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Are geniuses born or made?

By Omagbitse Barrow FCA
25 May 2017   |   3:39 am
I was facilitating a workshop for teachers at our school recently, and I thought a good place to start as a leader will be to share some of my deepest thoughts...


I was facilitating a workshop for teachers at our school recently, and I thought a good place to start as a leader will be to share some of my deepest thoughts and philosophies about education that are the basis for the work that we do in our School, and our vision to “Make every child a success story” So, I asked the magic question – are there some children who are just born geniuses? My question generated some interesting debate on both sides of the argument. I even got a lecture in genetics and we got many rich perspectives on how certain children are pre-disposed to being geniuses just because their parents were geniuses themselves.

Then we got the perspective that changed the entire debate – Imagine if the one-month-old baby of genius parents is kept in a room for 10 years, fed and taken care of without any external stimulus like TV, social interactions or school – will this child be able to solve integral calculus at 10, just because her parents were professors and overachievers in Applied Mathematics? Doubtful! So, there is much more to understanding where genius comes from and its implication on the education of our children.

Clearly, the nature vs nurture debate is one that most people are used to, and my experience suggests that we are pretty much split down the line in terms of which sides we take – half of the population will say ‘born’ and the other half – ‘made’. I am clearly on the ‘made’ side aligning with people like Malcom Gladwell (best selling author of ‘Outliers’) and the work of other experts that suggests that genius comes from deliberate practice –being clear about the goal you want to achieve, finding inspiration/direction in the work that others have done in a similar area, building upon that work, doing what you do, over and over again, learning from your mistakes and perfecting your skills as you go along.

So, how is this important to education? Well, if parents and teachers accept that some people “got it” and others do not, then their words and actions will affect their pupils (children) and be reflected in their teaching approach. This is why you can hear a Primary One teacher say that a pupil is not good at Math. Absolute rubbish – firstly in primary one it isn’t math – it is arithmetic, and secondly, this child is way too young to already be sentenced to ‘He doesn’t know math’. When parents and teachers accept this wrong notion they give up on children who are not yet there and pay more attention to the ‘geniuses’. This is where we start to destroy the self-esteem of some of our children and over-bloat the egos of others, both to the detriment of the children and the society at large.

I come from the school of thought that suggests that people who under-perform in any subject or endeavour in life are not failures in that area, it is just that they are not yet there and need motivation, teaching and support to get there – which is exactly what parents and teachers should be providing. In the last ten years I have been providing corporate education to adults, and I am now exposed to plenty of adults whose self-esteem, learning agility and creativity were bruised by parents and teachers who told them from early on that ‘they are not good at Maths’ or ‘they cannot speak in public”. What parents and teachers need to be telling children is ‘you are not there yet’ and then provide motivation, teaching and support to move these children from where they are to where they need to get to.

As a young child, I was very shy and quiet, and I reckon my parents would never have imagined the career path that I have now taken. I recall making my mother laugh uncontrollably when I told her that I wanted to be a lawyer. For a child who couldn’t speak to save his own life, how was I going to be able to speak-up to save the lives of others. Now, when I speak in public, people may even dare to say that I was born with the “gift of garb”. Far from it, I learnt through discipline and deliberate practice how to articulate my thoughts and deliver effective presentations and speeches. I got lots of practice by taking on speaking responsibilities at work, and even in my local Parish as a Lay Reader.

Our children deserve better, and this principle of ‘not yet there’ rather than ‘not good at’ and my firm belief that geniuses are made and not born are at the core upon which every school’s philosophy and educational program should be built. Next time your children’s teacher tells you that your child isn’t good at something, help them to re-phrase their thinking and challenge them to tweak their methodology, enhance their motivation and develop better resources to get him/her there.

Barrow is the co-founder and director of the Abuja-based Creative Learning International School