The Third Way: Effort Creates Ability

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This is an excerpt from an article titled “From Aptitude to Effort: A New Foundation for Our Schools,” written by Lauren B. Resnick, director of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

I think it holds a key to understanding what needs to change about our children’s education, and what needs to change about how all of us think about achievement and how it works:

“Early in this [the 20th] century, Americans built an education system around the assumption that aptitude is paramount in learning and that it is largely hereditary. The system was oriented toward selection, distinguishing the naturally able from the less able and providing students with programs thought suitable to their talents.

In other periods, most notably during the Great Society reforms, we worked on a compensatory principle, arguing that special effort, by an individual or an institution, could make up for low aptitude.

The third possibility—that effort actually creates ability, that people can become smart by working hard at the right kinds of learning tasks—has never been taken seriously in America or indeed in any European society, although it is the guiding assumption of education institutions in societies with a Confucian tradition.

Although the compensatory assumption is more recent in American education history, many of our tools and standard practices are inherited from the earlier period in which aptitude reigned supreme. As a result, our schools largely function as if we believed that native ability is the primary determinant in learning, that the ‘bell curve’ of intelligence is a natural phenomenon that must necessarily be reproduced in all learning, that effort counts for little.”

This third way—believing in the power of effort to create ability, create intelligence—is the only way forward in a world that demands ever-greater knowledge and skill. And it’s not just a matter of belief: a growing body of evidence from cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that intelligence is expandable—with, as Resnick says, “the right kinds of learning tasks.”

(Resnick’s passage is featured in the latest issue of my newsletter, The Brilliant Report, which now comes out weekly. To sign up, please enter your information in the box in the upper-left corner of this page.—Annie)

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5 Responses to “The Third Way: Effort Creates Ability”

  1. Rterman says:

    Schooling and practice may boost intelligence, but only so much. Obviously, intelligence is not indefinitely boostable, and the profit one receives from schooling is dependent on one’s innate intelligence.

  2. anniempaul says:

    Actually, Rterman, it’s impossible to say what anyone’s “innate intelligence” is. From the moment of birth and even before (see my book “Origins”), our genetic inheritance (what I assume you mean by “innate”) is shaping and being shaped by our environment.

  3. Effort creates ability:
    “* * Tell me. I may not get it, I’m sure to forget it.
    * * Show me. I may get it, I’ll remember it for a little while.
    * * Have me do it. I’ll understand it, it may stick for awhile.”

  4. luca says:

    Recently I got to know the work of BJ Fogg, particularly his counterintuitive take on motivation. He rejects the standard theory: manipulating affect (emotions/motivations) to change behavior. He believes in triggering behaviors that can change affect. How to trigger behaviors? By tiny habits that can evolve in complex behaviors. So the causal relation could be: habits -> effort -> ability -> motivation.

  5. Tony Gurr says:

    Mohan – love that updated version :-)

    Anne – what a lovely blog :-) You have another happy “customer” :-)

    Take care,


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