(Almost) perfect heroes and the science of learning

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer

(Almost) perfect heroes

Although Hercules would disagree, Achilles is widely considered the closest thing to a perfect hero in Greek mythology. However, if you’ve ever twisted an ankle, enjoyed a heel spur, or pulled your calf muscle, you are painfully aware of Achilles’ point of susceptibility.

Mythology and the science of learning

Myths are ancient teachings concerning courage, the nature of the world, human significance, culture, and socially acceptable day-to-day practice. To some extent, modern fables, fairy tales, folklore, parables, and cautionary tales are akin to myths. There are lessons to be learned from an ant and a grasshopper, Rumpelstiltskin, Johnny Appleseed, the lost lamb, and a little boy who cried wolf. Myths are fascinating and fun to study, but can get in our way when we consider them to be literal, innate, predestined representations of the human condition—especially the human condition for learning. For example, the following are two of our most common educational myths:

• Some students are born with a brain that is “ready” for math (or football, music, or art).
• What students exhibit, or lack, upon entering kindergarten automatically determines their propensity for achievement.

In The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk (2010) argues against these learning myths at the genetic level. He writes that individual differences in ability are not predetermined by genes; they develop over time. As he states, “Intelligence is a process, not a thing (p. 34).”

“Intelligence is a process, not a thing.” – David Shenk

The two learning myths above represent the two sides of the intelligent/non-intelligent coin we’ve been tossing for generations. “Being born with a brain that is ‘ready’ for math” represents the nature side of that coin while “what students lack” refers to the nurture side. Instead, Shenk calls upon us to replace nature/nurture with dynamic development (p. 33).

Dynamic development looks at ability from a genetic point of view. Genes direct the production of proteins, which are the “building blocks of everything from muscle fiber, to eyeball collagen, to hemoglobin” (p. 22). Through advancements in technology and research, we now know that our genes interact and respond to environmental factors. Whereas nature/nurture focused on genes instead of environment (G or E), dynamic development acknowledges the interaction between the two, represented as GxE.

To be clear, Shenk writes that genetic differences do exist, but no longer are they “straightjackets holding us in place.” With the GxE paradigm, these differences are more like “bungee cords waiting to be stretched and stretched (p. 46).”

Our genetic “bungee cords” stretch when genes respond to environmental triggers by assembling amino acids into proteins. We are now aware of environmental triggers specific to the process of developing intelligence, including:

• Speaking and reading to children early and often,
• Nurturance and encouragement,
• Setting high expectations,
• Embracing failure and encouraging a growth mindset,
• Walking outdoors, and
• Increasing the intake of omega 3 fatty acids.

In a recent blog, Dr. Gene Kerns shared findings regarding another environment trigger—deliberate practice. His blog post is a complement, if not a precursor, to this one.

When learners engage in deliberate practice, their genes respond to what the body is doing by assembling amino acids into proteins to build what the body requires. As amazing as our genes are, they really do not distinguish between hasty and deliberate practice.

Lack of positive environmental triggers, including the deliberate practice trigger, is learning’s Achilles’ heel. To bring our learners close to invincibility, humans are required. At this point, Shenk’s GxE becomes GxExH—genes respond to an environment that has been made more appropriate for learning by humans—parents, loved ones, peers, teachers, coaches, and mentors.

“Lack of positive environmental triggers, including the deliberate practice trigger, is learning’s Achilles’ heel.”

Heroes in the classroom

Which Greek hero are you? Which environment trigger will you implement with rigor? Students need heroes—even mere, somewhat flawed, humans like us.

Be a hero and share your thoughts in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the Renaissance Blog!


Achilles: He was a perfect hero in every way, almost… (2016.) Retrieved from http://www.thatsgreece.com/info/mythology-heroes-Achilles.
Gill, N. S. (2016). The ten greatest Greek heroes. Retrieved from http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/heroes/tp/TopHeroes.htm.
Kerns, G. (2016). The 4 R’s of deliberate practice. Retrieved from https://www.renaissance.com/2016/09/29/the-meaning-of-deliberate-practice.
Shenk, D. (2010). The Genius in All of Us. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.


  1. Jenn Coppock-Huegel says:

    Although the article is intended to make us rethink educational practices, it goes beyond that! Wow!

