Is Genius Born Or Bred? Khan Academy Weighs In

Khan Academy’s latest campaign leans on research showing that people who believe they can learn and improve are the ones that go on to excel.

Some people are born with natural intelligence or ability. Other people learn through their mistakes and become skilled through effort. Most people combine both. But which is more important: effort or talent?


The online learning portal Khan Academy is launching a campaign that weighs in on this age-old question. The “#YouCanLearnAnything” online campaign actually leans on a growing body of research supporting the notion that a person’s personal answer to that question can have a big influence on their later success in learning and mastering new skills.

“The answer is pretty clear that your intelligence can actually be changed. What researchers have taught us is that our brains are actually a lot like a muscle,” says Khan Academy executive director and founder Sal Khan, in a video that’s part of the campaign. “You don’t just work on things that are easy for your muscles to do.”

Khan is a champion of the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, who coined the term “growth mindset.” Essentially, it is a learning style shown by students who believe their abilities can be developed and who view mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. The opposite of a growth mindset is a “fixed mindset,” a mode shown by people who think they have a fixed amount of ability and are therefore discouraged by failure.

“In study after study we have shown that kids who have a growth mindset get higher grades . . . if kids engage deeply, and effectively in a learning process the grades and test scores are a natural byproduct,” says Dweck. “Kids who are praised for their intelligence, our research shows, don’t want a challenge afterwards. They don’t want to work hard on something. And if they had difficulty–that’s it.”

The size of the effect may not be much, however. Stanford’s Project for Education Research that Scales, which Dweck helps run, worked with Khan Academy in an experiment with over 250,000 students learning math on the platform. According to edSurge, some students were presented with growth mindset messages above math problems, such as “When you learn a new math problem, you grow your math brain!” Others received more standard messages like, “Some of these problems are hard. Just do your best.” The students who received growth mindset messages mastered just 3% more math concepts.

Given the low completion rate of most online courses, Khan Academy’s new messaging to learners certainly can’t hurt.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.