I am Responsible

There’s a story in Stephen Covey‘s book, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, about a group of students in England where one group with high IQs was mislabeled by computer error as ‘dumb’, and another group of low IQ students were mislabeled as ‘smart’. Teachers, upon reading the official summaries, acted accordingly. It wasn’t until five and a half months later that the school administrators discovered the mistake. Rather than correct it immediately, they had the students re-tested. Astonishingly, the high IQ ‘dumb’ students had actually fallen in ability, and the low IQ students had risen substantially. The only variable was how the teachers planned and used different methodologies to teach the two groups. In only five months, the smart kids had become disciplinary and psychiatric troubles, while the dumb kids had begun to excel in school. The teachers said that the first couple of weeks of the school year had been a challenge, but that they had adopted new methodologies to fit the knowledge patterns they knew existed in their groups, and taught those methods accordingly.

I told this story at dinner tonight, and one of the kids — a smart one — laughed it off. “Couldn’t happen,” was the essence of his remarks. He was perfectly content to believe himself smart, and capable, and the rest of the world was not as smart or well off as he.

The other kid, though, the one beside me… well, he was beside himself. He looked shell-shocked, like a couple of WW I gas shells had gone off near him. “So, I am responsible?” he half-whispered to himself. “It’s me? I’m responsible for whether or not I’m smart?”

I told him, “yes.”

He sat there a long time. I added. “It helps if you have people who believe in you, or who believe in who you’re becoming. That’s the message of these kids in England: their teachers changed teaching methods when they discovered their kids didn’t respond to normal instruction. But in essence, you decide whether you’re going to be smart or dumb, day by day.”

“So I could be smarter.”

“Yes. And it wouldn’t take very long. You could be a lot smarter in six or ten months if you pushed yourself in that direction.”

“I could do George-style math…” George is a kid here who’s in the highest-level math we offer

“Yes,” I said. “And you could do TIm-style drawings, and Dave-level history.” I pointed out various people in the dining hall.

The smart kid spouted off some complete nonsense about genetic determinism, junked the idea on the basis of some recent attendees who had about as much chance of getting smarter as I do of going to the center of the earth. I pointed out that even those kids had choices, and anyway this wasn’t about the 2% of outliers on the edges of ‘normal’, this was about the 96% that fell somewhere between.

The kid beside me said again, “So the only thing that’s setting whether I’m smart or dumb is me? I’m responsible?”

“Terrifying isn’t it?” I said. “Liberating, but terrifying.”

He smiled. “Now I know what liberating means.”


It’s a great story, isn’t it? So… here’s my question. Does anyone have any other evidence that this England story is true? Because if it’s not, it could be quite devastating.

6 comments

  1. Does it matter if the tale is true? What we think is possible rapidly becomes assumed. And if the tale is not true, what do we make of those who treat it as such and become more (or less) than expected because of expectations?

    Beats me. Have fun!

  2. Re: Great story; awkward conclusions

    Well, I think that we both came away with the recognition that it does take hard work to achieve a change in native gifts of intellect, and positive encouragement from others; but that personal initiative alone could do it.

    You came away with the story you wanted to read and you were pre-disposed to believe. Nothing wrong with that … but you have to be able to see that. You believe that hard work and sound methods can transform students into better achievers. Your student earnestly wants to believe he can be a better person through working harder — and who doesn’t? But those ideas, in a very strict sense, aren’t what the story says. It says that your work level doesn’t matter so much as how people treat you and in turn how you see yourself, which is great for a motivational speaker but not so good if you’re a teacher who wants to make better students or a student who wants to change yourself, because it’s a narrative that hinges on an effect you simply can’t achieve. (You know how your students achieve and their current abilities, your student can’t magically wave a wand and change how he’s perceived.)

    I really, actively dislike the story because it reinforces the idea that you are largely helpless before your societal role once it’s assigned. While the message Covey seems to want you to come away with is “Act like you’re different and you’ll be different,” that’s also not what the narrative says. Like most other urban legends, it hinges on magical thinking to reward people who feel wronged and want a magical solution.

    (I wonder if it would be amusing to rewrite the story so it actually said “hard work and personal effort can change your position” with a bare minimum of changes, then see if I could inject it into the Net as a counter-meme. I suspect it ouldn’t be nearly as successful, sadly.)

  3. Great story; awkward conclusions

    Ironically, that means both you and your student came away with exactly the opposite meaning from what the story actually says, which amuses me on some primal level.

    Well, I think that we both came away with the recognition that it does take hard work to achieve a change in native gifts of intellect, and positive encouragement from others; but that personal initiative alone could do it. The dumb-labeled-smart group did in fact improve, as a result of teacher-instituted changes in teaching methodology. I went looking for the study because I wanted to know WHAT THOSE METHODS WERE, damn it.

    I like the story and I dislike it — I like it because it encourages kids who have failed before to try; it’s also awkward, though, because it assumes that most teachers teach unconsciously either to ‘good’ students or to ‘bad’ students, and never look up from what they’re teaching to see whether their students are learning. It’s a celebration of the student, and a denigration of the teachers, at the same time.

  4. Does anyone have any other evidence that this England story is true? Because if it’s not, it could be quite devastating.

    It has all the hallmarks of an urban legend; no real study reference, the “dumb mistake” of exchanging the two groups of kids who wouldn’t really be seperated into two groups by “dumb computer error,” when there’s no reasonable way that could occur, and the “uplifting feel-good dumb-can-triumph-over-smart” storyline. It’s a narrative that instantly appeals to everyone who thinks they aren’t getting what they deserve out of life, ie. almost everyone.

    Unfortunately, all the hallmarks of being an urban legend typically means something is one, and Stephen Covey isn’t exactly known for being a first-rate researcher. He’s a motivational speaker and it’s in his best interest to lie, make up stories, or just “tell you something he heard once” if it makes you feel good and/or motivated.

    I can say that a pass over the Net doesn’t show any references to such a story that isn’t sourced in Stephen Covey … but my intuition suggests I’ve heard the story before, only there was no “computer error,” it was being touted as an experiment. I’m betting the computer error bit edged in because it made a better story that way and it was already a story.

    Besides, even ignoring genetic determinism, it’s just crap. What the folks who aren’t in the 4% outliers (which, truthfully, is more 30% outliers) can do is work harder. Which, pointedly, is the one thing this urban legend states and reinforces they don’t have to do. The narrative is that all they need is for people to treat them as smarter and they R SMRT. No work at all.

    Ironically, that means both you and your student came away with exactly the opposite meaning from what the story actually says, which amuses me on some primal level.

    (Incidently, I’ve decided I want to be tall and good looking. Even though I’ve bribed my friends and colleagues, the iridium metre bar in France has yet to shrink and I have not been called by GQ. Yet.)

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