Life Lessons from Adam Grant on the Today show

Listen in as organizational psychologist Adam Grant is featured on the Today show talking about his new book and explaining why play and self-regulation skills can help us all to reach our “hidden potential.”

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Life Lessons from Adam Grant on the Today show


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Organizational psychologist and NYT best-selling author Adam Grant guides all of us toward finding our hidden potential. And his approach gets our attention because he emphasizes some of the very things Tools is most passionate about: building social-emotional skills and engaging in deliberate play to foster growth.

Building blocks for success

Appearing in the Life Lessons series on a recent episode of the Today show, Grant discusses some of the ideas in his new book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. The book, a Malcolm Gladwell-esque brew of fascinating research and engaging storytelling (recommended by Malcolm Gladwell himself!), is divided into several sections focusing on skill building, motivation and, ultimately, creating systems that can encourage our potential for growth and success. Although the focus of the book isn’t on education alone, one of the “systems” he focuses on is. He knows that education is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Adam Grant's book Hidden Potentail

Growth is more than a mindset

While at Tools we focus on children “learning to learn” in their early years of school, Grant explains how people of all ages can “improve at improving.” In the prologue of his book, Grant says, “Growth requires much more than a mindset—it begins with a set of skills that we normally overlook.” He goes on to describe “character skills” that we at Tools think of as self-regulation and executive functions. Grant defines them as follows:

  • Proactive - How often did [children] take initiative to ask questions, volunteer answers, seek information from books, and engage the teacher to learn outside class? 
  • Prosocial - How did [children] get along and collaborate with peers?
  • Disciplined - How effectively did [children] pay attention and resist the impulse to disrupt class?
  • Determined - How consistently did [children] take on challenging problems, do more than the assigned work, and persist in the face of obstacles?

Experienced teachers impact more than academics

On the Today show spot, Grant describes these “character skills” as “the skills that help us grow.” In the book, he lays out his evidence, which centers on a research study that followed children from their kindergarten year through their 20s. Looking back at which classrooms students had been assigned to in kindergarten, researchers noticed that children with more experienced kindergarten teachers had an early advantage in developing cognitive skills like math and reading. However, there was “fadeout” to this advantage over time: several years after kindergarten, most students performed similarly to their peers on academic tests. 

What surprised Grant more was another advantage that did not appear to fade away over time. Students with more experienced kindergarten teachers were, years later, rated more highly by their 4th and 8th grade teachers on the character skills outlined above, what we think of as self-regulation. These differences, longer-lasting than the early advantages in math and reading, turned out to be a determinant of future success: the number of years of experience students’ kindergarten teachers had actually predicted the earning potential their students had in their mid-20s. Those who had more experienced kindergarten teachers earned significantly more. 

How did they do it? The same way Tools does!

Grant attributes the success of these students to the foundational skills the experienced teachers were able to foster in them at a young age, setting them up for later success. He identifies several guiding principles that experienced teachers used that closely parallel Tools techniques:

  1. Use scaffolding to give students “the opportunity and motivation to learn” until they are ready to take more control over their own learning. (In other words, encouraging students to learn in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), just outside of where they can be successful independently.)
  2. Embrace discomfort as a sign of growth (also related to ZPD; using challenging tasks to maximize growth).
  3. Ensure that practice is happening through deliberate play, bringing context, motivation and a “source of daily joy” to learning.

To see Adam Grant on the Today show, click here.