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An Interview with Cornelius Grove: Author of “The Aptitude Myth”

Sep 4, 2013 by

The Aptitude Myth coverMichael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Cornelius, why did you write “The Aptitude Myth”?

Anthropologists of education have long known that, in contrast with people in most other world regions, Americans tend to assume that a child’s school performance depends, largely or entirely, on her inborn aptitude. One research study that reports this is The Learning Gap, by Harold Stevenson & James Stigler; they compared American and Asian primary schools. In their fifth chapter, “Effort and Ability,” they note Asian children’s advantage: “The Asian disregard for the…ability model offers children a more optimistic view of the possible outcomes of their efforts…”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck is making a similar point. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she reports that young learners with a “fixed mindset” (a fatalistic belief that one’s aptitudes are pre-determined) fall farther and farther behind those with a “growth mindset” (an optimistic belief that, through effort, one can upgrade her mind’s capacities and performances).

I became curious about why many Americans believe in what Dweck is calling a “fixed mindset.” Why do we think this way? After all, this mindset is not conducive to any child’s mastery of the critical skills taught in classrooms. I set out to discover the historical roots of Americans’ belief in the determining power of inborn aptitude.

  1. What exactly is this ancient belief that has come, in the words of your subtitle, to undermine children’s learning today?

I unearthed the origin of the aptitude myth among the ancient Greek philosophers. The myth’s chief creator was Aristotle, who from a number of perspectives is one of the most, possibly the most, enduringly influential thinker in Western civilization.

Simply put, Aristotle stated that an infant’s mental development occurs in the same way as its physical development: Both occur automatically, eventually bringing the infant into physical and mental adulthood. Aristotle viewed human development in teleological terms, i.e., he believed it occurs purposefully, conveying one toward a foreordained end state (though no human can foresee what one’s end state will be).

Aristotle’s view is that each human is born with an “internal principle” that is given to her before birth. It will purposefully convey her mental capacity to its mature form and function. It will do so without any inputs from parents, teachers, or others. Why? Because in modern terms, mental prowess is “hard-wired” at birth.

So, Aristotle, what’s the best course of action for parents, teachers, and other caretakers?” His answer: “Protect the growing child from harm.” That’s it, end of story! Because there’s nothing they can do to positively impact the child’s mental development. There’s nothing the child can do to intensify her own mental gains.

Using Dweck’s terms, Aristotle says that, at birth, a child gains a fixed mental capacity. Dweck’s research shows not only that Aristotle’s belief is wrong, but also that the resulting “fixed mindset” directly undermines a child’s capacity to excel in school. A “growth mindset,” which animates effort, promotes excellence in school.

The Aptitude Myth reveals the deep origin of this inaccurate and discouraging mindset, then traces its path down through Western history. During those 2,500 years, the myth gained credibility and was elaborated on by a succession of thought-leaders. A notably pernicious elaboration that my research uncovered is the belief that children are mentally fragile, so that any sustained focus on academic learning will lead to permanent psychological debilitation – and even to physical debilitation.

3) Please – give us your definition of “aptitude”…..

The Aptitude Myth is comfortable with the understanding of aptitude that animated those who, after World War One, developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Aptitude refers to an individual’s inborn mental characteristics and capacities that govern the extent to which she will be able to develop proficiency in (or, if aptitude is high, mastery of) various types of skill and knowledge. My concern is with the types of skill and knowledge taught in classrooms, but aptitude doesn’t only apply to those.

So “aptitude” is shorthand for the extent to which an individual’s inborn abilities will, in the future, enable her to learn various types of information and skills.

Again using Dweck’s terms, a “fixed mindset” means that an individual’s aptitude simply cannot be improved by anyone’s input. What one was “given” at birth is all that one has got. This is a mindset that strongly encourages passivity on everyone’s part. This is the mindset that “undermines children’s learning today.”

  1. When I hear about musical or artistic aptitude, I think potential – am I off on this?

As I pursued my research, my discovery of the deep meaning of “potential” gave me a classic “aha” experience. Potential refers to a latent quality, ability, or power; as generally used it implies growth and improvement. But I came to understand that potential and aptitude go hand-in-hand because both are assumed to be innately “given” at birth, and therefore rigidly fixed. Potential actually refers to outer limits of attainment. Potential isn’t an expansive concept. Potential is a limiting concept.

When I think about potential now, I imagine a box – a large box, perhaps, but still a space bounded on all six sides. It’s assumed to contain a finite quantity of an individual’s abilities and powers; this assumption often rises into people’s conscious awareness. But this box also rigidly limits and constrains the individual’s abilities and powers; these subtly implied limitations of potential rarely enter anyone’s awareness.

