Friday, October 16, 2009

AI: American Intelligence

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 131:

Americans, like other Westerners, view intelligence as a fixed attribute, like eye color.  If you win the genetic lottery, you’re smart; but if you lose, you’re not.  This notion of intelligence as fixed by genetics has implications for school and work.  One implication is that smart people shouldn’t need to work hard in order to get good grades—after all, they are smart.  As a corollary, if you work hard, that must mean you’re not smart.  The destructive cycle is obvious: students want to get good grades so that they look smart, but they can’t study to do so because that marks them as dumb.  In China, Japan, and other Eastern countries, intelligence is more often viewed as malleable.

I don’t really like that generalization of how “Americans view intelligence” especially since I’m sure a lot of Americans don’t view it that way at all.  When I was in school, I knew the reason I didn’t get perfect grades was because I didn’t study quite enough (because I didn’t care that much about getting the best grades, and I certainly didn’t care about some of the material).  And it was kind of liberating to know this, since it meant my grades didn’t necessarily reflect on my “intelligence” ... they reflected how much I studied, which reflected how much I really cared about getting a good grade.  If I wanted awesome grades, I could work for them and get them.  But it wouldn’t really be worth it for me.  (Similarly, that I can’t play the piano doesn’t really bother me because I know I could learn if I wanted to put in the work and practice.  And someday I might...)

So, while I agree with the view that intelligence is malleable, I don’t think realizing this necessarily leads students to better grades, especially if they don’t care about “looking smart,” as I certainly didn’t.  (To a degree, at least.)

In fact, perhaps more students than the author realizes share the view that intelligence is malleable.  Sometimes when students say “I’m not going to study, it’s a sign that I’m dumb!” is really just an excuse to not study because it’s hard uninteresting work, and “looking smart” is just not worth it.  Easier to accept the label of “dumb” and just not work as hard.  Lowers everyone’s expectations too.



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