It may seem obvious that students need to be encouraged to believe in their own potential but what is clearly not so obvious is how to get them there.

 

As Jessica Supple, the head of the National Gallery of Ireland’s Apollo Project, points out in a Ted talk called Could do better – reframing intelligence, she is not the only person who had any belief in her abilities crushed before it had taken root by comments such as “Could do better”.

 

“I had never thought I was bad at maths,” she says. “I was too young to have even started comparing myself to other kids… There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Could do better’. She [the teacher] was probably right. The problem was the language I started to use about my own potential was negative.”

 

Generally we are good at what we are interested in but our interest quickly fades if we are told our efforts are lacking. In fact, Jessica says that she actually understood everything that was taught in the maths class, but paralysed by the “could-do-better” pepping technique, she was unable to rise to the challenge when it came to tests.

 

When Jessica watched a Ted talk by international educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson, on how there is more than one way of being smart, her confidence returned with a vengeance and opportunities that she felt capable of pursuing multiplied.

 

We are used to measuring intelligence by testing our ability in the so-called “hard” subjects –sciences and languages particularly. As the majority of people find physics a hard chew, those gifted in manipulating formulas to measure the speed of light or the force of impact are generally placed in the genius category.

 

When it comes to the standard IQ (Intelligence quotient) test, as Jessica points out, the French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon who devised it in 1904 were clear about its limitations, with Binet stressing that intelligence is far too broad a concept to be defined by a single number and, just as importantly, it changes over time.

 

In fact, in 1983, American developmental psychologist Howard Gardener described 9 types of intelligence: Naturalist Intelligence, which means being able to discriminate between living things as well as geological features; Musical Intelligence, which relates to sound sensitivity; Logical-mathematical intelligence – reasoning and the cracking of abstract problems; Existential Intelligence which covers an understanding of the universe and our place in it; Interpersonal Intelligence which is an understanding of how people think and react; Bodily-kinesthetic Intelligence which is the synchronisation of mind and body to manipulate physical objects; Linguistic Intelligence – having a way with words; Intrapersonal Intelligence that enables us to understand ourselves and the human condition; and Spatial Intelligence which allows for spatial reasoning.

 

Gardener argued that while being clever at maths allows us to understand the world in one way, being gifted at music or at dealing with people enables us to understand it from a different, but equally valid perspective.

 

Naturally, we need all kinds of intelligence if society is to function smoothly. If everyone were maths smart, the world would be a far duller and more dysfunctional place. But what is really encouraging is that, depending on the feedback we receive, we can always get better in areas we are weak in, given the right encouragement and material.

 

According to Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University known for her work on motivation and fostering success, getting the best out of students who may struggle in a certain area of intelligence involves applying the growth mind-set and the power of “not yet”.

 

When a student with a low grade hears the words “could do better”, the inference is that they have been lazy and did not bother to try; when they hear “not yet”, however, they are given the idea that their abilities can be developed, according to Dweck, who adds that when a student realises this, they engage deeply with the challenge in front of them; scientific studies show that the electrical activity from the brain is far greater in this demographic than in those with a fixed mind-set.

 

At King’s College Panama, School Counsellor Sara Bernard says the teachers are focused on the growth mind-set and despite the need for exams as a measure of progress, teachers are aware that life goes beyond exams and make a point of focusing on perseverance and effort.

 

“We work with students so that they know there is always room for improvement, meaning that there really is no need to experience feelings of ‘failure’, just an opportunity to take stock of where you are and see the opportunity to progress and move forward,” she says.

 

As Jessica says, the brain is the most complex organ on earth and to measure it with tools such as Binet and Simon’s IQ test is to label, fix and ultimately betray our potential.

 

The comments, “Could do better” and “Not yet” may sound interchangeable but the subtle discrepancy between them could mean the difference between a student feeling defeated and judged and a student feeling strong enough to plough on, cautiously optimistic that they have the resources within them to rise to whatever challenge they might face.