I deeply believe that children are beautiful, capable, and competent humans, and it’s our job (as parents, educators, people) to help them be the best version of themselves.
This core belief has driven me professionally for over 20 years now, and it’s one of my top deal breakers when it comes to anyone with whom I work. If you connect with me on this belief, you are one of my people.
Adam Grant is one of my people.
In the seventh chapter of Hidden Potential, called “Every Child Gets Ahead: Designing Schools to Bring Out the Best in Our Students,” Grant delves into the beliefs and structures that can help children reach their potential.
In order to get anything out of his writing, however, you must believe all children have potential, and it certainly helps if you’re operating in a system that shares that belief.
Unfortunately, the US education system doesn’t seem to share that belief, as Grant shares: “The US education system is built around a culture of winner take all. We assume that potential is rooted primarily in innate ability that shines through early. As a result, we value demonstrated excellence – which leads us to adopt practices geared toward identifying and investing in students who show obvious signs of brilliance.”
So, in the US, only those who have demonstrated excellence are those aforementioned beautiful, capable, and competent humans.
Conversely, Grant discusses Finland, emphasizing some of the key differences in approach and culture to the US. He begins by sharing the foundational belief of the Finnish educaitonal system: “The culture is rooted in a belief in the potential of all students. Instead of singling out the best and brightest, Finnish schools are designed to give every student the opportunity to grow.”
This approach, he argues, benefits everyone, with the data showing that, “Being disadvantaged was less of a disadvantage in Finland than anywhere else” because in Finland the approach is “to invest in every student regardless of apparent ability.”
So, in Finland, all kids are worthy, and this belief helps all children (even the disadvantaged) benefit.
Even before I went into education professionally, I was a product of the education system. Between K-12 education, college, and my graduate degrees, I’ve been to a lot of school. I was identified early in my school career as a highly gifted learner and participated in pull-out programs in elementary school and tracked coursework starting in middle school. The placement test I took in sixth grade dictated the rest of my math education. And the test I took in eighth grade foretold my Humanities future.
And I guess it benefited me.
But what if I had an off day and messed up a placement test? What if it took me a little longer, and I didn’t grasp some of the mathematical concept until seventh grade? What if, gasp!, who I was as a student in elementary school wasn’t indicative of my learning potential?
In the US, I’d have been labeled early as not worth the investment.
Enter Finland. Grant shares, “Finland’s education system has created a culture of opportunity for all. The underlying assumption is that intelligence comes in many forms and every child has the potential to excel. This assumption gives rise to a central value of educational equity – and then a set of practices designed to help every child get ahead. Success isn’t just reserved for the gifted and talented; the aim is to give all students great teachers and a personalized plan for growth.”
What?!?! You mean all students deserve to learn? Not only gifted learners? Everyone should get great teachers? And not everyone is the same?
My mom used to joke that she didn't know that there could be more than two opposites until she had a third child (I am the oldest of three). And now that I am a parent, I understand it. My four children, while they share DNA and a house, are so incredibly different – from their likes/dislikes to their dispositions to the way they are motivated to learn. What about a classroom of 20 kids who don’t share DNA or a house?
Again, enter Finland: “Finnish schools create cultures of opportunity by enabling students to build individualized relationships, receive individualized support, and develop individualized interests.”
So in Finland, all students have opportunity, and there is no cookie cutter version of what a student is supposed to act like/be like/learn like? And this works? Shocking!
Throughout the chapter, Grant discusses other important concepts like fostering intrinsic motivation (“The wellspring of intrinsic motivation is having the freedom of opportunity to explore our interests.”) and how it is connected to choice (“Interest is amplified when we have the opportunity to choose what we learn and share it with others. Intrinsic motivation is contagious.”) as well as the power of reading (“Reading is a gateway to opportunity. It opens the door for children to keep learning.”) and how it is often not connected to being forced to read the classics.
So…students when students get choice to pursue their interested, they are more motivated to learn, and that intrinsic motivation can be a strong driver of learning? Again, shocking!
I joke, but it’s so surprising to me how these seemingly-obvious concepts are, largely, just not a part of our educational system…and then we wonder why our educational system is not strong and not serving our students.
But wait, there’s more!
He also emphasized the significant role of schools and teachers by sharing, “Our experiences in school can either fuel or flatten our growth. Using whatever resources they have, some schools and teachers manage to create learning environments that bring out the best in us. Around the world, evidence shows that whether children get ahead or fall behind depends in part on the cultures created in schools and classrooms.”
So, no pressure, but what happens in school really does matter? And we’re still not doing a good job?
Grant’s chapter opens with a quote from Marva Collins: “Just as Michelangelo thought there was an angel locked inside every piece of marble, I think there is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”
As I read this, I am both inspired and moved to tears. I do truly believe there is a brilliant child locked inside every student. And the fact that so many of those brilliant children stay locked up is heartbreaking. Especially when we know what to do…
Grant ends, “An education system isn’t truly successful until all children – regardless of background and resources – have the opportunity to reach their potential…it’s about fostering a culture that allows all students to grow intellectually and thrive emotionally.”
Yep, Adam Grant is definitely one of my people!