Today, in Curmudgeon’s Corner, we take issue with Salman Khan, founder of the phenomenally impressive and successful learning site Khan Academy. #YouCanLearnAnything is the message, and you have to admit it’s an appealing thought. “No-one is born smart” is the opening line to the video… and that’s where it all falls apart for me.
In the accompanying blog, Khan leans heavily on research which contrasts a ‘growth mindset’ with a ‘fixed mindset’. The theory is that by adopting the former – by encouraging and praising persistence, rather than easily-achieved achievement – the child’s brain will actually grow. They will become better at learning, through learning.
So what’s not to like? I’d love to believe it; it’s a message of hope and untapped potential. But it all feels a bit…sloppy. Khan’s example of praise that fits the growth mindset is,
“I really like how you struggled with that problem”
That sounds comical to my ear, at least. I can’t see my 6-year-old taking much away from it, either.
But more fundamentally Khan seems to equate ‘intelligence’ with ‘potential’. There was a time when Einstein couldn’t count, he says. Does that imply that all children who can’t count could become Einstein with the right encouragement? If that’s not what he meant, it’s a soundbite. ‘We all start at zero’ is another: that’s true enough, but some of us are born with rocket-boosters strapped to our arse (others are gifted them at prep school).
The idea that intelligence is fixed is one that has led us down some dark and dangerous roads in the past, of course, not least because you tend to pick a definition to suit your needs. But to define intelligence as something infinitely elastic, to equate it with our skills and knowledge, isn’t at all helpful.
Any decent teacher will focus on a child’s potential, and to consider this as infinite is sensible – if not strictly accurate. It acknowledges that we all start from different places, but that we can shape our destiny more often than may seem apparent. Some people will have to try harder to get there, others will get a helping hand, but that’s life (and worth knowing, so we can do something about it).
If that seems like semantics, you’re probably right. Praise your kids as they try to do their times tables, but praise them when they get the answer correct, too: it’s what they’ve been struggling to achieve, and we all want that recognised. They might not be any more intelligent, but they can at last work out if you’ve diddled them out of their pocket money.