The Power of Language: Progress and Effort vs Gifted and Talented

The terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ are widely used in all walks of life, and can be defined as “having exceptional talent or natural ability”.

In education this implies every learner has a ceiling and their success, or lack thereof, is predetermined. Effort will not have an impact, and our success in life is attributed to luck from the gene pool. Surely education is about breaking down barriers and instilling a belief that more is always a possibility. If we take all successful people in life, whether it be sport, art, academics – yes people will quickly identify them as ‘talented’ that they ‘have a gift’, but these statements miss the collective constant – effort. A relentless drive to be successful has been the determining factor and a positive trait they all share. I also find this language interesting since organisations actively measure value added i.e. progress from starting point.

Is it right to praise a learner with straight As at school, (or 8s as it is now known) by attributing it to them being clever, or the fact it comes naturally? “Hold on a minute! I worked for hours upon hours for that success!” said one learner. Which learner has acquired the better skillset for future success, the learner who breezed through their GCSEs and achieved straight As without effort, or the learner who worked incredibly hard to achieve the same grades? Employers will certainly be looking at effort and application and one of these two learners has developed a very useful transferable skill to the workplace.

As a consequence, it is essential we praise the process one went through to achieve i.e. the effort. To praise the outcome and then attribute this to ‘being clever’ or ‘a natural’ is not going to promote a growth mindset, but rather a fixed one. And of course, what happens when a learner is not successful? They believe they are not clever, they don’t have a predetermined ‘gift’ and that extra effort will be irrelevant in making further progress. Some of you will be very familiar with Carol Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success where she explores this topic. How many students believe ‘they can’t’ or they are ‘not clever’. I will never forget a student parent meeting where the parents reinforced several times that their child had never been any good at maths! I asked the learner how many times they had heard this from people and how often he said it to himself. “Every day” he said. The root cause of this is interesting – it is a classic example of attributing failure to ‘ability’. We can link the work by Carol Dweck to Attribution theory by Weiner (1974)

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If we attribute failure to ability this is both internal (a reflection of self) and stable (it won’t change). As depicted above. It was very clear this learner had consistently attributed failure to ‘ability’ and had now developed ‘learner helplessness’ – the belief that one’s effort will not change the outcome. It is a sad reality that too many learners develop learned helplessness which leads to a fixed mindset and a lack of belief in oneself. Students are certainly moulded by the influence of parents and teachers so we must be very aware of our use of language. Are we challenging this attitude, or are we facilitating it?

Some examples of self-deprecating language to look out for:

  • If I study hard and fail, I will look and feel incompetent. That is, if I give my best effort and fail, everyone, including me, will know that I don’t have the ability to do well on this test.
  • If I study hard and pass, the hard work will reduce the glory of my success. People, including me, will think I had to work hard in order to succeed. If I were really smart, I wouldn’t have to work so hard.
  • If I don’t study and fail, I can explain this failure by noting that I haven’t even tried. If I haven’t tried, then people, including me, will think that I could have succeeded if I had really tried. I may fail the test, but at least no one will have evidence that I’m stupid.
  • If I don’t study and pass, then people, including me, will know that I’m a genius. The only explanation for my success would have to be that I have really high ability.

Teachers have a wonderful opportunity in their work to re-set any negative beliefs learners may have and stop this becoming their focus. A key question for me is – do we enable our learners to experience early success in their studies? do we strive to instil a belief that they can achieve? and do we praise the process and attribute this success to ‘effort’ as opposed to ‘ability’?

The same principles apply to teachers. All teachers can develop their teaching practice, break down barriers, take risks and be innovative. This will only happen if the organisation invests in CPD and adopts a lesson observation policy which enables staff to own their development and indeed be supported to embed new techniques. A coaching culture and sharing of best practice are key to increasing teacher confidence together with a belief that they can continuously grow and develop as skilled practitioners.

Learner feedback is key to developing a growth mindset in our learners. Below are a series of questions Ofsted will consider when reviewing learner work:

  1. Is the work well presented? Does the learner take pride in their work?
  2. Is the standard of work appropriate to the level and time in the academic year?
  3. Does the feedback make clear how the learner could improve their work?
  4. Is it clear what the learner has done well?
  5. Is it clear what skills the learner could develop to help with future work?
  6. Are errors in relation to spelling, punctuation & grammar identified?

It is pleasing to see Ofsted’s focus on reviewing the quality of feedback and how it aligns to developing a growth mindset, and not feedback which solely focuses on outcome. We recently held a joint work scrutiny activity at college to review the quality of marked work using the questions stated above. It was a fascinating activity and it is certainly very easy to fall into the trap of simply marking to state a grade, of course, time is always a barrier and the sector is actively investing in numerous software packages to make marking less time consuming.

So, Is the use of ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ positive language in education?

I certainly believe many more students would positively approach challenges if they believed everyone has the tools to be successful and that failure is a part of learning and attributed to ‘effort’ as opposed to ‘ability’. Progress from starting point is an essential measure to review the impact the organisation has had on each learner irrespective of starting point, every learner is on their own journey with their own aspirations, so to pigeon hole learners in a certain category can develop limiting behaviours which is a sad irony considering our role is to break down barriers.

I certainly support the new proposed Ofsted framework which adds focus on the learner experience and less focus on simply academic outcomes. I hope this proves to be the case in reality – it will go some way to developing the student we teach.

Can you imagine a society that didn’t posses limiting attitudes and behaviours, but was collectively aspirational, a society which isn’t governed by what could go wrong, but what could be amazing.

As Henry Ford once said:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right,”

Language is power.

Kind regards,

Dan