The problem with potential: Why the cure for cancer might not be inside the mind of a child who won't go to school

5th July 2014 at 09:41

"The problem with potential," opined Hibernian miserabilist Dylan Moran, "is that it’s like your bank balance – you'll always have a lot less than you think. What if you find out that your potential is that you could maybe…possibly, cut down on dairy products a little?"


You hear a lot about potential in education. It means a "currently unrealised ability". Philosophically, that’s an interesting concept. It implies that something exists that isn’t, at present, observable. It’s a power: an elevated ball has the potential to fall; water has the potential to douse fire. But if it isn't observable, how do we explain our belief in it? From experience. From an observed history of the capacity displayed. Buckets of sand smother flames rather than fuel them; lightning strikes turn people to rubble rather than imbue them with superpowers. 


But potential in people? Our chameleon natures makes this a far harder butterfly to catch. If you follow the tides of edu-Twitter, you’ll be familiar with the Inspiration Industry, and its followers. Endless, brainless quotes and misquotes from Marilyn Monroe, Gandhi, Pocahontas and Basil Goddamn Brush for all I know. "If you can’t handle me at my worst," breathes cyber-Marilyn, resurrected for a gullible digital age, "You don't deserve me at my best."  


In this world, children are no longer children, but a series of majestic, tub-thumping metaphors of fabulous possibility and promise. "Teaching is the lighting of a fire," quoth cyber-WB Yeats, "Not the filling of a pail." Except he didn’t. Nor did cyber-Socrates, or half-a-dozen other attributed authors. But never mind the provenance, feel the inspiration.


"What if the cure for cancer is inside the mind of a child who can’t afford an education?" worries a meme that I see frequently on Twitter. Now that’s a strange thing to ask, when you think about it. What: the cure for cancer is inside this kid’s mind but he doesn't know it? Like the Princess Leia hologram inside R2D2, just waiting for someone to clean the sand out of his gears? That would seem odd, absurd, in fact. No, what – I’ll be charitable – is being expressed here is that the child could potentially discover the cure for cancer, surely. So let’s assess that claim.


We’re back to the idea that a thing can exist before it is expressed. Now, in education, this is a familiar piece of imagery. Michelangelo is alleged to have said ,“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” It’s a beautiful, deeply human metaphor. The statue of David within the marble, waiting to be released by the sculptor, who merely delivers it rather than creates it. It’s a lovely image, but it’s a poetic truth more than literal one. Michelangelo was being cute, and modesty when you’re at the top of your game is easy. 


The problem with this view of potential is that, potentially, it’s quite limiting. "He has the potential to get an A in his GCSEs" means that others do not, and here’s where my view of potential differs, it seems, from the majority of school systems. I think all of my kids can potentially get an A. In fact, I tell them that. Of course I let them know their school targets, because Caesar says I must, and then I tell them to hell with them: I expect them all to get an A. Which doesn’t mean I disregard prior achievement and other impediments, merely to say that I believe anyone can do anything if they want it hard enough and are prepared to do what it takes to get it. I don’t uncover David inside them; I help them to carve themselves into the shape of David. 


Potential merely means that an agent or object, given certain interventions and conditions, can become or achieve some thing else. Unlike Moran, I don't think that potential can be seen as a limited, fixed thing. I think it’s just a (perhaps mundane) observation that with effort, direction and dedication, most of us could do or be most things. I don't believe in miracles: a boy with no English the night before an English GCSE is unlikely to master the tongue in time for the examiner’s starter’s pistol. But I do believe in the miracle of diligence, time, industry and determination, often the most undervalued qualities in learning. 


What if the cure for cancer is inside the mind of someone who studies drama? What if it’s inside the mind of someone who won’t bother to turn up to Oncology 101? It isn't, that's the answer. It might be one day, but until we develop the gift of prophecy, no one knows what might be.

Rather than limit myself – and my students – by seeing it as some kind of buried gem, I’ll continue to build my students’ potential with them and for them, and watch how high they can go.