fifty hours of training but did not improve at all. She eventually quit the study. This intrigued Ericsson and inspired him to find out what caused Steve to succeed and Renee to fail. Ericsson realized that Steve’s love for running had made him more competitive and motivated to succeed. Steve also developed a new strategy each time he struggled memorizing new digits such as grouping numbers into four four-digit strings.
One of the main takeaways from Steve’s example is that it is smart to develop a new strategy or approach when you encounter a roadblock. Dr. Boaler does not say this is easy and explains it by reminding us why so many people fail to make changes in the time of struggles or running into barriers.
Ericsson repeated his experiment one more time to support his claims from the previous studies. He chose another runner named Dario. Dario was more successful than Steve in memorizing numbers. He remembered more than one hundred numbers. This was not because of Dario’s genetics, but instead because he put in lots of effort and hard work. The idea of genetic ability is both incorrect and damaging as we see today in our education systems where fixed-ability thinking controls and designs our children’s education.
Growth and fixed mindsets
Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford and her research revealed that how we think about our talents has a huge impact on our potential (Dweck 2006). To Dweck, there are two groups of mindsets. The first one is called “growth mindset.” People with this mindset believe that they can learn anything as long as they put in enough effort. The second group has a fixed mindset. People with this mindset believe that their intelligence is more or less fixed and they cannot learn everything. For example, they might believe that they are not a math person so they cannot learn math.
In one of the studies conducted at Columbia University, Dr. Dweck and her colleagues found that stereotyping is still alive and affecting student’s lives. Young female students were given the message that they did not belong in math discipline. Later, they found that this message stuck only with those with a fixed mindset. These people heard the message that math was not for women and they dropped out. However, students with a growth mindset, who believed that anyone can learn anything, remained firm and completed their programs.
We learn a lot of crucial information about the importance of self-beliefs and the role of teachers and parents in influencing students’ lives. But we still receive widespread message containing fixed mindsets and giftedness.
Dr. Boaler underlines the damage of incorrect usage of praises such as “you are smart” or “you are a genius,” coming from parents or others who regularly praise their children by telling them how smart they are in order to build up their self-confidence. Children that only rely on their genius and are not truly taught the value of hard work may face severe obstacles in life later on if they start struggling. Instead, Boaler recommends us to use some alternatives such as, “You can divide fractions? That is great that you have learned how to do that, you must have worked really hard.”
The downside of gifted & talented program in schools
Fixed-brain mindsets have consequences on the vast majority of the population but can also negatively harm society’s most intelligent children, most of which are often labeled as “gifted”. Dr. Boaler explored its negative effects with a film she produced with her youcubed.org team including Sophie Constantinou from Citizen Film. She recruited twelve Stanford students who had the experiences of being labeled as “gifted.” The students were asked to reflect upon their experiences of the labeling. They all gave the same message—they received some advantages but at some costs. They felt the pressure of the label all the time such that they could not ask any questions when they struggled understanding a topic. The students indicated that they had to hide any challenges in order people not to think they do not have a gift. One of the students summarized the burden that came with their gifted labeling as, “If I grew up in a world where no one was labeled as gifted then I would have asked a lot more questions.”
The purpose of classifying some students as gifted is to ensure that high-ability kids are challenged with rigorous and accelerated programs in regular classroom settings. But the problem with this idea is that believing some students are worthy of this program because they have a fixed gift-like present that they had been given as Dr. Boaler points out. Although these students might need special challenging programs, ignoring the rest is not a solution as Dr. Boaler puts it, “the message is that some people are born with something that others cannot achieve” (p. 40).
Another downside of this labeling for the students in Dr. Boaler’s study is that they are not expected to struggle, and when they do it becomes devastating for them. Dr. Boaler shares one of her student’s experiences when she was teaching about research on brain growth and the damage of fixed labels. Her student, Susannah, started talking about her experience of being a gifted student. She had been told frequently that she had a math brain and was very smart. This led her to enroll a math program at UCLA, but things did not go as they were expected to. Susannah took a challenging course in the second year of the program and struggled. She felt that she was not a math person or did not have a math brain after all and ended up dropping out of the program. Unfortunately, Susannah did not know that struggle is a very basic and necessary process for brain growth which could grow the neural pathways she needed to learn more mathematics. If she had known that, Susannah might not had quit and could have graduated with a math major. This is a very real “fixed-ability” scenario that happens every day.
Dr. Boaler does not claim that everyone is born the same. Although everyone has a unique brain at birth, and there are differences between people’s brains, people can change their brain in many ways in terms of achieving things. The proportion of people born with brains so exceptional is literally tiny—less than 0.001 percent of the population. To the contrary of the common belief, Dr. Boaler says, “there is not such thing as a math brain, writing brain, artistic brain, or musical brain” (p 42). That is, we all have to develop the brain pathways to be successful because we all have the potential to learn and achieve at the highest levels as long as we believe that we can succeed and that we are willing to work hard.
Anders Ericsson has studied IQ and hard work for decades and found that people like Einstein, Mozart, Newton and many others are made to be, not born, genius, and their achievements come from extraordinary hard work. This reflects a reality of human condition that “human has only that for which he or she labors” (Qur’an 53:39). Therefore, we need to communicate to all students that they are in a world where growing or evolving is part of everyday life and nothing is fixed about them including gift and/or disability.
In conclusion, the first step towards having a limitless and unlocked life is to know that our brains are given the capacity to constantly reorganize, grow, and change. We need to remember that we are waking up with a changed brain every morning. Our brains are created to make new connections all the time and strengthen older pathways. Once we understand the adaptability of our brains we will start to open our minds and live differently. Then we will not worry about any categorizations we go through at school or work because we know that we have a great growth mindset with which we are enabled to achieve anything we put our minds toward.
- Boaler, J. (2019). Limitless mind: Learn, lead, and live without barriers. Harper Collings Publishers.
- Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Penguin Random House LLC, New York.