Growth Over Grades: Top Ten Takeaways From Wharton Guru Adam Grant | Elaine Griffin | 7 Min Read

January 29, 2024

The central question keeping me up at night as an educator is this: How can we maximize every student’s potential? This question emphatically isn’t about making sure a student becomes “the best” at anything in particular, but rather about ensuring all students become their best selves. 

In his new book Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, Wharton guru and organizational psychologist Adam Grant explores how we might maximize our potential in ways that are highly relevant to our middle schoolers. In middle school, students are still learning how they learn and discovering their interests. In some ways, middle school is the perfect time to put Grant’s strategies into practice. 

Essentially, Grant makes the argument that anybody can learn almost anything if they are provided the appropriate conditions for learning it. Grant persuasively demonstrates that people achieving great things are not “freaks of nature” but rather “freaks of nurture.” His research serves as a handbook for unlocking potential and creating opportunities for self-growth. He also offers some surprising truths that challenge traditional beliefs about learning and leadership. For example, competition and comfort actually inhibit personal growth. Yes: you read that right. 

I urge you to consider using these strategies to support the children in your lives. Equally important, try them out yourselves. As every new year’s resolution makes clear, it’s never too late to learn new things and expand your potential. Those who reach their full potential don’t need to be the smartest people in the room. They simply need to harness opportunities for growth and be motivated to learn. 

  1. Encourage Prosocial Skills (aka AI isn’t the answer): 
    Grant makes the case that, in a world where computers are taking on more and more cognitive skills, “the skills that make us human are increasingly important to master.” Character skills, such as determination and discipline, “elevate us above machines.” In making his case, Grant looks at Raj Chetty’s work. Chetty (member of USM’s Class of 1997) found that when children learned character skills early, they were more successful in the long run. The “capacities to be proactive, prosocial, disciplined, and determined stayed with students longer — and ultimately proved more powerful — than early math and reading skills,” wrote Grant. When predicting adult income, “the ratings on these behaviors mattered 2.4 times as much as math and reading performance on standardized tests.” 
  1. Learning is Uncomfortable (and should be!):
    According to Grant, “the best way to accelerate growth is to embrace, seek, and amplify discomfort.” Most of us believe that we should get comfortable with new material, like new foreign language words, before practicing them in conversation. Wrong. Research consistently confirms that we learn when we are uncomfortable and making mistakes; comfort only grows through continued practice. Grant warns that “if we wait until we feel ready to take on a new challenge, we might never pursue it.” Communicate to your middle schoolers that mistakes are integral to learning and accelerate mastery. 
  1. Learning Styles are a Myth:
    Grant says “the way you like to learn is what makes you comfortable, but it isn’t necessarily how you learn best.” Instead of seeking out their learning preferences, students need to find “the right method for the task.” For example, speaking is the best method for learning a language. Reading is the best tool for “comprehension and recall.”  Writing — often thought of only as a means of communication — is actually a great tool for learning because it “exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic.” Encourage your middle schooler to select “the right method for the task” rather than relying solely upon learning methods they find most comfortable.
  1. Advice is More Helpful Than Feedback (you can’t go forward while looking backward):
    Grant insists that “feedback is backward-looking” while “advice is forward-looking.” Instead of “dwelling on what you did wrong, advice guides you toward what you can do right.” The problem with offering constructive criticism is that the learner gets defensive and the performance is over. Conversely, Grant observes, “advice shifts attention to how you can do better next time.” Exercising this simple shift will better support your middle schooler when offering constructive suggestions.
  1. Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection:
    Grant points out that straight-A perfectionists get things wrong. A lot. First, they obsess over unimportant details. Second, they avoid uncomfortable situations that may lead to failure. Third, they upbraid themselves when they make mistakes. All of these practices inhibit growth and limit opportunity, which is why so many child prodigies later flame out. Grant explores the concept of “wabi sabi,” a Japanese term that means “honoring the beauty in imperfection.” “Across hundreds of experiments, people who are encouraged to do their best perform worse — and learn less — than those who are randomly assigned to goals that are specific and difficult.” Asking someone to do their best or to be the best is ambiguous. Learners need “precise and challenging” objectives to make the most gains.
  1. Time Travel to Measure Progress:
    When children want to measure how well they are tapping into their potential and growing, encourage them to compare themselves to their past selves rather than to peers. Grant warns that defining “excellence on other people’s terms” leads to depression and anxiety. Kids should set intrinsic goals, focused on “growth and connection,” rather than “extrinsic goals like popularity and appearance.” When assessing progress, ask kids to consider how their past selves would view their current achievements. Doing so will build their confidence.
  1. Support Scaffolding From Other People (but remember to remove it when the building is done):
    Mentors and role models help give anyone striving for a goal a boost. The extra support needs to be specifically focused on the obstacle in one’s path and come at the right time. For example, encourage your children to advocate for themselves when they need extra help from a teacher to understand a concept. Grant believes interventions from mentors should be temporary because the learner should progress and move on toward independence. 
  1. Encourage Breaks During Study Routines:
    Taking a break does wonders to support learning. Even very short breaks foster creativity and learning. In experiments, taking a ten-minute break “improved recall for students by 10 to 30 percent.” Breaks also deepen learning. After 24 hours, we start to forget information we’ve learned, so spaced repetition is really important. When learning material for a test, studying 30 minutes over three nights is much more effective than studying 90 minutes on a single night. Longer breaks, like a vacation, can foster creativity by allowing learners to “incubate” ideas. If the learner keeps the problem in the back of their minds, they often discover new ways to solve it. Ultimately, Grant urges us to think of rest as fuel.
  1. Read, Read, Read (turn off your phone and turn on to books!):
    Grant writes that “reading is a gateway to opportunity” because “it opens the door for children to keep learning.” He laments that video games and social media capture increasingly huge chunks of students’ attention and time. Because students are spending less time reading, they often characterize reading as arduous rather than relaxing. Do all that you can to create excitement around reading. Don’t worry about purchasing quality books that represent the classics. To keep the pages turning at home, kids need to be engaged and entertained. Let their interests drive the selections. 
  1. Leadership Looks Different Than You Might Expect:
    “When we select leaders,” Grant observes, “we don’t usually pick the person with the strongest leadership skills. We frequently choose the person who talks the most.” But “the best leader is not the person who talks the most, but the one who listens best.” Grant’s research reveals that “reserved leaders” are “more receptive to input from below, which gives them access to better ideas.” Ultimately, “you want someone in charge who cares about everyone.” As you nurture leadership skills in your children, encourage them to listen and learn from others. Those who work “below” us are not beneath us. Or as Oscar Hammerstein said long ago, “if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” Students teach me so much; it’s among the reasons I love my job.

