Theories of intelligence

During the college basketball season, a commenter on a sports website described a star student-athlete from my alma mater as “big, strong, agile and smart.”  I wouldn’t dispute that characterization, but I have some inside information about the player’s academic performance.  An esteemed professor of mine, someone I consider a mentor, confided that this scholar could be found staring into his Blackberry during the professor’s lectures, something you don’t want to do with this prof – both because you’d be missing out on a golden opportunity to absorb some wisdom and because you won’t like the menacing stare that would be sure to follow!

This situation once again raised a question I’ve wondered about since I was a child: What does it mean to be smart?  It turns out there is a lot of research and literature on the subject, and an endless number of opinions. 

The question is of vital importance in a school setting.  If educators begin with the assumption that there are some kids who are smart and other kids who are not smart, and these are fixed capacities that can only be mildly influenced by school, then there’s not a whole lot of good that a school can do other than shepherd each kid along his or her predestined path.  If a school treats a child as having limitless potential, whatever environmental, medical or psychological issues have begun to shape him or her, then the approach becomes very different.  That school will naturally have high expectations for all students and will challenge all kids to meet those expectations, to retain and synthesize what they experience in school.  In my view, this expectation that our knowledge and skills need not have limits is, along with natural human curiosity, the starting point of all learning.

I believe that the idea that intelligence is a fixed quality about a person, like height, is a dangerous and damaging concept.  I have observed students internalizing the negative (“I’m not smart”) when provided evidence of it more than internalizing the positive (“I am smart”) when they are provided evidence of that.  In the school setting, this phenomenon has often led to a shallow and, I think, misguided attempt to build students’ self-esteem regardless of the circumstances.  We can fight the very human tendency to fixate on the negative not by masking it, but by acknowledging that tendency and countering it by affirming the potential that we all have.

A series of town hall meetings last week reinforced this belief. Margaret and I talked frankly about this subject with groups of our students who were soon to take the state exams.  I showed them our school’s test scores from last year and how we hope they perform on the tests this year.  We compared their performance in 2009 to that of District 3, our local school district that is a diverse and fairly accurate snapshot of the city as a whole.  (District 3 includes our small part of Harlem and all of the Upper West Side.) 

The curious thing is that, when I asked the third graders who saw that our third grade had a 98% passing rate on the state math test last year, if that meant that our third graders were smarter than the District 3 kids who scored lower, they all said, “No.”  They implicitly understood that under other circumstances the other kids could perform better and knock the Harlem Link students off their perch.

But when I asked the same question of the fifth graders, whose cohort did not outperform  District 3 on last year’s exam (but still had a respectable 75% attainment rate), there was a robust mix of “Yes” and “No.”  Many, maybe even most, of the kids believed that the students with a higher achievement rate were actually smarter than the the Harlem Link kids because of the test results!  Our objective in this situation is to restore a sense in the students that they control their destiny, to instill in them the belief that their knowledge is what they make of it.

One of my favorite theories of intelligence is that of the psychologist Robert Sternberg.  He built the “tri-archic” model, describing the analytic, creative, and practical domains of intelligence.  The model suggests that we call on different aspects of our intelligence in different situations and that there is a fluidity to knowledge that is dependent on context.  I believe that if our fifth graders thoroughly understood this idea, their reaction to last year’s test scores would be, “Those kids beat our school’s scores on that particular day, on that particular test.”

Our challenge is not only to light the candle of learning and help the kids internalize facts, skills and habits, but it’s also to help them view themselves as creatures more complex than can a simple number can express.

Time and again I have seen supposedly smart people appear foolish.  We all witnessed that sort of behavior in the mortgage and banking crisis that precipitated our current recession.  On my nightstand right now is The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  This book all but predicted the economic crisis the year before it happened, when the global economy was going through what turned out to be irrational exuberance.  Taleb’s thesis was summarized by “We’re all blind to rare events and routinely fool ourselves into believing we can predict risks and rewards.”

Congress and the federal education department also seem to be filled with smart people making not so smart decisions.  The people who brought us the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 are at it again.  The president’s proposed reauthorization of the law (formally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) will eliminate the unrealistic demand that all students in the country be deemed proficient on state tests by 2014.  That’s all well and good – but there’s a problem.  The federal education department has begun another program, called Race To The Top, offering federal stimulus dollars to state education departments that show they will implement favored reforms, among them tying teacher evaluations to student achievement and supporting charter schools.  These are good ideas, but what’s disturbing – and foolish – is that there has been no public discourse on what went wrong in 2001.  Instead of a reasoned, well-informed discourse on the 2001 expectation and why it turned out to the unrealistic, we are on the next silver bullet that’s going to solve all of our problems. 

Harlem Link’s students?  We continue to pound the message to them, with the state tests on the horizon: You are not the sum of the numbers assigned to you.  Because you’re human, your intelligence can’t be fully measured by a test.  (Believe it or not, Alfred Binet, the creator of the first IQ test, would agree, as he was horrified by the use of his diagnostic test to label and sort people.)  The state tests, like the PSAT, SAT, SAT II, Regents exams and AP tests that our kids will take in years to come, are instead a chance to show what you know and know how to do in a certain domain.

That basketball player probably didn’t do so well on last semester’s final exam.  But he is intelligent, in a manner of speaking (it takes analytic, creative and practical skills to succeed in high level athletic competition).  In the classroom he made some not-so-intelligent choices or developed some not-so-intelligent habits.  He has made a choice to develop and express certain aspects of his intelligence, while allowing some other aspects to wither.  For the record, I think this choice is a terrible one, and it could have drastic consequences for him if his athletic plans fall through.

Our schoolwide attitude about testing is moving toward this notion of individual choice and the understanding that tests are a narrow and limited window into one dimension of knowledge.  This attitude is still forming, given that 2010 is only our third year of administering state tests and we’ve been adding new teachers each year as our school expanded.  Ultimately, I see Sternberg’s and Taleb’s ideas as supporting the triumph of the human spirit and the supremacy of individual choice.  Consistent with the great thinkers across human cultures and history, they would have us question our basic assumptions about what we see, hear and believe.  Finally, since our mission asks that we “empower children to taken an active role in learning,” the least we can do is teach them, encourage them, and ultimately trust them, to make good choices about their learning.

About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
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