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I’ve recently been reading Edith Kuiper’s book called ‘A Herstory of Economics’ and it has got me thinking…a lot. In particular I’ve been thinking about talent and where it comes from. Most of the time, when we think about talent, we describe it as being something quite natural. They are a natural at Economics or they are a natural sprinter or they are a natural artist! It’s God’s gift and has little to do with anything else. 

Many moons ago when Carol Dweck first developed the concept of Growth Mindset, a colleague and I tried to explode the prodigy myth in school and explain to students that there wasn’t such a thing as a natural talent. In fact, around that time, I stopped saying ‘She/He is a natural in Economics’ at Parents’ Evening and inserted a line in a little handout that I give out on the night (called ‘How You Can Help in Economics’) that states ‘There is no such thing as a natural economist’. How did we get to that stage? Well…a lot of it came from the 10,000 hours research that was cited in a Malcolm Gladwell book. The research suggested that to get to be a top performer, you had to have done at least 10,000 hours in your chosen performance area. Since that book came out, there has been much debate around that number but at the time it was interesting to dig into the lives of people like Beyoncé and Judd Trump and find out why they had become so successful.

What we soon discovered is that for nearly all the people we looked at, they had a hugely supportive home environment from a very early age, where their parents would play with them, sing with them, take them to events all around the country, get them additional teaching, back them financially, let them take risks (and sometimes fail) and so on. We put all these posters up of famous people around the school and visited all the Forms to show that it was hard work that made them successful and not much else. I’ve still got the PowerPoint if anybody wants it. We even made badges that said stuff like ‘Effort Is Everything’! They didn’t have a unique talent, they just put the yards in. And in many respects, this is reflected in a lot of the science of learning today. Retrieval learning links to continual practice…you just have to revisit your learning again and again and again and again. Neurons that fire together, wire together!

What has this got to do with Edith Kuiper’s book about women in economics? 

When you read her book, one of the things you find out straight away is that historically, the men who were writing about Economics had absolutely no interest in what was going on in the home. Take for example Adam Smith, who is considered to be the ‘Father of modern economics’ and his major work ‘The Wealth of Nation’. There are very few references to women in his book and the contribution they make to society. This has had a long term impact on modern economics because the way we measure economic growth (GDP) does not include work done within the household. Women economic writers on the other hand understood the value of all this and wrote about this as well as the crucial role education played in giving the skills required to lead a good and responsible life. 

Alas, women were not allowed a voice in Economics and therefore much of this writing was ignored and the men just focused on the ‘productive’ work that was being done outside the household. As Edith Kuiper writes ‘As raising and educating (younger) children was assigned to women, the relevance of education, particularly of younger children, has not been fully recognised by economics. Differences in children’s potential therefore became understood not as resulting from differences in attention, love, and resources accessible during the first years of a child’s life, but as inherited talents…’.

Think about that for a moment. It’s quite revelatory isn’t it? We automatically assume children have a natural talent in something because we don’t really value the role women (traditionally) have played within the household creating an environment to maximise learning. In fact it’s easier for society to claim that something is ‘natural’ because then you don’t have to consider government policies that might give EVERY household the opportunity to create that environment for great learning.

Think about that when you next call someone a natural talent. Now you know the secret…mum’s the word!

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