Once in a graduate class at one of the most prestigious universities in North America, I confided in my professor that I did not think I was smart enough to eventually pursue a Doctorate in Education. I cited the many other students that seemed more aptly comfortable in the higher educational environment and my self-doubting ability to engage in such a mentally demanding endeavor. He quickly halted my self-deprecating sob-session and told me quite simply, “You come here with your very on own epistemology that has got you this far, and the only thing stopping you from going further is the belief in yourself.” His point was that everyone has their own knowledge, but unfortunately it is the parameters of schooling plus the construction of identity and social interaction that (self) determines how “knowledgeable” each particular person is. But, are people born smarter than others?
This conversation with my professor got me thinking about notions of “smartness”. And I must say, teaching in elementary school, where students are routinely asked to understand basic level mathematical concepts and compose rudimentary prose, one often has that fledgling feeling that some people are inherently more scholastically skilled than others. But scholastic skills do not equal intelligence.
Let’s think about a math class. Some students naturally pick up concepts, others struggle with concepts for a while until they gradually conceptualize understanding, and some seem to never be able to fully grasp an idea. So are those students’ who pick up the concept of long division the fastest “smarter” than the ones who don’t?
I asked this question in a casual conversation to some teachers one day in the staffroom. Their answers surprised me. The majority felt that some people are, in fact, born smarter than others. Some cited their own experience of growing up in a non-English speaking household but still having the diligence to “go to a bedroom, do homework, and try to get good grades despite any parent involvement.” I retorted with a simple question: Does the lack of linguistic parental support in terms of helping a child equal the familial provision that intrinsically espouses hard work? Is there not some type of intrinsic mental cognition that happens by seeing your parents work a good job and being able to come home at a regular time and then ask you (in whatever language they speak) if you did your homework, and not let you “slide” if you didn’t? Do these things not mean that your parents were feverishly involved in your education? Moreover, what about individual intrinsic motivations? If a student sees herself as a “good math student”, is that not enough to push that student to persevere through obstacles and continue to enrich her learning? The many teachers I talked with took up the counterintuitive stance (counterintuitive by virtue of their profession) that “smartness” is inherently a natural thing that has little to do with environment or the nurture side of human development.
This is a scary thought to come from teachers whose job is to uphold a mission statement somewhere detailing that all students have the ability to grow intellectually. If teachers come in with the mentality that each student has a “set limit” on what they can accomplish intellectually, where does that leave their classroom and the students they teach? How does their role as a teacher differentiate from a scantron card? And that is precisely my point. Teaching has more to do with the intrinsic qualities of nurturing minds. If you demonstrate belief in a student by instilling confidence, having patience and experimenting with different pedagogical methods, you will see that each student is just a capable as the next. The mind is a very adaptable thing. It is always growing, firing and closing down brain neurons simultaneously. So, that child who thinks they are “smart” at something will continue to grow at that thing. Conversely, that child who thinks they are weak at something will fade to the margins and lose that potential to grow in that area.
After my conversations with the adults in my school, I sat down with three 8th grade girls and asked them, “Do you think that some people are born smarter than others”? After a few minutes of dialogue, their comments, or rather questions were more cerebral than many of the fixed-mentality teachers I spoke with. One girl asked, “How do you define smart…what does being smarter entail?” And I am sure that inside her 13-year-old brain she was trying to contextualize the notion of universal measurements of intelligence. It was a great question that made me smile. How do we define what “smartness” means? Because a child can grasp a math concept easier than another, does that mean said child is smarter? Is the unanimous measure of intelligence an I.Q. test? There are so many circumstantial, environmental, motivational, and perceptual complications that tie into one’s intelligence. It is too simplistic to simply argue that some people are born smarter than others. If you knew me at age 17, you would say that I was of “average intelligence;” a solid B student. But through my life, I like to think I’ve grown (perhaps to a B+ range now!). Through experience, reading, writing, learning, talking with others, through understanding importance and through understanding life I’ve grown intellectually. But was I born this way or did I get smarter?
This short venting session is riddled with questions. And it is riddled with questions on purpose. Partly because even though I have an opinion on the fundamental question posed here, I know that I do not know the answer. I think Socrates said something to that tune. Hmmm…am I as smart as him?
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