Public Schools

Late Bloomers (Guess what? You didn’t peak in high school ;)

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1480685904-8059-student.dunce-cap

I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist;
on his present showing this is quite ridiculous;
if he can’t learn simple biological facts
he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist,

and it would be a sheer waste of time,
both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

                                                         – school assessment of 15 year-old John B. Gurdon,
recent Nobel Prize winner

This is a story about a new “famous failure”who, at the age of 79, was just honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  His name s John B. Gurdon who won for his discovery of how certain mature cells can be remade into young cells that can be developed into body tissue. Not exactly inconsequential stuff here – this is stem cell research that goes beyond what we think may be possible. This honor was shared with Shinya Yamanaka of Japan.

The schoolmaster left such an indelible impression (see above quote) that Gurdon brings up this nightmarish assessment at the 55 second mark in the short video below – do check it out – it’s priceless.

Terri Pou at TIME writes how Gurdon joins the ranks of other famous failures such as “Woodrow Wilson – governor of New Jersey, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and President of the United States -couldn’t read until he was more than 10 years old; his teachers lumped him in with the slower children in class. Nikola Tesla, a revolutionary scientist whose work on alternating currents is often overlooked in favor of the accomplishments of his mentor Thomas Edison, was accused of cheating after he performed integral calculus in his head. . .”

Let’s hear it for the late bloomers:
the great thinkers and statesmen who for years
struggled to overcome the impression that
they would never amount to anything.”

-Terri Pous, TIME

This is not just a story about a late bloomer.  It is also about pegging students. Smart. Academically challenged. Either label can be a burden to a student for different reasons.  Plus, how do we know for sure?  Does the teaching culture of the school exhibit one-size-fits-all pedagogy?  Are there various modes and opportunities to learn? Do teachers have the time and resources to accommodate students’ varied needs?  Or, do we just love to pigeon-hole students?

According to Carol Dweck, in her classic must-read book, Mindset,
pegging students is a perfect fit with a “fixed mindset”.  Here are excerpts (pps. 39-42) that describe how it works and how devastating it can be:

The story of the tortoise and the hare, in trying to put forward the power of effort, gave effort a bad name. It reinforced the image that effort is for the plodders and suggested that in rare instances, when talented people dropped the ball, the plodder could sneak through.

. . . The problem was that these stories made it into an either-or.  Either you have ability or you expend effort.  And this is part of the fixed mindset.  Effort is for those who don’t have the ability.  People with the fixed mindset tell us,”If you have to work at something, you must not be good at it.  They add,”Things come easily to people who are true geniuses.”

Dweck frames the fixed mindset from a cultural viewpoint:

Malcolm Gladwell, the author and New Yorker writer, has suggested that as a society we value natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort.  We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that led them inevitably toward their greatness.

Dweck points out how a “growth mindset” differs from the fixed mindset:

People with the growth mindset, however, believe something
very different.  For them, even geniuses have to work hard
for their achievements.  And what’s so heroic, they would say,
about having a gift?  They may appreciate endowment, but they admire effort, for no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.

And, lastly, Dweck illustrates beautifully how a fixed mindset can hurt
those considered “a genius, a talent, or a natural.” However, even though this particular quote states the advantages of those who have nothing to lose by trying, one needs to understand that Dweck is referring to those students who have a growth mindset or at the very least are guided by adults with that over-arching value system.  Otherwise, these nothing to lose students end up thinking and acting more like “why bother”? when it comes to effort:

From the point of view of the fixed mindset effort is only for people with deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies – if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural – then you have a lot to lose.
Effort can reduce you.

Finally, this is also a story that involves Gurdon’s self-assessment about his difficulty with memorization.  In fact, Pou writes (with the same title as this post) that “Gurdon attributes his inauspicious start to the fact that his bad memory failed him during a time when schools did not use textbooks and students had to memorize verbal lectures. The British scientist made up for lost time (and knowledge) and eventually studied zoology at Oxford.”


While Gurdon attributes his poor beginnings to his “bad memory” and the lack of textbooks, one wonders if and how much would textbooks help if he struggled with memory. The reason why I bring this up is because student testing with open-book or open-laptop is an important issue educators are grappling with today: whether to, how much, when, such as at what mastery level, and so on.

What we DO know is that Gurdon had his books “open” while researching and experimenting.  Plus, he collaborated.                                            

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