In his address to the union’s annual conference in Birmingham last week, Ian Bauckham warned both teachers and politicians from making sweeping statements about IQ.
He quoted the work of Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, who has advocated the theories of growth and fixed mindsets.
The research shows that praising students’ effort rather than their intelligence, creates learners who believe that by trying hard they can improve and achieve more.
Conversely, by praising intelligence, we create learners who believe they are either good or bad at something and there is little they can do to change this.
Mr Bauckham, who is headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent and a SecEd editorial board member, said Prof Dweck’s book Mindset had been “inspirational” to his school leadership. He attacked a speech last year in which London’s mayor Boris Johnson compared people of varying IQs to cornflakes and said “the harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”.
Mr Bauckham responded: “The cult of the closed mindset is alive and kicking among some of our political leaders. I want to profoundly disagree with comments Boris Johnson made.”
However, he warned that this attitude was sometimes too prevalent in schools as well.
He said: “We hear closed mindsets in everyday talk about school as well: ‘Maths is not her strong point.’ Or more damagingly still, because it is applied somehow to our whole national capacity: ‘As a nation we are not very good at languages.’ Think of some of the terms which are used when we discuss educational potential and achievement – ‘bright’, ‘high-ability’, ‘low-ability’, ‘intelligent’ are traded without thinking as if they are givens.”
He added: “As teachers, when we praise our students for being ‘so good at maths’, we risk unwittingly reinforcing a fixed mindset: some are, and some aren’t. If conversely we congratulate them on their effort in mastering a concept, we are affirming their potential to go on to greater achievement.
“Public discourse about education is too often blighted by outdated and damaging ideas about ability as fixed, as a given. This is a sickness, a canker, in our collective thinking about learning. We need together to focus relentlessly on building belief in the potential of all to succeed.”