The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet laureate.
Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man
There is nothing quite so destructive as the myth of the natural born programmer, the assumption that some magic genetic variation lets you write the most elegant web shops in lisp. In Is Math a Gift?, Dweck researches how this assumption undermines learning:
We had found in our past research that viewing intellectual ability as a gift led students to question that ability and lose motivation when they encountered setbacks. In contrast, viewing intellectual ability as a quality that could be developed led them to seek active and effective remedies in the face of difficulties
This petulant belief that programming ability is a gift, rather than a skill, often surfaces as a flimsy rationale for the gender imbalance in technology, but actually serves to reinforce the problem.
By the end of 8th grade, there is a considerable gap between females and males in their math grades— but only for those students who believed that intellectual skills are a gift. When we look at students who believed that intellectual ability could be expanded, the gap is almost gone. […] This suggests that girls who believe that intellectual abilities are just gifts do not fare well in math, but that those who think they are qualities that can be developed often do just fine.
In another study, Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance, it shows that telling participants that men were better than women at Mathematics caused women to under-perform on the test—the stereotype creates the gender imbalance. Dweck’s work shows this has an effect when innate ability isn’t presented as a gender difference too:
For some students, the “innate ability” and “natural talent” of these mathematicians were highlighted. […] For the other students, the geometry lesson contained information about the same figures, but portrayed them as people who were deeply interested in and committed to math, and who worked hard and thought deeply to arrive at their contributions
After their lesson, students were confronted with a challenge: they were given a difficult math test [..]. When females had received the lesson that portrayed math as a gift and then experienced this difficulty, they did significantly more poorly than their male counterparts. […] However, when females got the lesson that conveyed the idea that math skills are developed, they equaled the males.
Dweck also shows us what happens if we assert that ability is learned through work, and not a gift: The gender gap vanishes
[Originally], both groups showed sharply declining grades in a math, but after the intervention the group that got the “growing ability” message showed a rapid recovery and earned significantly higher math grades than the control group.
What is most striking for our purpose, however, is what happened to the gender difference in math. In the control group, we observed the typical gender difference, with the girls doing substantially worse than the boys. In the experimental group, that difference almost disappeared. Both groups did well.
In similar studies, all of the learners improved, not just women. Is Math a Gift? demonstrates that belief in gift and natural born ability is toxic to all, and by eliminating it, we won’t alienate so many from technology.