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Is everyone smart How this simple belief informs people's stand on education, and why this matters for business


Is everyone smart? How this simple belief informs people's stand on education, and why this matters for business

By Krishna Savani and Aneeta Rattan

More and more, businesses require educated workers. Without an educated, computer-literate work force, it would be difficult if not impossible for modern businesses to function. In addition to providing organisations with qualified employees, education is a key driver of a healthy economy. With the tech revolution, many developed societies are facing the prospect of massive unemployment for people who lack a good education. Not only is this problematic in its own right, but lower employment also means less demand for the goods and services that businesses can provide. Thus, it is in individuals’, organisations’, and nations’ self-interest that citizens receive high quality education from an early age.

Here is the conundrum: Not all public education achieves high quality from an early age. We set out to better understand what predicts people’s views on public education – this core social pillar that businesses rely on. As a starting point, we asked whether Americans generally believe that all children have a fundamental right to a high quality education. We then explored how this belief relates to their support for continued investment in public education.

Importantly, we also explored what drives differences in people’s outlook on education. The key potential predictor that we studied was people’s beliefs about the nature of intellectual potential. Some believe that nearly everyone has high intellectual potential (we call this a “universal belief”); others believe that only some people have the high intellectual potential (we call this a “non-universal belief”).

In three studies with 1038 adults residing in the US, we found that the more people believed that nearly everyone has high intellectual potential, the more they viewed education as a fundamental human right, and the more likely they were to support continued public investment in education. People who tended to think that only some people have high intellectual potential were less likely to think that education is a fundamental human right, and did not think it as necessary for citizens to provide a high quality public education. Further, when provided with information explaining that US students performed poorly academically compared with students from other countries (e.g., that the US ranked a low 25th out of 30 developed countries in maths and science scores), people who believed that only some people have high intellectual potential were less disturbed.

In other words, a nonuniversal belief created less concern about public education. Can you shape people’s beliefs to make them more concerned about public education, if you want to? One of our studies showed that this is possible. Participants were asked to read articles citing “scientific evidence” arguing either the universal belief or the nonuniversal belief about intellectual potential. We found that compared to participants exposed to the idea that only some people have high intellectual potential, those exposed to the idea that nearly everyone has high intellectual potential were more likely to construe education as a basic right, were more opposed to reducing public investment in education, and were more concerned about US students’ poor educational performance.

Is either believe right or wrong? The present research cannot say either way. Instead, it points to the types of beliefs that may be important depending upon whether people want to foster less versus more concern for public education.

Our study has important implications for business. If a majority of people in the country believe that only some people have intellectual potential, and thus do not view children has having a fundamental right to education, there is a risk that the public’s commitment to education can erode over time. And if children do not receive a good quality education, in the subsequent years, businesses might not have a ready pool of educated employees to hire. In this case, instead of relying on the public education system to equip potential employees with essential skills, businesses might have to invest time and money to train employees themselves, or move to other countries which do have a large pool of educated people.

High quality education is the backbone of economic growth, both for the nation and for businesses, and people’s beliefs about the universal nature of intellectual potential help cement their commitment to public education.

About the authors

Krishna Savani is an Associate Professor of Strategy, Management, and Organisation at Nanyang Business School, Singapore. Aneeta Rattan is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.

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