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.