It is quite understandable that we hope that children will ‘fulfil their potential’. As a parent, it is a comforting thought that my children will achieve as much as they possibly can, supported in this endeavour by home and by school: none of their human talents will remain dormant or even underdeveloped. Part of my job as a parent will be complete and I will demonstrably have been successful. Further reflection, however, leaves me quite uncomfortable with the idea of a prescriptive potential which may (or may not) be fulfilled.
Firstly, it is difficult to tell what potential someone has. Baseline tests of pupils’ abilities when they enter a school can tell you something about academic potential. It is hard, however, to take the individual predictions of GCSE grades to be achieved in 5 years’ time as more than a guide. Looking at averages across a large group of pupils to gauge their progress seems a more reasonable way to use this data. Individual pupils develop at different rates over periods of years and apply themselves with varying degrees of effort.
Would it have been possible to look at Michael Phelps aged 8 or 9 and honestly predict that he had the potential to become one of the greatest swimmers of all time? Perhaps it would be reasonable to look at his body shape and guess that a few years later he would be ideally built for maximising swimming speed. Has he actually fulfilled his potential? Would he have achieved even more impressive tallies of medals or world records if he had trained differently or worked harder or perhaps less hard.
Secondly then, individual effort plays a key role in achievement. Even if you have a formidable intelligence (however that may be defined) and a hugely supportive environment, without substantial and sustained effort you will not achieve a sparkling set of GCSE results. To return to Michael Phelps, without his steely determination to improve and to win, which drove him to train effectively over many years, it is hard to imagine that he would have won more Olympic medals than anyone else.
Thirdly, it is possible to wonder whether the concept of potential is well-founded. Is it really the case that each of us have a ceiling to our achievements in any particular area? Is our job simply to work until we come as close to that ceiling as possible? What if your ceiling is rather low? Why would you bother to work at all if the best you could achieve is disappointing? What if your ceiling is very high? Why would you work hard if you could achieve an acceptable level of performance without making much effort? The high priestess of this particular educational ideology, an American professor called Carol Dweck talks about fixed mindsets rather than growth mindsets. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that the outcome is pre-determined (the ‘I have always been rubbish at Maths’ syndrome) and can be reluctant to apply themselves. On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset is more likely to work hard, persevere, try different strategies and seek help from others as they believe that their ability to make progress is more determined by attitude and action than by genetics. There is plenty of evidence for the growth mindset idea: with many tasks, practising them actually changes our brains producing a further increase in performance (or perhaps even potential).
The fixed mindset smacks rather of a mechanistic approach to education. Raw material of varying quality is fed in at one end of the factory and finished products of correspondingly varying quality pop out at the other end a few years later. This is not a good way to think about schools. Schools are very human institutions filled with hopes, disappointments and successes in which young people grow and develop skills, knowledge and passions in messy and unpredictable ways.
Perhaps the different mindsets are even embedded in different approaches to education. In Asian schools, which dominate the world educational rankings, students tend to believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work and an encouraging environment, rather than inherited intelligence, and therefore all children can succeed. This sounds rather growth mindset. In the UK, students sometimes believe that success is more down to pre-determined abilities: sadly, their experience of secondary school can sometimes reduce to finding out what they are good or bad at. This sounds more fixed mindset.
Equally, I do not believe that we can be spectacularly successful at anything we choose to do simply by working even harder. I am sure that I could improve my singing voice through instruction and practice but Mrs Owen and I would both find it hard to believe that I could ever become a professional singer, certainly not in my fifties. Maybe I am being too fixed mindset!
So perhaps it is best to believe that potential does exist but it can be changed substantially by effort, instruction, encouragement and ambition.
The classical historian and philosopher Plutarch wrote that ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’. (The quote is often attributed to the Irish poet WB Yeats but the evidence for this is rather thin.) Belief in a fixed potential seems to resonate with filling pails, of fixed capacity, whereas daring to believe that we really can get better at something through effort and ambition smacks more of lighting fires. I hope that at Stockport Grammar School we do more inspiring and igniting of human curiosity and ambition than we do simply pouring knowledge and facts into empty vessels.