The Notion of Genius

Principle 24:  Discover your inner genius and create opportunities for those around you to discover and unleash their own unique form of genius.  Move beyond the archaic ideas about what genius looks like in the 21st century.

Soundscape: Desire by Pharoah Monch

The word ‘genius’ originated in ancient Rome and initially was applied to all individuals. Every person possessed a ‘genius’ that was unique to them.  An individual’s ‘genius’ “dictated their unique personality and disposition. So if a person had an outstanding talent or ability, it was believed that this was due to their ‘genius’.  Over the years, the term has become both elusive and exclusive.

Albert-Einstein-Nothing-will-benefit-humanI recently read an article in National Geographic entitled “Genius Takes Many Forms” by Susan Goldberg.  At the outset of the piece she challenges the image of genius that we are presented with: white males of European descent.  The images engrained in many of our students’ minds through textbooks reinforce this notion of genius as only applying to Albert Einstein, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.  However, looking at a biography of Einstein also challenges our commonly accepted notion of what genius looks like in elementary school. Here is an excerpt from Einstein’s biography:

“He was a poor student, and some of his teachers thought he might be retarded (mentally handicapped); he was unable to speak fluently (with ease and grace) at age nine. He disliked school, and just as he was planning to find a way to leave without hurting his chances for entering the university, his teacher expelled him because his bad attitude was affecting his classmates.”

But what is it?  Let’s look at Merriam Webster’s definition of genius:

a very smart or talented person : a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable. : a person who is very good at doing something. : great natural ability : remarkable talent or intelligence.
Queen_of_Katwe_posterGenius does come in many forms.  George Washington Carver was one of the first faces of color exemplifying genius that appeared in my school curriculum in the 1980’s.  I’m ready for someone to create a movie about this fascinating scientist and his work at Tuskegee.  One of my students comes to mind when I think of financial genius.  He is in 3rd grade and has a trading account where his father has begun teaching him to invest in the stock market.  Each day he gives me an update on how his stocks are doing and what he plans to invest in.  His father is looking beyond the school to provide his son with an experience that could potentially lead to a career in finance.  At 8 years old, his level of financial literacy as it relates to investments is beyond what most adults acquire before they leave college. College and career readiness has to be more than just a measure for schools to gain points.  Students become ready for college and careers when committed adults give the experiences and challenges that help them unlock their inner genius.George Washington Carver


This weekend I watched the film “The Queen of Katwe“.  It tells the story of a young girl in Uganda who becomes a chess master in her village.  On Thursday afternoons, as I’m teaching chess to the students in our after school program, I see the glimmers of genius as some students begin to blossom into amazing chess players.  I see problem solving and critical thinking at high levels.  I see students who have the gift of teaching others…patience and tact.  Yesterday, I watched as some of our students took lessons from a violinist.  Their confidence continues to build.  If schools can address the poverty of exposure, our children will have a more equitable opportunity to discover their own genius.

African geniusWhen I think of entrepreneurial genius I think of Detroit’s Asia Newsome, an 11 year old entrepreneur with the mindset of a seasoned business mogul.  Mechanical genius is exemplified by the ingenuity of William Kamkwamba, the self-taught engineer from Malawi who devised a way to power his village with a windmill. Because of how we misperceive what genius should look like, we confine this notion of genius to the students with the highest grades or the 98th percentile on a standardized tests.

Our challenge as educators and mentors to young people is to first challenge their notion of genius and then begin to present them with experiences that force them to discover their own inner genius.  Those experiences can be semester projects, performance tasks, art projects, community service initiatives, business model assignments, or challenges to invent a new product.  One of my favorite rhetorical geniuses, Dr. Cornell West,  often says that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Shifting the texture of public education from a manufacturing mindset to an innovation mindset requires that we reframe what genius looks like in public.



Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of The Brilliance Beneath (2016), "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and "Principals Don't Walk on Water" (2020) . His forthcoming book is "Virtually Lost" (2021).

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