Home All Myths of Education: Bottom Students Are Not Hardworking, Motivated, or Bright (Part 1 of 3)

Myths of Education: Bottom Students Are Not Hardworking, Motivated, or Bright (Part 1 of 3)

written by Christine Duvivier 9 January 2009

Christine Duvivier, MAPP '07 and Cornell MBA, is a positive change speaker and mentor who helps her clients unleash hidden talents, develop skills, and take practical steps to achieve higher levels of happiness and success. In her career at DuPont, Eli Lilly, and DEC, she learned to lead with positive alignment and release what holds us back. Christine's model builds on strengths, challenges myths, and cultivates possibility in each individual, even if they are not currently "A" players. Web site. Email. Full bio. Christine's articles are here.

This is the first article in a 3-part series.   Read here about Myth #2

Girl at overlook - positive psychology news dailyThree 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:

  1. Not being a top student means you are not hardworking, motivated, or intelligent.
  2. Being a top student leads to a great life.
  3. 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.

————————————– * * * ————————————

Myth #1: Bottom Students Do Not Work Hard

Girl studying - PPNDContrary 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

girl and girl reading (from imagebase),
Vernon Smith from Nobel Prize photo gallery

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Sean 9 January 2009 - 11:43 am

Thank you Christine. It is an important, important reminder that our kids strengths really are strengths to be celebrated and nurtured. The Tara example included in an article on “Myths” jumped out at me too. Green Tara, in the Buddhist pantheon, is considered to represent virtuous and enlightened activity (amoung other things). Sounds like your Tara.


Christine Duvivier 9 January 2009 - 2:52 pm

Sean, thanks for enlightening me on Green Tara– a great connection!

John Yeager 9 January 2009 - 3:03 pm

Christine: Thanks for instructing how adults – teachers and parents – can re-frame their subtle fixed mindsets that get in the way of truly nurturing young people.

John Y.

KevinT 10 January 2009 - 1:43 pm

Seems to me that this message requires much caution. Although it is true that some low performance students are not lacking in motivation and discipline, many are. And, while we all know that some very poor students did well later in life, they are very much the exception, not the rule.
Empiric observation teaches that many low performance students lack discipline and focus and work ethic.
It is not likely that a young person who only does what “suits their interest” will thrive in life, as achievement of many goals requires discipline, hard work, delayed gratification, self control and a keen sense of delayed gratification.
That said, it is true that some kids have interests that differ from mainstram education, and can thrive when they pusue those interests. That does not mean that others are not what oldtimers like me would call “lazy.” My observation is that most low performers were kids who did not do their homework, partied a lot, watched lots of television, did not go to practice, did not pay attention in class, refused to focus, sought instant gratification, indulged alcohol, sex and later drugs, and overall did lots less than their high performing peers. Overall, it’s a mistake to encourage or endorse such behavior because some of those kids are “hidden geniuses” in music or something else…
It may be that low performance kids have equal or greater innate talent/intellect –they often just decline to do the hard work necessary to leverage those talents..
As we all know, happiness is greatly enhanced by active energetic pusuit of goals with use of our strngths; not sitting in front of the TV eating chips while our classmates do their homework.

KevinT 10 January 2009 - 1:58 pm

It is true that being a top student does not NECESSARILY lead to a great life. However, academic achievement greatly increases the odds of schieving a great life.
I am acutely aware of the research suggesting that the GREATEST professional achievement/life success is correlated with emotional and social intelligence rather than IQ/academic excellence and, therefore, highest academic achievement does not guarantee you’ll be CEO.
However, high academic achievers are much more likely overall to have thriving fulfilling lives than low achievers. And, I dare say that being CEO is not necessarily the path to a great life, if positive pyschology has anything to say about the matter.
Indeed, high academic achievement generally correlates with discipline, perseverance, determination, grit, intellect, curiosity, self regulation and self efficacy, at least…
Sure, there are some high academic achievers who lack social skills and intelligence and who do not thrive. There are many more high caademic achievers who do thrive….
I’d be vary wary about a message that seems to imply that its quite OK to perform poorly in school and that high achievers are turkeys who lose. That message is not only inaccurate; it’s destined to encourage life failure.. If anything, we need to find ways to get low performers interested in academic achievement, not find ways to suggest that being a low performer is quite OK, because “someday you’ll find something you really want to do…”

Christine Duvivier 11 January 2009 - 1:05 pm

Dear Kevin, As someone who personally loves school, I can relate to your point about and agree that there are many high-academic-achievers who thrive. Thank you for clarifying that.

