Kids just aren’t smart enough

In an earlier post on 21st century curricula, I noted the following quote by Dr. Lauren Resnick, one of our nation’s most eminent cognitive researchers, writing at the time for the National Academy of Sciences:

The goals of increasing thinking and reasoning ability are old ones for educators. . . . But these goals were part of the high literacy tradition; they did not, by and large, apply to the more recent schools for the masses. Although it is not new to include thinking, problem solving, and reasoning in someone’s school curriculum, it is new to include it in everyone’s curriculum. It is new to take seriously the aspiration of making thinking and problem solving a regular part of a school program for all of the population . . . It is a new challenge to develop educational programs that assume that all individuals, not just an elite, can become competent thinkers.

Bill Bradley said in a comment:

[UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments below from Bill, Chris, and others]

Including [thinking] skills in education is a fine idea, but ignoring the realities of differing abilities is foolhardy.

DuncecapEffective communication is so strongly associated with intelligence that people who can read teleprompters well are seen as far more intelligent than they actually are and people who can not express themselves effectively are not given due weight.

Identifying key points,breaking down problems, making connections, being able to compare and contrast several different ideas or concepts are not equally distributed skills. They can be improved for almost all people, but educators are not able to just order up a round of smarter people.

It is quite obvious in everyday life that many people are lacking in critical thinking, communication, adaptability, and problem solving skills. I find it difficult to believe that the method of their education is the major, or even significantly contributing factor to that situation.

I started my undergraduate education in 1990, by graduation many of my science and mathematics classmates were working in an industry that had not existed when we began (the World Wide Web), and were in high demand. Why? Because the level of adaptability and problem solving required for the field at the time was rare and highly valued. They would have been creative and excellent problem solvers in any field, there just happened to be a sudden market demand. More market demand will not magically produce more ability.

Here’s my vociferous reply:

Bill, isn’t it exactly these kinds of beliefs that have held poor and minority children back for decades? If cognitive, sociological, and educational research have taught us anything, it’s that ‘nurture’ is just as important as ‘nature’ and that notions of intelligence as ‘fixed’ are both outdated and viciously harmful. We have countless examples of instances where kids that society (and, apparently, you?) have given up on because they’re ‘just not smart’ are quite successful because we’ve changed the environments around them. Douglas Reeves’ 90-90-90 schools, the schools profiled by Chenoweth in ‘It’s Being Done,’ the work done by the Education Trust, etc. all belie the notion that some kids just aren’t ‘smart’ enough. The ones who aren’t smart enough are the educators and policymakers who haven’t figured out yet – or are unwilling to – reexamine our practices and structures to do what’s right for kids. I, and the scientific community at large, emphatically deny your assertion.

Image credit: Not my hat!

7 Responses to “Kids just aren’t smart enough”

  1. Well, I must side with Bill on this one. It is as a teacher using the perceptions that Bill describes that I was able to help a school drop-out become a personally fulfilled individual who was then able to contribute to, rather than steal from, society.

  2. Thank you for linking to the previous post because although you quoted me in entirety it is taken out of context. I am in no way shape or form arguing against teaching “Higher Order” skills, in fact I am in favor of it and use project based learning, real world problem solving (where there is not one correct answer) and “authentic assessment” and require written and multimedia presentations from my students at all ability levels from “inclusion” to “honors” What I am against is claiming that the motivation for this is or should be requirements of “Creative Class” jobs, and the implication that our economic, political, trade and employment problems (both current and future) are due to Education.

    Oh, and by the way, Archimede’s quote (said of the lever) is “Give me a place to stand on and I will move the Earth.” He had the tool, and knew how to use it. What he lacked was the support to actually accomplish the task.

    • Thanks for the follow-up, Bill. My apologies if I quoted you out of context. I didn’t think I had…

      A few thoughts:

      1. I believe that you said outright above that some kids aren’t intelligent enough to do higher-order thinking. You also say that education pales in importance to other factors. The schools I cite (and the others I could cite) sort of repudiate your belief(s), no? (since they’re succeeding with the very kids that others would say will never be ‘intelligent’ enough)

      2. I completely concur with the lack of support. As a country, we’re very focused on low-level factual recall and procedural knowledge rather than higher-level thinking skills. Kudos to you for bringing higher-order skills in as much as you can within our accountability-driven climate.

      3. So if the American workforce continues to require increasing numbers of creative class and upper-level service class professions, where are those workers going to come from? If we don’t produce them ourselves – either because we won’t or, as you suggest, we can’t – then they’ll be filled with outsiders and/or leave our country to go to where the talent is. That’s the harsh reality of a hypercompetitive global economy. And, for those left behind, there aren’t a whole lot of good-paying jobs left to fill…

  3. 1) I looked at some of the papers and studies that you cited (the 90/90/90 study was quite interesting, I’d missed that before) but none of them support your point simply because we don’t test students on higher order thinking. Improvements on standardized tests are a sign that students are getting the fundamentals, but no indication at all about higher order skills.
    Look at how Google, Microsoft, and many other innovative companies interview now: puzzles, tasks, back-of-the-envelope problems. Those are not tested. It is like Chesterton said about Christianity, it was not tried and found wanting, it was found difficult and not tried.
    2) Thank you. It’s a lot more work, but also much more rewarding.
    3) I try to refrain from politics on Educational sites, so let just say that is an issue of trade policies, incentives, with horrible externalities and tragedy of the commons. It goes far beyond education policy and I suspect the resolution will be as changing to our way of life as the ended of the Planned Economy was to the Eastern Bloc.

