Helping Kids Unlock Their Hidden Potential
Three parenting insights from Adam Grant's new book.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Wharton School of Business psychologist Adam Grant about his new book, Hidden Potential, for a story I wrote for The New York Times. The piece highlighted several key take-homes from the book that pertained to adults, but the book had research-based insights that I found helpful as a parent, too.
Today I’m going to unpack three of them and share some of the research that backs them up. I also recommend checking out the whole book, which is a fun, easy, and insightful read.
Help kids to lean into discomfort — and have faith in their ability to improve.
I’ve written before about the importance of encouraging kids to embrace challenges. But I didn’t recognize some of the broader implications of this endeavor until I read Hidden Potential.
You’ve probably heard of the concept of learning style — the idea that we all learn in different ways, and that we learn better when lessons are tailored to our preferred style, whether that be visual, auditory, or otherwise. But, as Grant writes, research actually suggests the opposite: That kids learn at least as well, if not better, when lessons are not tailored to their learning style.
As one 2017 paper concluded, “the recommendation to ‘teach to learning styles’ does not result in improved learning. In many cases, teaching to a learning style will result in stymied development and poor achievement because the approach to teaching does not address weaknesses.”
Put another way, “avoiding discomfort holds us back,” Grant told me when I interviewed him a few weeks ago.
This discovery has important implications for both teachers and parents. The fact that so many of us have bought into the promise of learning styles for so long reflects a fundamental belief that we should play to kids’ strengths — that we should identify where and in what situations kids excel and encourage them in those areas. Instead, it seems we should pay attention to the areas in which our kids are challenged, because that is where they can learn the most.
Why do we gravitate towards strengths instead of weaknesses? I think it’s largely because we are products of a fixed mindset culture — we believe that our kids (and we ourselves!) are either good at things or we aren’t. We’re born with ability or we’re not. But the fact is, skills can and do improve with practice. Many exceptional athletes, artists and scientists did not show obvious talent when they were young, as Grant explains. They excelled in part because they leaned into what was hard — and kept working at it until they got better.
Encourage deliberate play, not just deliberate practice.
When we think about helping kids get better at things — soccer, piano, math — the phrase “deliberate practice” may come to mind. Deliberate practice refers to intentional, focused practice in pursuit of a specific goal, and it was made popular by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers as well as psychologist Angela Duckworth in her book Grit.
But, according to Grant, what’s just as important — if not more important — is a concept known as deliberate play, which is a mix of deliberate practice and play. He defines it as “a structured activity that’s designed to make skill developmental enjoyable.”
Research suggests that deliberate play can be more effective than deliberate practice for kids learning various skills. In one study, researchers compared outcomes among boys who were taught basketball either using deliberate practice or deliberate play. The deliberate practicers spent more than half their practice time doing dribbling, passing and shooting drills. The deliberate players played games instead that were designed to teach skills. In one game, for instance, players had a teammate who was allowed to pass but not shoot, while in another, players played one against two or two against four. After a few months, they assessed the players’ skills and found that those who engaged in deliberate play had improved more than those who’d engaged in deliberate practice.
What does this mean for parents and teachers? We should strive to make skill-building fun. Instead of forcing our kids to do rote drills, we should find ways to infuse play into their practice sessions. Doing so will not only help them learn faster, but will fuel intrinsic motivation, too.
Have kids work with the same teacher for at least two years.
This take-home has implications for educators more than parents — we parents only have so much control over how our kids are taught! — but I wanted to highlight it here anyway, because the research is really interesting.
In Hidden Potential, Grant digs into the educational success story that is Finland. Back in 1960, 89 percent of Finnish students didn’t make it past the ninth grade, he writes, and in the 1980s they still lagged far behind most other countries. But starting in 2000, Finland’s students began performing better on standardized tests than students from pretty much everywhere else — Asia, Europe, and the United States included. (Finland’s ranking has recently dropped, but their students still far, far outperform those in the United States.)
Why does Finland do so well? There are undoubtedly many reasons. Grant discusses several, and zeroes in on one in particular, called looping. In Finland, teachers stay with their students for multiple years, which, Grant explains, allows students to not just specialize in their subjects, but also “specialize in their students.” They really get to know their students, which helps them support their students better and ensure they learn more.
Looping doesn’t only happen in Finland. It’s a feature in lots of alternative educational structures, including Montessori and Waldorf schools, as well as some public schools. When researchers assessed the academic success of more than two million elementary school students in North Carolina as part of a 2018 study, they found that the students who made the biggest gains in math and reading had had the same teacher for two years in a row.
Since then, other research has supported the benefits of looping, too. In addition to better academic performance, looping has been linked with better school attendance rates, stronger student/teacher relationships and reduced suspension rates. Teachers have argued it’s better for their mental health, too.