Grant claims early in his book that we are in the midst of a “character revolution,” which seems counterintuitive during a year in which AI has garnered so much attention. But he demonstrates that AI is no substitute for the uniquely human capacities of character and judgment. He reviews cutting-edge research to affirm that traditional skills matter more than ever. Writing and reading are central to student learning and therefore pivotal in unlocking the potential of each student. Being a listener and demonstrating humility are essential leadership skills. 

The bottom line: To succeed in an increasingly tech-driven world, we need to remember and cultivate what’s unique about being human. That’s what we try to do in educating your children, one lesson at a time. We’ve never needed every USM parent more as a partner in driving those lessons home.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Elaine Griffin for Intrepid Ed News.

Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where she had previously served as an Upper School literature teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. Her essays have previously appeared in Education Next, The Once and Future Classroom, Chinese Language Matters, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Her professional interests include parent education, curricular reform, and social-emotional learning.

One thought on “Growth Over Grades: Top Ten Takeaways From Wharton Guru Adam Grant | Elaine Griffin | 7 Min Read

  1. Elaine, thanks for this book summary. Many of the points Grant makes are absolutely on point for effective learning. His references to student discomfort as a feature of both deep learning and the debunked myth of learning styles may be the critical challenge for the foreseeable future. Right now, most kids are in discomfort-avoidance mode, unaware that they have shut down the most direct pathway to learning and understanding.

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