The most colorful American educator who’s profiled in my book, Colonel Francis W. Parker (1837-1902), put it thus: “The inherited organism of bone, muscle, and brain determines exactly the limits or boundaries of the baby’s development. Each nerve-fibre or convolution of the brain says, ‘Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.’”

Michael, I’m not surprised to learn that when you hear about musical or artistic aptitude, you think potential. They are two sides of the same coin. They’re both about assumed outer limits of mental capabilities. People in other world regions sidestep this entire conversation by focusing their attention, and the attention of their children, on what persistent effort over extended time can accomplish. That’s the Number One reason why their children, for decades, have been trouncing ours in the various international achievement tests.

5. Some people talk about “the decline of mastery”; others talk about the “the decline of cultural literacy.” Who is correct?

The concern that animated my project was the decline in mastery. I’m hardly the only American who’s alarmed by the irreversible decline in the extent to which the vast majority of our youth falls short of mastering anything taught in schools.

As a nation, we’re now so far removed from bringing our youth to mastery that, nowadays, we wring our hands over whether children are attaining proficiency. Mere proficiency has become our goal! Mastery hardly enters our discussions any more.

Many explanations are being publicly aired for this decline, with competing camps advancing a variety of recommendations. There are two leading perspectives: One says that education will be improved through more teacher accountability, supported by frequent testing and more parental choice of schools. The other says that change will begin only after poverty and other negative social conditions are addressed. My book neither agrees with nor contradicts these two perspectives.

My book says, “There’s also a third explanation for the decline of mastery. It concerns how we think about children’s learning. By giving so much attention to aptitude, we ignore the transformational impact of effort, which opens expansive possibilities for children. We need a paradigm shift.” My last chapter proposes one.

To your specific question, Michael, I’m also concerned about the decline in cultural literacy, but I don’t think it creates the kind of national emergency that the decline in mastery creates. My expectation is that, if we begin to improve children’s mastery, one side-effect of that will be an improvement in their cultural literacy.

6. Can you discuss the spectrum of values and beliefs about teachers?

Yes. In The Aptitude Myth, I draw contrasts between two sets of assumptions and values – two paradigms – concerning ways in which teachers and other instructors can be regarded. The names I’ve given these two are the time-honored paradigm and the western-contemporary paradigm.

At the time-honored end of this spectrum, a teacher is viewed as morally Good, wise, skilled, and knowledgeable, and thus as deeply worthy of emulation, respect, deference, and obedience in the classroom – and throughout the community. It’s assumed by all community members, including the learners themselves, that it’s vital for the learners to acquire whatever the teacher is dispensing, i.e., to acquire the skills, knowledge, and sterling human qualities that their teacher is assumed to possess. Teacher means “one-with-exemplary-virtue,” “one-who-is-wise,” and “one-who-passes-wisdom-and-virtue-down-to-youth.” A teacher, thus, has everyone’s admiration; there’s no need for her to worry about being liked or gaining respect.

This automatically respectful view of teachers is not a historical curiosity from ancient times. It’s alive and well today. You need not journey into remote regions to find it in use. Across millennia, these assumptions about teachers have been handed down from generation to generation. In many contemporary societies, this paradigm continues at a deep emotional level to influence the behavior of students, parents, and other community members. It you’ve ever taught abroad, or if your teaching has brought you into contact with learners and parents recently arrived from abroad, you might have come face-to-face with this time-honored paradigm.

In Europe around the time that Gutenberg invented moveable type (1440), the time-honored paradigm began to lose its hold on European thought-leaders. Very gradually at first, then with gathering speed as the Renaissance shaded into the Enlightenment and on into the period of Romanticism, the time-honored paradigm came to be overshadowed by a new mindset, the western-contemporary paradigm. This mindset shift was especially marked in the fledgling United States. This is the fascinating historical trajectory that I trace and account for in The Aptitude Myth.

About the western-contemporary paradigm, I’ll say only that its view of teachers, students, and learning differs greatly from that of the time-honored paradigm. My question was, “Why did this shift occur?” I found the answer; it’s in my book.

7. Your book traces changes in people’s views of children’s learning that occurred in the Western world. You also say that those changes were greater in the U.S. What made the difference here in the U.S.?

In the second “Part” of my book, I trace the story of how European ideas about human development and learning were dealt with after they found their way into the U.S. This portion of American history gets into philosophy, psychology, public policy issues, popular crazes, N.E.A. meetings, and even mobilization for World War One.

The short answer to your question concerns the great wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe that washed into the U.S., especially into our largest cities, beginning around 1882, becoming a veritable tsunami between 1901-1910. (In proportion to the U.S. population today, it’s as though between 2001-2010 our cities had received 23,650,000 immigrants from just one world region!) For those who already called the U.S. their homeland, this was an unprecedented challenge.