And thank you for raising the point that we don’t want to simply accept “acting out” behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, or “tuning-out” of life. I agree that it’s crucial to help all teens find ways to engage. Where you and I may not agree is this: I think that school as we do it today (in many cases) is not well-suited to eliciting the gifts and strengths that will serve teens for life.

If we keep in mind that the root of “discipline” is “to teach” or “to learn,” then self-discipline is self-teaching or self-learning. Although I didn’t use this term, in keeping with this definition I found that kids in the bottom 80% are self-disciplined.

Thanks for your comments,

KevinT 11 January 2009 - 4:43 pm

Thanks for your kind note.
Perhaps where we depart agreement has only to do with the size of the cohort. I surely agree with you that some students–whether under or over or average achievers– are not well served by public schools. I also agree that some under performerswork hard and have discipline. Where we depart company is your suggestion that all underperformers are, in fact, exercising self discipline and are motivated and hard working. That is inconsistent with my life experiences and empirical observation. Moreover, some students are not well served by their schools because they do not, in fact, put in the effort. Not everyone needs all that is taught for a fruitful and fulfilling life, but, overall, most of what is taught is essential for thriving in mainstream society. Of course, some choose to reject the mainstream…

Joan Young 13 January 2009 - 12:50 am

Thank you so much for this article. I hear these myths perpetuated by both teachers and parents. My goal as a teacher and parent educator is to help reframe the messages we give kids: we need to emphasize hard work and commitment while helping kids find the strengths to utilize in all areas.

Joan Young 13 January 2009 - 10:12 am

As I read back over the comments posted, I wanted to add that it’s very important when we pursue the line of thinking that “kids don’t put forth the effort” that it could be that sometime during their education they have not been supported in the belief that effort is what matters and that things that are worthwhile usually don’t come without sweat and tears. I work with many students as a tutor/coach and I hear their “self talk” as they battle with academic subjects that are challenging for them. They say, “I’m not good at that” and they don’t necessarily believe that they can change it! I think that we need to begin earlier with kids, not calling them “smart” or “gifted” when they achieve, but praising hard work and effort and the occasions when they muddle through and make progress on a challenging task.

Kathryn Britton 13 January 2009 - 11:11 am

It comes back to Carol Dweck’s mindsets, doesn’t it.

The fixed mindset is the one in use when kids say “I’m not good at that,” — as if there were a fixed set of abilities that they are discovering, rather than a variable set that they are building.

Joan, I think you are describing giving process praise instead of person praise — a skill I wish I had learned BEFORE I had children. http://theanocoaching.wordpress.com/2007/10/23/process-praise-and-growth-mindsets/

Dweck and colleagues found that children that receive process praise are more willing to try challenging tasks and less affected by failure than those receiving “You are so smart” praise.


Christine Duvivier 13 January 2009 - 1:10 pm

Dear Joan,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you (and Kathryn) on mindset– that is, helping kids to know that they can learn, rather than broad praise about a perceived trait “smart, quick, etc.” I think the work you are doing in helping kids draw on their own resources to meet and transcend challenges is wonderful!

My thoughts on hardwork probably differ from some: when kids work hard at something they want to learn/do, that is fantastic. I do not believe that asking them to work hard on fitting themselves into what others have decided are the “best molds” for students is ultimately what we want education to do. But for now we have to do whatever we can to help them find their own self-efficacy, strengths and gifts.

It’s wonderful to know that people like you are out there helping them!

