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Zero talent required: qualities for growth

Zero talent required: qualities for growth

“Comparison is the thief of time.”
Theodore Roosevelt

I am very proud to have my own children attend the school where I work; they are getting a wonderful education. As well as being taught by caring, passionate, articulate teachers, they are surrounded by an extraordinary cohort of peers (and we know, especially in High School, that peers are as important as parents for influence). They are being taught to balance natural high ambitions for themselves with broader concern for others; and developing the intellectual insight to understand that the two are not actually so different. So I see my children’s values being shaped; their minds and bodies being stretched. It’s all good?

It is all good. But there is also a loss, for some students. It’s one that I have seen in numerous conversations; other parents have confirmed it, and there is a really important message for our community and for us as a society.

The loss is that surrounded by a large number of high-capability, driven students, many perfectly good students will feel completely average, or worse, failures. Small wonder that self-image can take a knock, at least initially. And it’s understandable really—the cognitive shortcut we use to answer how am I doing? is how am I doing compared to people I know? rather than how am I doing compared to reasonable standards? Experience tells me that our students tend to go on to do very well—but they don’t feel that way here when looking around themselves.

Of course the same is largely true for adults too. We tend to compare our jobs, salaries, status to others around us, forgetting that globally we have far greater good fortune than the majority of the world, now, or in history. We should know better—but for our students, all they have is the reference point of school; and this can mean that the standards they use are so absurdly high that what would have been very good or excellent in some previous schools is now average. That many of our typical students would be academically outstanding at most other schools is confirmed by teachers’ anecdotal impressions and objective ISA data. The situation is not helped by what can be an unhealthy focus on Oxbridge or Ivy League colleges as the only valuable post-school destinations (just for the record; for most students, even some brilliant ones, they are not).

The knock-on consequences of this are many and well documented; shallower learning; a lack of joy in learning and possibly further afield, a narrowing of intellectual curiosity; poor sleep habits; low self-esteem. At the extreme levels, students can lose their way completely.

What is the answer? Well, we need to recognise that there are broader social and cultural themes here, and understand that students pick up all the messages from school, peers, home, and more widely. Simply discussing these matters has to be a good start. For our part, we are seeking to mitigate against this through our focus on growth, and effort/approaches to learning rather than simply raw attainment and our emphasis on criteria for success rather than rankings. The truth, however, is that none of this will work if we push students for top grades rather than maximum commitment; if we insist students get tutoring even when they do not need it; and if we constantly praise ‘smartness’ or ‘talent’ for its own sake. The oft-quoted list of practices that ‘require zero talent’ here is, for me, profound.

These require zero talent:
1. Being on time
2. Work ethic
3. Effort
4. Positive body language
5. Energy
6. Positive attitude
7. Passion
8. Being coachable
9. Doing extra
10. Being prepared

This is the kind of language we should be using. Far from being against talent, these are the kinds of qualities that will create it and allow it to grow, rather than simply label it. And once created, these are the qualities that will ensure talent is put to good use, for the betterment of all, and not just used as a trophy. These are the qualities that should be the staples of our conversations with students.

By Nick Alchin
High School Principal and Deputy Head of Campus
East Campus
This piece originally appeared as a post on Nick's blog, On Education
14 Jun 2016
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