Innate Ability Exists: The Myth Of Equal

Here we go again: this time it’s the reverse of the “all children are gifted” meme.  Nope, this academic thinks that no student is gifted: and that Ideas of “Giftedness” Hurt Students.”

I would ignore it as non-important, except she’s a Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford and this article is comprised of excerpts from her new book.  Which I am NOT going to list here, because reading this article was headache-inducing and I would never suggest that you purchase an entire book of such … difficult-to-understand writing.

I’m not really sure where to smack down on this article, because at its core, it states that innate talent is a myth.

“The idea of innate talent exists in several fields beyond math, with equally damaging results.” Jo Boaler, Ideas of “Giftedness” Hurt Students

She goes on to mention Einstein as an example: hard work and perseverance being more important than perceived genius or giftedness.  Commence the mind-boggling.

Sure, Einstein worked hard.   Sure, he faced some adversity – a lot, given the time he lived in.  But let’s look at what really happened.  Einstein was a textbook profoundly gifted child, according to the Times Magazine article on him.   He was asynchronous  – slow learning to speak, but curious at an early age about the bedrock of the universe: space and time.   He thought in pictures instead of words (like Temple Grandin and other autistic individuals) and that allowed him to visualize complex concepts.

Professor Boaler cites Einstein’s flunking college exams as proof that persistence trumps ability.  But is that really true?  According to the Washington Post, Einstein flunked the entrance exam to Zürich Polytechnic because at age 16, he hadn’t taken a lot of French (the exam was in French.)  Interestingly enough, he passed the math section.

His innate ability shone through despite the language barrier. 

Einstein was a problem student because of his giftedness:

“He hated the strict protocols followed by teachers and rote learning demanded of students, which explains his disdain for school…”  Valerie Strauss, Was Albert Einstein really a bad student who failed math?” Washington Post


Einstein decided at an early age (12) that math was his strong point, and he studied ahead of his class – his family bought him textbooks over summer vacation to study.  Again, that’s textbook gifted.  Jumping ahead because they’re bored with the stuff in class that they’ve known for years.  At age 11 he was studying college physics textbooks – clearly not an average student.

I find Professor Boaler’s choice of genius for her article to be rather ironic because Einstein is exactly what we think of as gifted: mind-blowing smart, with a brain that thinks in completely different ways than those around them.  Sure, he was male and white, but that didn’t change the way his mind worked.  Gifted minds are wired differently.


What if Einstein was in school today?

What if Einstein had grown up in Professor Boaler’s preferred kind of educational setting?  Eliminate the label, and the need for gifted classes is gone.  Treat all students as gifted, and the ones who truly excel are mired in the quicksand of average.  Everyone is identical – and no one is more talented than anyone else.  Or everyone is talented, and all can be an Einstein if they work hard enough.


I took years of classical violin training.  I was pretty good at it – one of my favorite things to play was Vivaldi’s Winter violin solo.  It was beautiful.  It made my heart sing, and my soul happy.  I worked hard, practiced often, and occasionally made my fingers bleed because I played too much.  By Professor Boaler’s standards, I should now be a concert violinist, sought by all and playing for millions.  Right?  Wrong.  I didn’t have enough innate talent – that ill-defined thing that separates the masters from the students.

I was not a master.  The effort, the dedication – I had all of that.  I didn’t have enough talent.  I’m ok with that – after all, I’m double-jointed and that made trying to play really difficult at times.

As a teenager, I came to terms with the fact that people were better than I was.  In fact, most people were better than I was.  I bitterly thought “master of none” about all of my various interests, but I got over it.  That teenage angst faded as I realized that it’s ok for people to be better at something than I am.  It’s ok that the 7-year-old at the recital played amazingly and I flubbed my piece.  It’s ok that people are smarter than I am, or better at math than I am.  We’re not all the same.

We all have strengths and weaknesses.  Some of us are smarter than others.  Some of us are more compassionate than others.  Some of us are more artistic than everyone around them.  That’s ok.  That’s more than ok – that’s amazing!  Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all one type of person?

I’m a gifted individual with a gifted son, married to a gifted spouse.  That doesn’t make my family better than yours.  It just makes us different.  And as I keep saying – different is good.  Different is interesting.  Different is ok.

Stereotypes hurt everyone 

I do agree with Professor Boaler on one point: stereotypes hurt students.  In fact, stereotypes hurt everyone.  I think her ire should be directed towards a patriarchal society that still thinks, deep down inside, that women and people of color can’t possibly be gifted.  All of her examples of stereotypical attitudes towards gifted individuals are actually based on societal norms.  Gifted labels don’t play a part – but gender and race certainly do.

Race doesn’t matter.  Gender doesn’t matter.  Hair color, eye color – none of that matters.  All that matters is how your brain works.

Let’s search for gifted individuals in all different types of students.  Let’s keep the label and the accommodations, and open up the educational options to all who are wired differently.  Don’t throw it all away because you think that labeling some as “gifted” hurts those who are average.  Average students do quite well in standard classrooms and don’t need accommodations or accelerations to thrive.  Gifted students do.  Needing accommodations or acceleration doesn’t make you a better or worse person, it means you learn differently.

Equal doesn’t mean identical.  We want to be individual, and valued for the very unique people that we are: neurotypical, gifted, or special needs.





  1. Professor Boaler doesn’t have a math or science degree herself. She has a psych degree, with follow on graduate degrees in “math education.” If only she had tried harder and had a more positive attitude, perhaps she could have gotten a math or science degree herself. You know, like that Einstein fella.


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