One of the most misused, unhelpful and possibly damaging words in education is: “potential”.
Common phrases that we hear educators using include:
- “Jane hasn’t reached her potential.”
- “Jack is wasting his potential.”
- “You have a lot of potential Zara.”
- “Tomo, you have the potential to get into _______ if you work hard enough.”
Here are some of the problems with the above phrases:
- How could you possibly know what Jane’s potential, her maximum upper limit, is?
- Potential isn’t something Jack can ‘waste’. Even if the concept of a child having an immovable level of maximum skill made sense, it’s not something he can ‘waste’. He can certainly choose not to pursue his skill development but surely his ‘potential’ is the same regardless of whether he chooses to pursue it or not.
- Every healthy child has a lot of opportunity to grow and develop. But what Zara often hears when we talk about her potential is: “They don’t think I’m good enough.”
- First, see Problem #1 above. Second, encouraging growth through hard work is a good approach. But it’s misleading to suggest to a child that hard work is the only relevant variable.
And here’s the weirdest, most ironic thing about the concept of human ‘potential’…
Possibly the worst thing you could ever say to a student is: “Sam, you have reached your potential. You have no capacity to learn any more. You’ve maxed out. I’m sorry.”
Your damned if you don’t reach your ‘potential’ and damned if you do!
A bottle of water has a potential capacity of 500ml. We fill it up, put the lid on, and that’s it. No more water can go in. As hard as we try, we can never fit 600ml in. Even if we practise and practise! That’s because it has a knowable, unchangeable upper limit: a potential.
A child, a human does not.