Woodstock | Why Looking For Potential Can Be A Waste Of Time
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Why Looking For Potential Can Be A Waste Of Time

20 Mar Why Looking For Potential Can Be A Waste Of Time

What do we mean by potential?

We always like to look for it in young people and we base important decisions on being able to identify it – or so we like to think!  The dictionary defines it as, having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future – something of which all human beings are surely capable.  But it is not in this general sense that we usually use the word.  When we say that this person or that person “has potential” we mean they have a particular ability not yet truly realised.  In other words, we like to think we have spotted a very specific and exceptional quality in embryonic form.

History is awash with examples of how perilous this thinking can be when applied to young people – from the dyslexic Einstein who showed little scholastic ability to the “lackluster” Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin who cared for nothing but “shooting, dogs, and rat catching”. 

In fact, the more I think about the concept of potential as it is applied to education, the more problematic I find it!The development of human potential certainly doesn’t advance in a linear fashion.  There is no simple ‘cause and effect’ link between certain embryonic qualities and their development into full blown brilliance later in life.  This is exactly what Malcolm Gladlwell in his provocative book, “Outliers” identified.  We are in the territory of the complex where good fortune, chance and circumstance have as much impact on the realisation of potential as do talent and ambition.

Time and again, research discovers that grades and tests only do a good job of forecasting how well young people will perform in future grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in the context of real life problems, relationships, or career advancement.  In fact, no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries has ever been found. Most surprisingly, merely average test scores are correlated with successful nations while top test scores aren’t.

Interestingly, in a landmark series of experiments, researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children praised for their innate “intelligence” or “potential” did far less well than those recognized for their effort and hard-work. It’s simply not as simple we’d like to believe it is!


So, instead of looking for something called potential in young people, what will I actually look for?  Probably three things:

1. In meeting a young person I want to see passion – it matters little what it flows towards or where it flows from – whether music, sport, art or physics.  But there needs to be a sense that this young person has found a connection with the deep energies of the human spirit.  I want to be able to hear them speak passionately about things that really matter to them.  This is precisely why Woodstock’s innovative Enrichment Programme is so crucial!  We can never predict from which of the rich variety of experiences a young person may be inspired to find their grand passion in life – and so our educational program is designed to be broad, challenging, engaging and experiential – requiring the learner to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results, through investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems and assuming responsibility.  A young person might find their grand passion in a history class, they might find it in a biology lab, but might it not also happen in a hobby, sport or a musical passion that develops outside the classroom? This approach can enrich a student’s life profoundly – and all the more so when these experiences are given equal status to the more conventional forms of education.

ActivityWeekGrade12Habitat4Humanity2. I want to know that I am in the presence of someone who is authentic – someone who is being real, genuine, self-aware and transparent.  Authenticity does not mean perfect, sophisticated or dynamic – for these qualities can be groomed.  What I mean is I want to encounter the ‘real’ person.  I can’t calibrate this on a tick-box scale but I think we can recognise that combination of humility, sincerity and genuine regard for what it is.  Generations of students reflect positively on the quality of relationship between students and staff at Woodstock.  It is a quality which exists through to this day and is something which enables young people to be themselves, to be comfortable in their own skin.  And so, our ethos is very deliberately a dynamic blend of happy purposefulness, a determination to succeed, to enjoy life, to enjoy each other’s company – for it is from this that we discover there is far more in each of us than we think!

IMG_4382 (1)3. I am also looking for certain qualities of empathy – that is, a sensitivity or willingness to be at home in another’s universe and a focus on their world.    Empathy comes in many guises.  Does this young person show any signs of questioning the default settings of self-interest and ego? What kind of ‘space’ do they create between themselves and others?  Woodstock enables young people from around the world to live and work together in the same place. This sounds like a statement of the obvious – but beneath the apparent simplicity lies a transforming truth.  Our students have the opportunity to learn from others but also to see their own culture for what it is – for it is only when we are amongst those who are different from us that we see ourselves for what we are and to develop that empathy which is so crucial to success .
Passion, authenticity and empathy – these are the qualities which continue to define the Woodstock experience and this is the soil in which we best grow every capacity of our students – intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical.  These are also the qualities which will not only allow our students to successfully make a living but, more importantly, to make a life.
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