There’s a related (but opposite) version called the Dunning-Kruger Effect: people with low ability in an area over-estimate their ability in that area.
I’d heard of the term, but decided to read the actual paper from Dunning and Kruger (link fixed, Sept 2019). You should read it, it’s pretty short and has big education implications.
They conducted a series of experiments in three areas: humor, grammar, and logic. Dunning and Kruger measured performance in each area, but also documented their subjects’ self-assessments. In each case, people with the lowest ability drastically over-estimated their own abilities. In one experiment, this group’s average performance was in the 10th percentile, but their average self-assessment was in the 67th percentile!
So, novices in an area tend to over-estimate their ability (this makes sense, since they aren’t yet aware of the many complexities in that area).
While this is pretty fascinating on its own, the performance of the highest-ability group was most interesting to me. Just as Impostor Syndrome would predict, this group under-estimated their ability. Their average grammar performance was in the 89th percentile, but they predicted they were in the 72nd percentile. Of the four ability groups, they were the only ones that under-estimated their skill.
Dunning and Kruger explained this pattern using a concept called the false consensus effect.
Simply put, these participants assumed that, because they performed so well, their peers must have performed well likewise.
The highly-capable group only has themselves to go by, so they assume everyone is at a similar level – thus predicting that their ability is closer to average.
My Own Under-Estimation
I totally experienced this growing up. Much like the people in these studies, despite obviously being in the high-ability group, I constantly underestimated my own abilities. I thought I was pretty average. This happened even when I got straight As – because that was pretty “average” for me (and my peer group).
The solution is to help these folks understand why they are, in fact, advanced.
Exposure To Other Abilities
Dunning and Kruger tried something like this. They showed the most-advanced group a range of work from other groups, then asked them to re-rate their own ability. After seeing the other work, the advanced group was much better at estimating their own abilities. It re-calibrated their understanding of what “average” was.
This is the key takeaway: our most advanced thinkers may not actually understand that they really are advanced. And I don’t think any number of As or 100%s will convince them – because those scores are average to them.
It’s sneaky, because, as teachers, we see the whole spectrum of ability and it’s obvious to us that these kids stand out. But they really only have access to themselves.
Point Out WHY They’re Smart
As I’ve written before, we need to avoid “you’re so smart” praise and talk about what they’re doing that makes them “smart.”
I’ve tried eliminating “smart” from my own vocabulary. It takes work. I really have to think. What about this person am I praising? What did they do with their brain that impressed me? What do I mean by “smart”?
It comes down to feedback that specifically emphasizes what the student actually does that makes them “smart.”
But but but
I know this makes some people fall into their fainting couches, panicked that discussing kids’ own abilities with them will make them… arrogant. I think it’s absolutely irresponsible not to explain to these kids that they are gifted and what exactly makes them gifted.
This list of traits is a starting point.
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