This is the first article in a 3-part series. Read here about Myth #2.
Three false, harmful myths are holding our children back. When we de-bunk these myths, the future looks very bright for our teens. In fact, in recent study, I found that—no matter what their GPA—teens will have great opportunities because world, corporate, and scientific prospects depend on a far broader set of characteristics than those we emphasize in our system of education. I’d like us to create systems where more kids can thrive sooner, and that means refuting the myths:
- Not being a top student means you are not hardworking, motivated, or intelligent.
- Being a top student leads to a great life.
- Our approach to education is best for our teens.
This article is the first in a series that will look at each of the myths in turn.
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Myth #1: Bottom Students Do Not Work Hard
Contrary to popular mythology, I found that students in the bottom 80% of their classes actually work much harder than people think. Students in what I call “The Bottom 80™” are told they have learning disabilities or lack motivation, but in fact they are perfectly capable of learning and are highly motivated when the situation suits their interests and their gifts.
- Take Tara for example. When it comes to learning, 16-year-old Tara is a self-starter, but here’s the rub: she resists being “taught” by someone else. Instead, she observes others and practices in her own mind. She made the competitive tennis team in seventh grade, without ever taking a tennis lesson.
- Or consider 17-year-old Elizabeth who can visualize a complex scenario in her head and get an answer without others understanding how she got there. It is a gift that allows her to grasp high-level science concepts easily, but can get in the way of written-language-based learning. In fact, Ron Davis has described the gift of visual thinking as the root of dyslexia in his book, “The Gift of Dyslexia.”
- Laura, age 14, chose a difficult-to-research topic for her first multi-month project, despite pleading from her parents to pick something easier, because she was fascinated by it—she initiated and persisted in tracking-down adults in a remote location that she could interview.
- Matt, whose IQ is 142 but who receives grades in The Bottom 80™, reads for hours on end to learn everything he can about a subject that interests him.
- Michelle is tenacious, “working herself to the bone,” to complete all of her school work.
A common theme among The Bottom 80™ group was tenacity and diligence when a topic interests them— they “become completely absorbed in learning,” and “dive in head first.” These students have gifts that are well-suited to successful lives, but often these abilities are not amplified and enhanced in school. Instead, we may think that these students are not capable because their gifts do not match what we look for in school.
Why Should We Dispel This Myth?We are not helping teens make the most of these vital gifts that have the potential to contribute to the world. Much of school is other-directed, written-language-centric, and not designed to build upon individual students’ gifts and strengths.
If you look at the real-life data, you’ll find that many hardworking, motivated, gifted people—including renowned scientists, leaders, and productive citizens—were not good students. Take Vernon Smith, for example: a Nobel Prize-winner in economics and a “C” student who dropped out of high school. Is he an exception? No. Vernon Smith is someone who was able to amplify his gifts. He thrived with hands-on learning, and disproved the leading economic theory because he designed his class to learn through physical touch and movement, rather than reading and writing.
How Can We Act to Dispel This Myth?
- Educate ourselves and our teens.
We can appreciate the value of each child’s strengths and gifts. Understand how their very gifts can get in the way of performing well in school. Discuss the real-world data on successful people who were not good students.
- Offer more opportunities for kids.
We can learn how to allow teens to use their gifts and strengths in ways that engage them. Ideally, we will do this in classrooms, but at a minimum, this means more opportunities for sports, art, music, community service, meditation, and movement.
- Look at their bright side. When you find their gifts and strengths, all teens look bright.
When we stop thinking of poor performance as a problem with the child, and instead create a sense of awe by seeing how she learns and appreciating her gifts, we will feel confident that the future is bright indeed.
Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Davis, R. (1994). The Gift of Dyslexia. New York: Ability Workshop Press.
Duvivier, C. (2007). Appreciating Beauty in The Bottom 80™. Philadelphia, PA: Capstone Project for University of Pennsylvania MAPP degree.
Hallowell, E. (2003). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy. New York: Ballantine Books.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.