  2. Dvawn Maza says:

    Interesting article. The part about the environmental triggers is a great piece to know.

  3. Roxann Hauser says:

    I have heard about how genetics and body composition are related to what triggers we are exposed to. Kinds of food we eat and how we move have an effect on what genes are expressed. I had never made the connection that the same may be true for intelligence and how we learn. I really enjoyed this article, it was a true lightbulb moment, creating a whole paradigm shift.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Roxann. Shenk’s work was a “lightbulb moment” for me as well.

  4. Roxanne Provence says:

    Thank you for sharing this valuable learning!

  5. Stacey Painter says:

    I like the quote you have about positive environmental triggers. I try to keep positivity within my classroom and it seems to help with my students versus telling them what they did wrong all the time.

  6. P R says:

    This article REALLY shows how our genetics react and are built with environmental effects upon learning. Students are born with specific abilities. Schools are to “nurture” those abilities and introduce more. Methods help students grow academically and intellectually.

    I intend to read more about this connection.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for your comments. You brought schools (culture, structure) into the GxE discussion, nice addition! Dylan Wiliam’s work on formative assessment focuses on classroom teachers and their impact on students’ success. He is a prolific author on this topic. The BBC produced a two-part series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J25d9aC1GZA) on the impact of implementing Wiliam’s protocols in a UK school (the equivalent of our middle school). From your discussion, I believe you would enjoy this work.

  7. Carmen Garza says:

    I feel that I have practiced much of this both as a parent and an educator without realizing the connections. Now I can see the science behind and it all just makes so much sense! Now to get to know our students well in order to find the missing link(s) to complete this theory and help them be successful.

  8. Sarah Swanzy says:

    Very interesting article that makes you think

  9. David Keech says:

    The influence of genetics on our physical, emotional, and mental makeup has long been known. Too often, however, the factor environment has on people is understated. For example, in the case of speed, many in athletics long felt that speed was innate and could not be taught. That is a fallacy, however. Speed training is exactly that, training the body how to become faster. Strength training makes us stronger. Teaching is an art, not a science, and good practices by teachers clearly does shape learning.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for the “teaching is an art” comment. Perhaps the artistry is realized as we blend the science of learning with the art of teaching. If you’ve not yet read Dr. Kerns’ blog on deliberate practice (see hyperlink in this blog), you might find that enlightening as well. I found David Shenk’s work fascinating. You bring “artistry” into discussions of his detailed science of genetics.

  10. Melissa Robles says:

    Thank you for this great information!

  11. Rita Platt says:

    Good post. I was surprised to not see Carol Dweck’s research cited. http://www.teacherstoolbox.co.uk/T_Dweck.html

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Great connection, Rita! Carol Dweck’s work is indeed ideal for the concepts mentioned in this blog. I intentionally focused on Shenk’s work, but your connection to Dweck is right on target!

  12. Chimere McRae says:

    Great read! Makes me rethink children that we automatically sometimes assume are gifted. Maybe they just had the right environmental factors.

  13. Carolina says:

    “Intelligence is a process, not a thing (p. 34).” Loved this part because it as teachers we always tell the students that practice makes you better! This was valuable learning.

  14. Timothy Holland says:

    “Intelligence is a process, not a thing.” – David Shenk

    This is one of the most simple and yet impactful statements I have ever read regarding teaching and learning.

  15. Jennifer Slade says:

    Great read!

  16. Kelsie says:

    What an interesting shift in perspective! Thank you for sharing

  17. Renee Graham says:

    “Intelligence is a process, not a thing.” – David Shenk Wow! Just wow!

  18. Fatima Peters says:

    Great Article!!!

  19. Virginia Travis says:

    Wonderful insightful article!

  20. Christina says:

    The environmental triggers really makes one think! Great article! Definite reread!

  21. Sheila says:

    Before I began reading, I assumed I was going to be reading something about Carol Dweck’s, “Growth Mindset,” work. But I appreciated being introduced to David Shenk’s idea about intelligence being a process.. Thank you for introducing me to his work.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for reading, Sheila. If you’re familiar with Carol Dweck’s work, David Shenk’s work is worth taking a look at as well!