Our curious ideas about intelligence

We have some strange ideas about intelligence, many of them are wrong. Some of our ideas can have a damaging effect on the people we label as intelligent. When we look at some of the research behind intelligence we find that our assumptions based on what we were once told about it need to be updated. 
I recall watching the ‘Dog Whisperer’ some years back and gaining an insight into how we send messages to our learners even when we don’t intend to. The host of the show, Cesar Millan was demonstrating how the fear of the dogs owner are transmitted through the lead directly into the pets mind. It was as though the lead was a conduit through which the owner communicated subliminally with their pet. The behaviour that was observed in the dog was a direct consequence of these messages even when they contradicted what the owner said.
Our children are at least as capable of reading the hidden messages we send them as are our beloved four legged friends and when it comes to messages about what intelligence is, who has it and who does not we need to be very careful. 
The most obvious misunderstanding we have around intelligence is that it is a fixed attribute. It is not surprising that many people believe this as it was once accepted wisdom that intelligence was indeed fixed. You were born with it or you were not. We insulted those we considered lacking intelligence by claiming they must have been running late when the brains were handed out. We did not think of intelligence as something that could be improved and enriched through anything we could do. Now we understand that intelligence can be developed. That the brain is surprisingly plastic and can be rewired as a result of how we use it. The idea that intelligence is fixed, that some people are smart and others are not, is one of the messages we have sent our children over the years. 
Intelligence has also been closely associated with particular activities and not with others. Not only do we attribute high intelligence to certain careers, we attribute it to certain disciplines. If you are good at mathematics you must be very smart. If you understand physics you are smarter than a chemist who is smarter than a biologist. If you are an artist you may have a particular talent, but not the sort of smarts that a mathematician has. Now we know that intelligence comes in many different forms, that it is not a singular attribute but a complex mix of capacities. The mathematician, the scientist, the artist all have differing mixes of what might be considered intelligence, a diverse interwoven mix that allows each of them to engage with the world in uniquely intelligent ways.

There are lessons to be learned from Artificial Intelligence. General Artificial Intelligence would require a machine to possess the sort of diverse intellect that is the norm in humans. The form of AI is still a long way from reality, even among top contenders such as the computer (AlphaGo) that is today the world champion at the ancient Chinese game of Go. As impressive as AlphaGo might be it is yet to master the full range of mental acts that are expected of a human. What is rapidly emerging from the world of AI are computer, bots and robots that are very good at a specified subset of what we know of as intelligence. Rather than trying to replicate the many things that a human can do AI is being developed to do but a part of what we do and in achieving this shines a light on the many forms of intelligence that contribute to our notion of General Intelligence.
Intelligence is a meaningless attribute if it is viewed independent of behaviour. Forrest Gump got it right when he stated, ‘Stupid is as stupid does’. It was once considered that an intelligence was an attribute purely of the mind, that it could exist as an abstract removed from what the individual would chose to do with it. Today we understand that intelligence is dispositional. This means it is a result of the capacity to act intelligently, the desire to do so an awareness of the need for intelligent behaviour. This concept extends beautifully to the notion of the wise individual. Ready recall of great quantities of knowledge may once have marked an individual as wise. Today we understand that bare knowledge is insufficient, to be smart one must be able to make effective use of what they know. 
On the occasion of Project Zero’s fiftieth birthday, David Perkins asked the question "what does it mean to be smart” and his response showed the errors in the common understanding of what intelligence is. He reminded us that the evolving understanding of the mind shows:

  • Smart as multiple - we are not all smart in the same way nor are we smart in a singular way. There are the smarts we use when we are being creative and these are not the same as the smarts we use when we are being business minded and these are not the same as the ones we use when being social
  • Smart as learnable - that through the development of thinking strategies and the use of scaffolds for our mind we can enhance our smarts
  • Smart as dispositional - that much of what we consider as smart are indeed dispositions and that can be developed or enhanced and that the utility of these dispositions requires not only the capacity for the disposition but the desire to deploy it and a sensitivity to its utility in given circumstances all of which can be learned
  • Smart as performative - It’s not the knowledge, it’s what you do with the knowledge, It’s not knowing a lot it’s how you think with what you know.  

For a long time, we believed that intelligence was linked to fast thinking. The quick answer to the complex question was a sure sign of intelligence. Rapid recall of information was a valuable asset to the game of trivial pursuit and a widely accepted mark of intelligence. The individual who could quickly add three or more large numbers together was a mathematical genius. The connection between speed of thought and intelligence has been communicated to our students both directly and accidentally. It disappointingly still the norm that students are drilled and timed on their 'table facts’ in mathematics classes across the map; even though we know this is the sort of mathematics that the machines will most readily take over when they rise against us.
In ‘Mathematical Mindsets’, Jo Boaler shares the story of Laurent Schwartz. Laurent has become confident in his mathematical capacities and intelligence but this occurred despite his experience of school. As Laurent describes, a focus on speed at school led to him questioning his ability.

I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent. And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, I secretly thought of myself as stupid. I worried about this for a long time.
I'm still just as slow… At the end of the eleventh grade, I took the measure of the situation, and came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn't have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn't really relevant. (Schwartz, 2001)

Laurent was able to move beyond a flawed concept of what intelligence is and is not. Many students do not. They are left believing the myths that they have read about intelligence in the beliefs, values and actions of their teachers. We need to engage our learners in conversations about what intelligence is and what it isn’t. When they understand that it is multiple, learnable, dispositional, performative and varied in speed they have the knowledge they need to see it as an attribute that they can take charge of. 

Speed and intelligence is a complex thing and it is not merely a matter of how rapidly we process information. Brain research shows us that how we move from noticing a sensation via our senses through to developing a suitable response is shaped by many forces. This complexity is revealed in Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ in which he uses the metaphor of two systems to describe our thought processes. Simply put, we have System One that functions very quickly and automatically in response to stimulation. System One is what allows us to survive not just in a dangerous world but in the world of social interactions and complex relationships. System Two is what takes over when System One is unable to respond or when we notice that it is not doing its job very well. Our rapid response System One is phenomenally useful but it has its limitations and this is where our slower thinking System Two is required; yet System Two has its flaws and we need both to thrive. This is very much so an oversimplification of Kahneman’s ideas and those with an interest in this are encouraged to read his book. 

The difficulty is that our deliberate and considered messaging about intelligence is often contradicted by our actions and the pedagogical moves we make. Do we give equal merit to intelligence in all its forms or do we value mathematical or literary intelligence more than the sort of intelligence demonstrated on the sporting field? Do we make cuts to our arts programmes so as to better value the sciences? Do we encourage deep thinking but then administer timed tests? Do we encourage speedy thinking by calling on the students whose hand goes up first? Do we praise correct answers or do we equally acknowledge the students who makes a mistake but demonstrates unique thinking in the process? Only by looking at every aspect of our messaging about intelligence can we hope to transform how our students perceive it. 
By Nigel Coutts

Boaler, J. (2016) Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. Wiley; Kindle Edition. 

Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 

Schwartz, L. (2001) A Mathematician Grappling with His Century. Birkhäuser

Want to learn more:

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) New Kinds of Smart: How the Science of Learnable Intelligence is Changing Education. Open University Press

Taking the Time to Think
What does intelligence look like?