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Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence

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In “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird,” poet Wallace Stevens takes something familiar—an ordinary black bird—and by looking at it from many different perspectives, makes us think about it in new ways.

With apologies to Stevens, we're going to take the same premise, but change the subject by considering eight ways of looking at intelligence—eight perspectives provided by the science of learning. A few words about that term: The science of learning is a relatively new discipline born of an agglomeration of fields: cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience. Its project is to apply the methods of science to human endeavors—teaching and learning—that have for centuries been mostly treated as an art.

As with anything to do with our idiosyncratic and unpredictable species, there is still a lot of art involved in teaching and learning. But the science of learning can offer some surprising and
useful perspectives on how we guide and educate young people. And so: Eight Ways Of Looking At Intelligence.

1. SITUATIONS CAN MAKE US SMARTER. The science of learning has demonstrated that we are powerfully shaped by the situations that we find ourselves in: situations that can either evoke or suppress our intelligence.


Situations can be internal or external. They can be brief and transitory, or persistent and long-lasting. They can be as varied as the conditions under which a student studies, the conditions that prevail in the classroom or school a student attends, the conditions exerted by a student’s peer group. The physical conditions that students experience by way of how much stress they’re under and how much sleep and exercise they get, and the mental conditions students create for themselves by the levels of expertise and attention and motivation they’re able to achieve.

Situational intelligence, in other words, is the only kind of intelligence there is—because we are always doing our thinking in a particular situation, with a particular brain in a particular body.

On one level this is obvious, but on another it is quite radical. Radical, because, since its earliest beginnings, the study of intelligence has emphasized its inherent and fixed qualities. Intelligence has been conceptualized as an innate characteristic of the individual, invariant across time and place, determined mostly by genes (or before that, what was called “heredity”).

This was the view of Francis Galton, the Victorian gentleman who is the father of psychometric testing. He used the notion of inherent, fixed intelligence to show that it ran in the blood of England's most eminent families. This was the view of Lewis Terman, the creator of the modern intelligence test. He used the notion of inherent, fixed intelligence to identify and cultivate children who were "gifted." And this was the view of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve. They used the notion of inherent, fixed intelligence to argue that America's class structure was the inevitable product of the IQ levels of various racial and social groups.

So to assert that intelligence is in large part a product of the situations we find ourselves in is a departure, not only from the way science has traditionally thought about ability, but from the way many of us think about ability today.

Think about how you could recast your own role (as a teacher, an administrator, a parent) as a situation-maker: a creator of circumstances that evoke intelligence in others.

2. BELIEFS CAN MAKE US SMARTER. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes two types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, or the belief that ability is fixed and unchanging, and the growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can be developed through learning and practice.

These beliefs matter because they influence how think about our own abilities, how we perceive the world around us, and how we act when faced with a challenge or with adversity. The psychologist David Yeager, also of Stanford, notes that our mindset effectively creates the “psychological world” in which we live. Students’ beliefs, whether they’re oriented around limits or around growth, constitute one of these internal situations that either suppresses or evokes

3.  EXPERTISE CAN MAKE US SMARTER. One very robust line of research within the science of learning is concerned with the psychology of expertise: what goes on in the mind of an expert. What researchers have found is that experts don’t just know more, they know differently, in ways that allow them to think and act especially intelligently within their domain of expertise.

An expert’s knowledge is deep, not shallow or superficial; it is well-organized, around a core of central principles; it is automatic, meaning that it has been streamlined into mental programs that run with very little conscious effort; it is flexible and transferable to new situations; it is self-aware, meaning that an expert can think well about his or her own thinking. Expertise takes a long time to develop, of course, but the adolescent and young adult years are not too soon to begin encouraging students to go deep in a subject area that interests them.

4.  ATTENTION CAN MAKE US SMARTER. You’ve probably heard about the “marshmallow test,” a famous experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. Mischel found that children who could resist eating a marshmallow in return for the promise of two marshmallows later on did better in school and in their careers.

Well, there’s a new marshmallow test that is faced every day, almost every minute by our students: it’s the ability to resist the urge to check one’s email, to respond to a text, to see what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter. I know we’ve all heard that "digital natives" grew up multitasking and

[RELATED: How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn?]

therefore excel at it, but the fact is that there are information-processing bottlenecks in the brain—everybody’s brain—that prevent us from paying attention to two things at the same time. The state of focused attention is a very important internal situation that students must cultivate in order to fully express their intelligence.