  4. Bill isn’t making an argument that says, “These students exhibit demographic traits X, Y, and Z and therefore are not intelligent enough to succeed.” That’s really an unfair straw man.

    Some (many?) teachers, communities, thinkers, etc. do make this intuitive leap, and that’s the real problem. These jumps from “you are poor student from downtrodden community, therefore low achieving student” are the things that “have held poor and minority children back for decades.” I never got any sense in Bill’s original argument that he was labeling a group, poor minority or otherwise, as unintelligent.

    Rather, he was sort of identifying the turd in the punch bowl in Resnick’s point–she’s right, we’ve never tried to teach these higher-order thinking skills to “all individuals, not just an elite” before (although every poor creative genius who wasn’t part of the elite from millennium past begs to differ).

    From my own experience, I can tell you with absolute certainty that lower-level classes in my school are not taught the same thinking skills as mid-to-upper level classes are. This isn’t new news to anyone here. Some of us are trying to change now, and Bill is basically asking how we rectify the maximum intelligence levels of the masses with the call for thinking skills that are higher on the hierarchy: Are most people capable of higher-level thinking? Can people of average intelligence create and evaluate with aplomb, or is analyze as high as they can go? While we know that intelligence and academic success can flourish regardless of demographic /socioeconomic factors, we also know that its opposites can flourish regardless of these same circumstances. Isn’t it reasonable to ask, “are we smart enough for this new world with its creative class jobs” “Are most people smart enough to climb the taxonomy?” Or is the larger point that these skills don’t exist on a hierarchy (it is, after all, a taxonomy not a hierarchy, right?). A cultural restructuring of what’s important to “learn” can make the masses capable of evaluation and creation because they’re not “advanced” skills, just skills that aren’t emphasized in an education system designed for factory work. Either way, I think Bill is getting miscast here.

    Also, Scott–you ask where are the workers going to come from? I think that Gladwell’s example of Canadian hockey players applies. Canada is essentially cutting its talent pool in half because it inappropriately identifies talent at an age where other factors are masquerading as talent. Kids are identified as better not because of innate abilities, but because they’re simply more developed and older than the other kids they’re playing peewee hockey with. Similarly, in the not-so-distant-present, educators don’t even attempt to teach certain types of kids higher-order thinking skills because we incorrectly assume that they can’t succeed. By learning from our mistakes and looking at things like the examples you provided (90/90/90 was super interesting), we’re mining untapped resources. Simply–we’ll find the workers in places we never looked because we assumed they couldn’t succeed.

  5. Bill and Chris, thanks for your thoughtful responses. Bill, I appreciate your clarifications of your original statements. Chris, your comment was the one I wish I had written.

    I have included an update in the original post to send readers to the comment area. Hopefully that will help readers get the complete picture. I thought that was necessary to be fair to you, Bill.

    With gratitude to you both…

  6. For starters, let me thank Scott McLeod for drawing my attention to this discussion, and engaging with me through Twitter on this point. I would also like to thank the other contributors thereto.

    After a lot of skull sweat, I feel the need to go back to the observation from Dr. Lauren Resnick that “It is a new challenge to develop educational programs that assume that all individuals, not just an elite, can become competent thinkers.”. I will take this as my starting point.

    In summary, I believe that the doctor’s assumption is questionable. The previous sentence in this paragraph is strong, and demands strong arguments in its support. I devote the remainder of this comment to that support.

    My background as an educator includes working with learners who are very much brighter than myself at one extreme, and at the other extreme verged on the ineducable, qualifying as “mildly mentally retarded” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_retardation. It is against this background that I consider Resnick’s observation.

    The notion of becoming a competent thinker is one that my university capable students took for granted, and any discussion with those student in the cafeteria would have fizzled out in a matter of minutes: “Well, of course we can all think, and we can all think about thinking, so why are you wasting our time Mr Hart, and buy us all another coffee by way of a forfeit.”.

    Enter the mentally retarded learner. It is my practice to offer as much intellectual challenge to each student as they are capable of demonstrating that they can handle. I establish each learner’s level in this regard within minutes of our first meeting within a teaching context, typically a classroom. For the mentally able, this means raising the bar until they take at least 2 seconds to respond. At the other end of the scale, it means lowering the bar until the look of total confusion vanishes. I always offer all of my students opportunities to think, and for those who do not flounder at that level, I also offer meta-cognition opportunities. It is my own experience that mentally retarded people are incapable of becoming competent thinkers. More specifically, I would challenge Dr. Resnick’s assumption that it is possible to train such individuals to become reliably meta-cognitive.

    As an educator, I am aware that I am reporting only one practitioner’s perception, and that this practitioner freely confesses to being more interested in the learners that he meets than engaging in the literature cited by others. As such, I am quite happy that my own outlook be treated as atypical. My only hope is that this comment may have contributed in any manner howsoever small to the discussion of this topic.

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