How Are You Smart?

How smart are you? I sometimes pose this cruel question to students at the outset of a workshop on intelligence and learning. Some students sense the tease, and I get my desired response through quizzical and hazy answers from students clearly not happen with my question! And nor should they be. It is a dumb question, and the wrong question. How smart are you assumes two things:

1) intelligence is one dimensional and we all are placed somewhere along it’s continuum

2) intelligence is fixed

This has significant implications for students, especially those who do not see themselves as being smart. Not only is their self esteem injured, but they will very often give up on the effort required to improve their ‘smartness’.

Changing the sequence of words in this question to ‘How are you smart’ fixes the first problem. This question rightly assumes that we are all smart but in different ways. Howard Gardner is recognised as a key figure in liberating intelligence from its narrow dimensions to the multi dimensional, but the concept is hardly Copernican. Put simply, just because a person is good at something does not guarantee proficiency in another thing. As I see it, the main problem in school education is a kind of reversal of this, and we need to proclaim that just because a child is not good in certain areas – for example numeracy or literacy, does not warrant their intellect to be written off.

The triumvirate of maths, science and literacy is all pervasive in schools, commanding large tracts of time at the expense of other ways of knowing and learning. I can’t speak for all students of course, but having worked with students in many countries recently I have found in their interpretation of intelligence, a common denominator almost exclusively bound to written words and maths. The broader view of multiple intelligences is wonderfully empowering for students. I take school groups through the Gardner model of 8 MI asking students to identify the areas they are strong in. Kids love this. They observe in their class a diversity of human capacity that surrounds them, and they see that all students can identify strengths in at least some areas. Interestingly -and of some concern is that of the eight MI, less hands are rising for number smart and word smart than for almost all other MI. Given the time allocation to these departments, why is this so? Maybe this is connected to a fixed view of intelligence within these subjects, or maybe it has to do with a compartmentalization and isolation of the subject from context. Stanford University professor and psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck is convinced that learning effort is seen as fruitless by students when views of intelligence are fixed. This fascinating area of educational psychology requires further expansion in another article (read her book ‘The Mindset’). In a nutshell fixed intelligence implies a deterministic view of the world whilst movable intelligence embraces challenge, effort as the pathway to mastery, persistence, and in general gives students a greater sense of free will.

Which of Gardner’s eight MI is the most important intelligence? This seemingly ‘wrong’ question can precipitate a fascinating exploration of the value in all intelligences. As we move from one MI to another, students speak up on the merits of each until a conclusion is reached: they are all equally important. This has the makings of a wonderful debate. Yes, numeracy, literacy and science are most definitely important but not to the exclusion of the arts, physical education, emotional and naturalist intelligence. So at this point we embrace two essential learnings:

1) We are all smart, but in different ways

2) All types of knowing are important and there is no consensus as to what is the most important. Fully human diversity embraces all MI.

This self knowledge about our strengths and weaknesses is valuable, but needs to be applied. What intelligence area do you resonate with and are really good at?

Do you want to be an expert?

What do we need to do to get really good at something?

How can you support your quest to advance in your favoured intelligence?

We talk about finding groups of like minded people, mentors, reading books, watching documentaries and so on; that learning is most successful when driven by the self, and internalised. We also discuss deep learning skills like metacognition, repetition, slow learning, chunking and the 10 000 hour rule. Intrinsic motivation via Csiksentmihalyi’s Flow model is referred to. What about the weaker learning areas we need to strengthen? Such a question invites students to reflect on what they recognize a need to improve in. This is where a movable against fixed view of intelligence is vital. “I’m just not good at maths” is deterministic and belies the role of effort. Indeed we are born with or without certain natural dispositions and inclinations, but who is to say that over a period of sustained effort we cannot fulfill our potential and improve our capacities? Students must believe in improvement through effort. Further essential learnings:

3) The nature of expertise begins with a degree of genetic disposition, passion and opportunity, but cross-discipline studies in expertise have found the most significant factor is sustained effort over a period of time.

4) We are not destined to be ‘poor’ at something forever. We can always improve on our acuity, with effort.

5) We should further develop our strengths in terms of increasing complexity, but also shore-up our weaknesses. Our lives will be all the richer if we fully embrace the physical, social, emotional, artistic and academic opportunities given to us.

The intelligence paradox is that successful learning often involves a symbiotic relationship between learning domains. For example, I think better after I do physical exercise, or in the case of Einstein, after I play the violin. It is ironic that the compartmentalization and focus of learning areas has apparently led to lower learning outcomes, as evident in some western education systems. This brings us to the wonderful world of trans-disciplinary learning, making connections and more fully using our brain – a topic for another day.


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