5.  EMOTIONS CAN MAKE US SMARTER. We sometimes give short shrift to emotions when we’re talking about academic success, but the science of learning is demonstrating that our emotional state represents a crucial internal situation that influences how intelligently we think and act.

When we’re in a positive mood, for example, we tend to think more expansively and creatively. When we feel anxious—for instance, when we’re about to take a dreaded math test—that anxiety uses up some of the working memory capacity we need to solve problems, leaving us, literally, with less intelligence to apply to the exam.

One line of investigation within the science of learning has to do with the feeling of hope. Research in this area has found that a feeling of hopefulness actually leads us to try harder and persist longer—but only if it is paired with practical plans for achieving our goals, and—this is the interesting part—specific, concrete actions we’ll take when and if (usually when) our original plans don’t work out as expected.

6.  TECHNOLOGY CAN MAKE US SMARTER.  There’s a fascinating line of research in philosophy and cognitive science investigating what’s called the extended mind. This is the idea that the mind doesn’t stop at the skull—that it reaches out and loops in our bodies, our tools, even other people, to use in our thinking processes.

Brain-scanning studies have found that when we use a tool, say a rake we’re using to reach an object that’s out of our grasp, our brains actually designate neurons to represent the end of the rake—as if it were the tips of our own fingers. The human mind has evolved to make our tools—including our technological devices—into extensions of itself.

The problem is that our devices so often make us dumber instead of smarter. I’ve already alluded to the way in which technology can divide our attention, producing learning that is spottier, shallower, and less flexible than learning that occurs under conditions of full concentration. Technology can also make us dumber when we allow key skills to atrophy from disuse, or fail to develop those skills in the first place.

To give you a common example: The ready availability of technology may persuade students that they don’t need to learn facts anymore, because they can always “just Google it.” In fact, research from cognitive science shows that the so-called "21st century skills" that we’re always hearing about—critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity—can’t emerge in a content-free vacuum. They must develop in the context of a rich base of fact knowledge: knowledge that’s stored on the original hard drive, one’s own brain.

In order for tech to make our students smarter and not dumber, we need to help them understand when to take full advantage of their devices, and when to put them away.

7.  OUR BODIES CAN MAKE US SMARTER. A line of inquiry related to the “extended mind” research I mentioned earlier is the work now being done on what’s called “embodied cognition.”

Ever since the cognitive science revolution of the 1970s, the dominant metaphor for the brain has been the computer: a machine that processes abstract symbols. The science of learning is demonstrating that the computer metaphor is seriously flawed when it comes to describing the
human brain. It might be more accurate, in fact, to compare the brain to the heart. All the things that make the heart work better—good nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise, moderate stress—make the brain work better too.

I’ll take up the issue of sleep as an example, since sleep is something so many of today’s students are lacking. They—and we—often don’t recognize that sleep is actually a key part of the learning process. It’s during sleep that the brain consolidates the memories it formed during waking hours—meaning that it sorts through those memories, weakening the ones that are trivial, strengthening the ones that are important, and connecting up these new memories to the memory structures that already exist in the brain.

[RELATED: Why Sleeping May Be More Important Than Studying]

If we don’t get enough sleep after learning, or if that sleep is of low quality, the learning process is truncated, and we remember that information less well and less flexibly. That’s just one example of how physical state of our bodies is a key conditions under which our brain operates and under which our intelligence is evoked or suppressed.

8.  RELATIONSHIPS CAN MAKE US SMARTER. I mentioned earlier that the human mind is very adept at looping in our bodies, our tools, and even other people to use as instruments of our own thinking.

You’ve experienced this if you have a spouse or significant other: it’s likely that one of you is “in charge” of remembering when the car needs to go in for inspection, while the other is “in charge” of remembering relatives’ birthdays. This is called transactive memory, and it’s just one of the ways that relationships with others can make us smarter than we would be on our own.

There’s one particular kind of relationship I will wrap up with, and that is the relationship that students have to their academic institution and to their fellow students. The science of learning has demonstrated that a feeling of belonging is critical to the full expression of students’ ability and intelligence.

The notion of promoting a sense of belonging goes against some of what we’ve traditionally done in academia. We’ve all heard that old line, “Look to the right, look to the left; only one of you will be passing this course”—and while professors may not say those words anymore, there are plenty of courses that are intended to 'weed' students out, and plenty of situations in high school and college in which students feel very much left on their own, to sink or to swim.


I’ll end by reminding you of something I mentioned earlier in this article, about seeing your role as one of “situation creator,” and by asking you: What situations can you create, or help your students create for themselves, that will give them a sense that they are not numbers in a database, but members of a community?