Christine Duvivier 13 January 2009 - 1:22 pm

Dear Kevin,
Thank you for your added insights! Clearly there is a great deal that we agree on — including the idea that many students are well-served by many aspects of school — and by the dedicated, caring educators who do their very best (all of my work has emphasized that the issues are systemic and not a “flaw or fault” with educators).

In a short comment, it isn’t always easy to clarify, but I’ll try briefly. I believe we can transform the education experience for all students and transcend some of the systemic issues that exist. Also, when I say broadly that students in the bottom 80% are self-disciplined, motivated, intelligent, capable of learning and/or hardworking I am referring to the situations where that is the case– which is not always in a school setting. In my study, I explain — based on George Vaillant’s adaptation model and other researchers’ work– that kids use a healthy strategy to protect their inner core. Unfortunately, that may include immature coping mechanisms — acting out, not studying etc.
Thanks for your comments!

Christine Duvivier 13 January 2009 - 1:25 pm

PS Kevin — if you have further interest, you might want to take a look at my presentation and paper which give a bit more on these topics: http://www.positiveleaders.com/studyresults.html

KevinT 14 January 2009 - 10:47 am

Thanks. Will do.

Leah R. 16 February 2009 - 9:51 pm

This article hits the nail on the head with its acknowledgment that a child’s best learning is not only self-motivated, but self-directed. I am wondering, Christine, if you have read John Holt’s work, particularly “Learning All the Time” or “How Children Fail”? While your focus is primarily on teens, his observations of middle school children clearly match yours. And if you haven’t already seen it, Sir Ken Robinson’s TED.com talk on how schools kill creativity is worth watching, both for its message and its humor. Thank you for this well-worded piece of myth-busting.

Christopher 11 January 2012 - 4:19 pm

Christine and Kevin,

I realize I am coming to this discussion a couple years late so I am not sure if you will see this but I thought I would post, just in case.

I was very interested in reading through your comments and the discussion you were having. I was struck by how what first appeared to be a large area of disagreement turned out to have mainly areas of agreement. (I see this often in my work doing couples counseling and I am always interested when it occurs.)

In short, it seems to me that you both agree on what often times may cause a student to be in the Bottom 80%. You both agree that if a student does not apply themselves, lacks motivation, lacks self-discipline, etc. when doing their school work then they are not likely to succeed in school. It seems that Christine feels that not applying these traits in school does not mean they do not exist in that student. I am unclear on Kevin’s stance on this but I would guess he would agree with that. Both of you also seem to agree that it is important to foster these qualities in students.

Where you seem to possibly differ is on whether we should be helping students build these qualities by showing them the importance of these for school success, and the benefits of school success, or whether we should meet the students where they are and foster these qualities in areas they already have interest.

My thought is that two are not mutually exclusive and in fact both should be encouraged. By recognizing and promoting a students strengths where they already exhibit them, we can help students see these qualities in themselves and believe in there value. We could then help them generalize these skills to apply them in other important places, such as academics. Assuming that schools are teaching relevant and useful information to students, and that may be an entirely different discussion, it certainly would benefit students to approach their academics with self-discipline and motivation.

What do you all think about the combination of these two ideas and the best ways to achieve this?

Thanks for your posts and discussion about this interesting and important topic.

Christine Duvivier 11 January 2012 - 6:55 pm

Hi Christopher, Thank you for your comment and for highlighting common ground. You bring up great points and yes, we agree on many things. Yes, I agree that developing strengths and gifts, and increasing positivity generally, outside of school is valuable and has benefits in school as well.

Where I see it differently is when you say, “… important places, such as academics.” In my research, I found that gifts in many students are actually at odds with typical school academics and that we will benefit by changing our views of these students. I do not believe they benefit from more academic “self-discipline” because this view assumes that the discipline and motivation they have inherently is not enough– and demands that they fit into a prescribed model in order to be considered worthy, rather than recognizing their innate gifts.

If you have any further interest, I’ve described my findings on motivation in more detail in “Successful and Motivated but Not in School”: http://www.christineduvivier.com/2011/02/28/successful-motivated-not-in-school/
and elsewhere in articles and videos on: http://www.christineduvivier.com

Thank you for sharing your perspective, Christopher!



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