Born clever or made?

13 September 2016

Interview with

Professor Robert Plomin, Kings College London and Dr Susana Claro, Stanford University

Is it nature or nuture that determines our grades? Connie Orbach spoke to GradesRobert Plomin and Susana Claro to find out...

Susana - I am Susana Claro. I am currently a doctoral student at Stanford University, researching about beliefs that influence your motivation in an academic setting mostly.

Current mindset refers to simplistic beliefs people have about the nature of intelligence. Carol Dweck has been studying these for more than twenty years and she distinguished two extremes on how these beliefs about your intelligence could be. In one side she distinguished fixed mindset people for people who believed that intelligence is something fixed, it's something you inherited or it doesn't change over time. And the other extreme she labelled as growth mindset, those people who have this belief that intelligence is something malleable that changes over time and can grow, basically.

These two mindsets makes you face failure and interpret failure in radically different ways and, therefore, they trigger different types of action that in the long term can stop your learning or can instead spur it and lead you to challenges and new learnings.

Connie - Do you think your abilities are set in stone, or are the malleable and open to change with a bit of hard work? Research from the States has suggested that those with a growth mindset (the belief in power over your own destiny) achieve more, and Susana's work has built on this with the biggest sample size yet (two hundred thousand Chilean students) looking at educational achievement and economic background.

Susana - We weren't expecting to find such a strong relationship between family and common mindset and we find that as you go up in the family income line, the proportion of students with a growth mindset goes higher, and this is very worrisome given all we know about the benefits of having a growth mindset, especially for academic achievement. So it's a big call of attention that we have to address, we have to help students develop a growth mindset, especially in those sectors where it's more scarce.

We find also that mindset predicts achievement at every income level, at every school. Literally every school has a positive relationship between mindset and achievement and that means that even after you control for every characteristics we have for student background and school background, if you found two students that have everything similar but different mindset, the student with a growth mindset will have a better score than the student with a fixed mindset.

Connie - According to Susana, the mindset of a child impacts on how much they achieve and it's important that they believe that intelligence is not set in stone. But is mindset really all we need to win big?

Robert - Something on the order of two thirds of the differences between children in their GCSE scores can be accounted for by inherited DNA differences.

Connie - Two thirds - a big number right? That's Robert Plomin from King's College London and those results came from a study of twins that Robert did a while ago. He's now built on that work to look at unrelated individuals using only their DNA.

Robert - And we find that we can account for 9% of the differences between children in GCSE scores only, solely on the basis of their DNA differences.

Connie - Now I know what you're thinking - that sounds a lot less than 65%. But the thing about this new study is it only looks at a tiny proportion of the whole DNA and as more is explored, it's likely this number will rise. And when you think about what these numbers mean in real life - well it's quite staggering, as a difference in that 9% of intelligence can make up a whole GCSE grade, so clearly these numbers are important.

But, thinking about Susana's work, knowing the limits of your intelligence sounds pretty damaging. Robert, however, sees it a different way.

Robert - It doesn't mean we're deterministic about it - it doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. But what it does mean is that it's much more difficult for some children to do well at the academic game. Other kids will find it kind of easy to do. Now if a child is at the low end of that distribution, I think it's useful to know that because you can, first of all, adjust expectations if that's what you want to do.

If you just assume as a university professor your kids go on to be university professors, it's not true for all of you kids because there's a big distribution genetically within a family. And so if you say OK, this particular child had a low polygenic score, it doesn't mean you give up on the child, it just means you're going to have to roll up your sleeves and work a lot harder, it's going to be more difficult. You've got to recognise though that kids differ genetically.

It's not just a matter of saying well get a good attitude and work really hard. For some kids, they can work as hard as they want and they can have the best attitude in the world but it doesn't mean they're going to excel at academics, so I think the thrust of this is to say we need to individualise learning. We don't have a universal national curriculum where we expect one size to fit all because it doesn't because kids are so different genetically. It can be a positive message to say that certain kids are going to need a lot more help and resources.

Connie - So as often happens with these nature/nurture debates, it seems for Robert, it's the interplay that important but what about Susana? Does knowledge of limitations fit with growth mindset?

Susana - People worry about you can't tell them the truth, especially all these self esteem movement that you have to make the child feel better and this is important. It's important that the child feels he's worth because everyone is worth no matter what, so that message was confused by saying that everyone was OK and they weren't failing in anything and that is the wrong thing. The message I prefer is the truth with hope and there are studies that show that when you tell the student - yes you need to grow on this but I know you can do it, and I'm saying this because you are able to do it, and I trust you will be able to do it, that show a much higher rate of response on re-writing an essay than when you either just tell the truth without the hope or you just don't say anything. So tell them where they are but tell them that can change. That's not destiny and they can grow their brain. Their connections are going to get faster, they're going to get better and you trust that they are going to do it as well.

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