At the heart of this story is the fact that these new immigrants were perceived as being from very unfamiliar, and thus threatening, cultures. Worse, they came with children, and then they had more children. The result was that the dilapidated public school systems that existed at that time simply were not up to the challenge. What to do with tens of thousands of different looking, different sounding children?!

The industrialists and big businessmen of that era came up with a plan. Business was booming and desperately needed menial laborers. The key word is “menial,” for all that was needed were people who could understand enough English to be told how to operate machines. Long story short, it seemed to be in everyone’s interests to conclude that virtually all of these different looking, different sounding children had very low aptitudes. Because if that were true, then they all could be given a short, rudimentary education suitable for menial workers.

Practitioners of the fledgling science of psychology did their part. They devised tests of mental functioning that “proved” that virtually every immigrant child had a very low aptitude. The development of these tests got a huge boost when the U.S. suddenly called over a million young men into war service. The new tests were given to them all, and confirmed that almost all the immigrants had low aptitudes.

This story is far more complex than I’ve revealed here. But the bottom line is this: There was a period of several decades around the time when the 19th century turned into the 20th when it suited many Americans, some of them quite prominent in industry, science, and education, to conclude that presumed inborn aptitude is all one needs to know about a young person to foresee his or her future contributions to community and national life. The myth of aptitude became imprinted on us then.

8. You talk of the need for a paradigm shift in the U.S. How can a history book like yours be useful to those who would agree with you that, in the future, we urgently need a new paradigm about children’s learning?

When I finished writing my 2,500-year history of ideas that traces the rise of the myth of aptitude, I knew that this myth is even more discouraging for children and parents than I had originally assumed. Why “discouraging”? Because this myth encourages them to think that there’s little or nothing they can do to insure that the children master the critical skills taught in classrooms. This myth breeds passivity.

Given my newly acquired, detailed understanding of the myth of aptitude, I was able to recognize that it’s not a single belief but rather an amalgam of finely nuanced concepts, values, and assumptions concerning young children, mental development, parenting, teaching, and learning. For a “paradigm shift” to occur, these concepts, values, and assumptions need to shift in tandem with each other.

A paradigm is what people think with when they think about a certain realm of life. As a practical matter, a paradigm is a set of assertions about what people believe to be “the way things work” (or should work) in that realm of life. These assertions additionally can be understood as value propositions and as guidelines for thought and behavior. A paradigm shift requires its constituent assertions to shift.

In my final chapter, “Toward a New Paradigm: Seven Assertions to Think With,” I recommend to Americans seven transformational assertions to think with when they think about children, mental development, parenting, teaching, and learning. My discussion of each of the seven includes two subheadings. Under They Thought Then, I review what people enthralled by the myth of aptitude have long been thinking with. Then, under For Us to Think With Now, I recommend to Americans a fresh new set of concepts, values, and assumptions to think with, the goal being to reverse the long decline in our children’s mastery of critical skills taught in schools.

Michael, I’m sure you’ll understand that, during this interview, I’m not going to reveal all seven of my transformational new assertions to think with. But I will tell you the first two, because I believe that they’ll surprise many of your readers:

Accountability for Learning Rests More with the Parents Than With the Teacher”

Accountability for Learning Rests More with the Student Than With the Teacher”

9. Cornelius, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, education, and experience?

My mother was a teacher; my father, with an Ed.D. in administration from Columbia, was a superintendent. A memorable event in my early schooling was that part of my third grade year occurred a classic one-room schoolhouse. I earned an M.A.T. from Johns Hopkins, then spent 3½ years as a high school social studies teacher. After working in educational publishing, then travelling abroad for two years, I earned an Ed.D. in intercultural communication from Columbia.

My graduate school passion was to understand, at the level of assumptions, values, and practices, worldwide differences among instructional styles (not learning styles). I designed and taught a graduate course on this at Columbia and New School University; in both cases, my “day job” was elsewhere, not on the faculty. I also taught for one semester at Beijing Foreign Studies University, after which I co-authored Encountering the Chinese: A Guide for Americans (3rd edition, 2010).

In 1990, I founded a consultancy, Grovewell, to deliver intercultural services to global businesses. When Pfizer asked us to address an instructional challenge facing its global trainers, my graduate school passion was revived. Long story short, I began working on a book to give parents, teachers, and trainers a comprehensive framework for understanding classroom instruction in cross-cultural perspective.

While doing research for that book, I became curious about the historical origins of the beliefs that many Americans think with when they’re thinking about children’s learning. I undertook historical research for one chapter…but one chapter proved far too little. That chapter grew to become The Aptitude Myth.

10) I hope that you will consent to future interviews about your book, as I think it is a provocative, timely one, with a different perspective.

Michael, I’d be delighted to be interviewed by you and/or others in the future. I can be reached via the e-mail address cng@theaptitudemyth.info.

Much more information about my book is atwww.theaptitudemyth.info

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