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Naturalness Bias, English and maths and grit.

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

In her celebrated TED talk, Angela Lee Duckworth speaks at length about the factors which support people to be successful. From celebrated Army training academies to national spelling competitions, one primary characteristic stood above all others: grit.

Duckworth describes grit as ‘passion and perseverance for long term goals; grit is sticking with your future’. From young children to hardened soldiers, grit was one of the few common denominators of success.

But is this something which we’re born with, or is it something we develop? And is grit enough?

The short answer is ‘no’.

Research suggests we favour those with perceived "natural-born" gifts as opposed to those who develop skills over time. One experiment asked two groups to listen to a musician: one group was told the musician had a ‘natural gift’, whilst the other was told the musician had spent decades refining their talent. Both were asked to rate the musician.

Surprisingly, the group who were told the musician was ‘naturally talented’ rated the musician more highly than the second group, a phenomenon known as ‘naturalness bias’. With similar experiments showcasing similar results, how far does ‘naturalness bias’ creep into everyday life?

In FE English and maths, how far does naturalness bias hinder those who believe they don’t have innate talent? In colleges around the country, how often do we hear ‘I’ve never been any good at English and/ or maths’?

And not just from students. How many family members and colleagues have we heard empathise with students?

The challenges around English and maths are multi-faceted, and we know it’s not just about growth mindset, but what we do know is that many students, apathetic towards English and maths, reserve their fullest effort for fear of failure (partly because of prior experiences, and partly because they believe ‘I’ve just never been any good at it’, which translates into ‘I’m frightened of failing so don’t want to try’).

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the first step is to allow students to regularly achieve. This is not to say that we make lesson content ‘easy’ or produce tasks that students can complete without challenge. This simply means that we must individualise content so all students can achieve and so feel more confident in attempting more challenging tasks, activities and content.

If students begin to feel that they may have a natural talent for English and maths, they will further engage with it and begin to accept that ‘failure’ (perceived or real) is part of the journey of success.

More than this, we must contextualise English and maths into common, real-world examples. This doesn’t mean creating hundreds of examples of maths and English in Construction, Hair and Beauty or Engineering (a massive effort, with limited impact in many cases), but helping students to understand that they are ‘naturally gifted’. A huge majority of students we teach have independently crossed a road at some point in their lives, likely at a very young age. In doing this, they calculate the height of the curb to the road, the speed and acceleration of on-coming cars, the weather conditions, the number of people around them (their trajectory, speed, acceleration and movement), the speed they must walk at (making micro-adjustments throughout) and any number of other variables. They complete hundreds of calculations within a fraction of a second.

Is this real natural ability? No. It’s repetitive, deliberate practice following high-quality modelling, mentoring, coaching and feedback (i.e. a parent who asks that we look both ways, holds our hands and practices with us).

A wider question is whether ‘natural ability’ even exists at all. What we do know, is that self-efficacy, regular (high-quality) modelling, personalised feedback and individualisation make a huge difference.

Using these tenets, The BASE Project is a fully funded DfE-backed project with the specific goal of supporting FE students, teachers and leaders to achieve in English and maths. By supporting students and teachers to identify strengths, areas for improvement, progress and next steps (as well as allowing all students to regularly achieve), the project provides a library of resources for teachers and students.

Want more information on The Base Project? Visit or contact Jonny directly at to see the support, resources and huge impact the project and our team can have.

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