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Blog - The possibilities of potential

Thursday 21 June 2018

We heard from Saint Mark’s Gospel this last Sunday of Jesus telling a parable that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest seed which grows into the biggest shrub of them all. This conceptualisation of potential seems to me to be rich with possibilities. Christ coming into the world and teaching his disciples marks the beginning of that kingdom, which Christians today, through their membership of the Church as the body of Christ, are part of.

It is worth considering for a moment what Jesus meant by using this agricultural metaphor. It seems to have been a favourite of Jesus’, as it appears in at least three of the four Gospel narratives. At first sight the meaning seems straightforward to interpret; the tiny mustard seed grows into a large plant. Small seeds of faith, develop rapidly (mustard is an annual plant) and have a big significance and impact, which is at odds with expectation. It is worth looking a little harder though. Both Mark and Matthew include in their account reference to birds either nesting or resting in the branches of the mustard plant. This is a bit odd as the mature mustard plant is certainly not a tree. Imagine being told to hang a nesting box in your tomato plant. No known mustard variety could support a roosting bird. Is Jesus a poor botanist then? More likely he is deliberately identifying growth that entirely transcends human expectation. This is the power of God at work.

Clearly the parable is speaking of God’s transcendent power and grace, not that of human beings. Nonetheless, Jesus is talking about the here and now, the Kingdom, which is immanent. What in this context then should we think of human potential?  Surely we are to understand that God’s grace transforms us wholly and completely beyond our own expectations.

Some 350 years before Christ’s life, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was writing and teaching about human potential. For Aristotle all living things have potential, dynamis in Ancient Greek, but humans have a distinctive dynamis which can only be realised through rational thought. Aristotle wrote that the realisation of the dynamis through thought could be taught by a skilful teacher.

The work of Stamford psychologist Carol Dweck about Growth Mindsets has been widely popularised in the education sector. Her findings, that those who believe that their intellectual abilities are not fixed do indeed experience enhanced achievement in intellectual activity, have a powerful attraction. Dweck writes: “In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter. … students who were not taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades over this difficult school transition, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades.” For educators here is the exciting prospect that effective teaching can enable children to transcend their genetic inheritance. For those of us who reject that pervasive view of children’s development which says that it is possible and right to evaluate an individual’s ability in the first decade of their life and use this to determine their schooling , this provides powerful justification.

Dweck’s work has been supported from a different direction by scientists working in neurobiology who have shown that the brain continues to be capable of growth or development into adulthood, which is described as neuroplasticity. In this context then we must understand that children do not have a fixed quantum of knowledge which they have the potential to absorb and apply. Rather their brains continue to develop and learn.

Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the mustard seed is about the power of God’s grace at work in our lives achieving unexpected things.  Surely this means as Christians that we should be open to and indeed deliberately cultivate a disposition to expect the marvellous and unexpected? This involves continually challenging ourselves to reject human horizons. Working in the sphere of education, where all too often we get trapped in a narrative of determinism, this means being open to thinking about the possibilities of every human individual for growth and development.   This is certainly an approach we take at Bennett, where Dweck, cognitive science and even a bit of Aristotle inform our thinking that we should expect no limit to what an individual child can achieve.