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Head's November Message

November 9, 2017

This summer I was fortunate to spend time with other heads of school at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania, where we heard from two leading researchers about adolescence and the brain: Frances Jensen, chair of the Neurology Department, and Angela Duckworth, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology and author of the best-selling Grit. I thought that in these weeks after preliminary comments when many of us are having parent-teacher conferences, it might be helpful to share some of what I've learned.

If you visit a typical classroom in Japan and ask the kids, “Who is the best student in the class?” they will point to the child who has the greatest work ethic. If you visit a typical classroom in the U.S. and ask the same question, they will point to the child who has to work the least to be successful.

This is a strangely American way of thinking. It isn't enough sometimes for us to succeed — we feel the need to succeed without effort. We admire the "genius" or the "natural" over the person who has to grind her way through.

I was raised to believe that IQ is very much like height or eye color: it is something that is fixed, and we have almost no control over it. But thanks to new brain development research, we now know that IQ can change dramatically during adolescence — that it is not remotely fixed.

The brain grows visibly with practice. The more enriching the environment, the more it grows and the stronger it builds the synapses, particularly in the teen years. We can see this clearly with the way our kids learn languages, intuit technology, increase their reading speed, or develop their hand-eye coordination with such rapid speed. The bad news is that when the brain is undergoing massive restructuring during the teen years, teens are also more susceptible to addictions — their phones, drugs and alcohol, vaping, or other negative habits.

The good news is that students who have tenacity and passion can develop as intellectuals or athletes or artists in ways far more than we ever imagined: Talent x Effort = Skill and Skill x Effort = Achievement. Bottomline, effort in these areas is far more important than the innate ability we all have.

It would sound from this that I'm saying that kids should be working ten or 12 hours a day and that everyone simply needs to work harder. That is not the case. What researchers know is that the best way to improve is through many high-quality bursts of effort. Olympians, for example, train about four hours a day, and we don't want our kids working more than an Olympian at peak effort!

The best strategy for our kids to use is what is called deliberate practice. They should be setting goals for themselves to learn, not tasks for themselves to accomplish. When they are doing their math, they should be saying to themselves, "I'm practicing factoring" or "I'm working on reducing fractions" not "I'm finishing the odd-numbered problems."

But above all else, our kids need to believe, to know, to truly understand that they can improve through the work that they are doing in the classroom, in the studios and on the fields here. With interest in the subjects, with an understanding of why they are doing the work, and with a growth mindset, they will continue to amaze themselves — and us — with their achievements.

— Andy Abbott