How important is innate natural ability? This may mean different things for different context. For example, in sport, it may be about height. In education, it may be about intelligence. Essentially, are our fates decided with the lottery of our birth? If this was the case, how then would we explain why so many people don’t always fulfil their potential?
Height and basketball success
Let’s start with a look at sport. Do you need to be tall to make it as a basketballer? At first glance, it would certainly appear so, with the average height of a NBA basketballer being 9 inches taller than the average American. And what about once you make it in the NBA? Evidence suggests that the average salary increases the taller you are (with players who are 6’4 earning $3.3 million a year, players who are 6’11 earning $4.9 million, and players who are over 7 foot earning $6.1 million).
However, not all players are tall. Muggsy Bogues is the shortest player to ever play in the NBA – and despite being 5’3, he still had a really successful career. All this taken together suggests that being tall helps, but isn’t a requirement. It’s certainly advantageous, but not sufficient.
IQ and education success
Is the same sort of thing true in education? Does IQ predict academic success?
Years of research have shown us that a high IQ is associated with many known benefits. These have included creativity, income, health, social mobility and indeed life expectancy. Evidence also suggests that there is a positive relationship between IQ and grades.
But what about if you have a bunch of people with a high IQ? What separates them? To answer this, we can look at one of the most iconic long term studies. In the 1920s, a researcher at Stanford University recruited over 1000 students who had scored over 135 on their IQ test and tracked their progress both in school and subsequently in adult life (and indeed still continues today).
He found that this intelligent group of students did very well at school. 25 years later, when comparing what profession they do, he found that some were doctors, lawyers and university professors. Others were filing clerks, policemen or fishermen. Surprised at the large range, the researcher noted that “we have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”.
After 35 years, the researcher compared the 100 most successful participants (referred to as A’s) with those who were struggling at age 40 (referred to as C’s). They found that the A’s did indeed have a higher IQ than the C’s (157 versus 150), but concluded that this was not very significant, as small differences between high IQ have little real-life impact. One of the most important differences between the two groups was their character traits. From a young age, the C’s showed a lack of determination and persistence, whereas the A’s already showed greater “will power, perseverance and desire to excel”.
What else contributes to school success?
Whilst having high levels of intelligence may be helpful, if a student has a fixed mindset, where they believe that their intelligence is largely unchangeable, this can lead to them giving up quickly, rejecting feedback and choosing tasks that make them appear smart (as opposed to providing learning opportunities). Evidence is emerging that this may be especially advantageous for students who have historically struggled at school. For more on this, our blog on ‘Strategies to develop a growth mindset’ may help.
How you learn
How a student revises and learns new material will impact on how well they do at school. This is because some revision techniques are more effective than others. For example, when students use retrieval practice, where they are required to generate an answer to a question, this helps solidify the information in their long term memory. Other strategies proven to help include spacing, interleaving, dual-coding and teaching others.
Use feedback wisely
The most successful students are not always those who are the most intelligent, but instead those who ask for and use feedback in the best possible way. Students need to ensure that they do not take feedback personally. It is best to view it as feedback on the task at hand and not as a judgement on who they are as a person. If they view it as the latter, it often leads to people getting defensive and rejecting what could be helpful and constructive feedback.
Our natural ability and talents clearly play a role in how well we perform in any walk of life; be it school or sport. Some are dealt a kinder hand than others in the lottery of life.
However, by focusing on the skills, habits and behaviours that are within one’s control, it maximises the likelihood of fulfilling one’s potential. Nothing guarantees success, but by having a positive mindset, using effective learning strategies and using feedback wisely, all students can flourish.