My “Intelligence,” My Education, My Learning

[1219 words]

Here is my final reflection for week 2 in the “What future for education?” MOOC. First, the prompt:

Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  • During your own education, how has your “intelligence” been assessed?

  • How has this affected the educational opportunities you have been given?

  • What judgments have people made about you that have been affected by an assessment of your “intelligence”?

  • Do you consider yourself to be a “learner”? why?

School and private psychologists assessed my IQ  multiple times during my childhood. They also submitted me to aptitude tests and a battery of other kinds of instruments to measure different abilities, personality traits and attitudes. The reason for all of this attention and testing? First, I was a troubled, insecure child. I was extremely reserved. Indeed, I was almost pathologically shy. My parents were worried about me and sought professional help. Secondly, I performed very poorly in school. So school psychologists or learning specialists would test me every so often to find out what the “problem” was. They learned that I had no cognitive or sensory disabilities and that my intelligence was — as measured by their assessments — above average.

The problem, it seems, is that I was unmotivated. I did not see the purpose of doing many of the activities, homework and readings that teachers assigned in class. Indeed, I thought that school was largely futile and exceedingly boring. From time to time, I encountered a teacher who excited my passion (for biology, for reading and literature, for ecology, for art, for languages). But very often, I either found my classes unchallenging in the extreme or I thought them irrelevant. In the case of the former, I worked very little because it was too easy. In the case of the later, I did very little because I did not see the point. In retrospect, I know that I frustrated my teachers and my parents enormously.

While I was a very problematic and under-performing pupil (because I was inattentive, distracted, and failed to complete homework assignments and other work in a timely manner), I was a very good informal learner and, in fact, I learned a lot. For example, I had memorized and could easily identity all of the bones and major organs in human anatomy and I understood many principles of physiology by the time I was 10. I was reading at a college level at 12 years of age. By that same age, I had learned the names of most world capitals and was reading about cultural practices in other nations. I sampled American Indian lore. I pursued projects in rocketry. I was wrote several science fiction tales that I illustrated myself. I studied wetland ecosystems and entomology. Once, when I was 12, I was “academically disciplined” for reading Michael Crichton’s novel, The Andromeda Strain in the back of my English class instead of participating in an exercise that I considered “boring”: analyzing and diagramming silly and artificial-sounding sentences from our textbook.  At 13, I had finished The Hobbit and was reading The Lord of the Rings instead of doing my geometry homework. I was regularly perusing newsmagazines to learn about current events and following the Watergate proceedings on television instead of doing my “summer homework.” I built crystal radios. I raised seahorses. I observed ants and other insects and took notes on their behavior. In short, I read a lot and did a lot. I explored many divergent conceptual areas, both on my own or with others. I exercised my curiosity in a multitude of ways. By doing all of those things, I developed my intellectual frameworks and knowledge significantly. Truly, I learned an immense amout. However, in school, my performance was inconsistent and teachers generally considered me a very “poor” learner.

Back to testing. My personality and my intelligence were probed and analyzed repeatedly, yet the results of those tests did little to help educators figure out how to help me. I was fortunate because I did encounter a few teachers who knew how to harness my curiosity, my divergent interests, my passion for exploring the world. My English teacher, for example, ultimately allowed me to write a lengthy book report on Michael Crichton’s novel instead of forcing me to diagram sentences. My geometry teacher allowed me to develop my own “real-world” problems to solve, rather than forcing me to do the problems in the textbook. My science teacher allowed me to research and write an extensive report on the consequences of shrinking wetlands in a region near my school, rather than dissecting a frog.

In the long run, I learned how to adapt to the “game” of education and I began focusing my cognitive abilities on the tasks that teachers required me to do, even when those tasks and activities made little sense to me. I believed that a significant part of my formal education was silly and wasteful, but I bent to the rules. I did activities and exercises were ineffective for helping me to learn. I memorized and parroted a lot of information that I considered to have little value. As a consequence, I still have mostly negative feelings about my primary school and secondary school learning and about a large part of my undergraduate education as well. It was only in the last years of university and in my graduate programs that I felt challenged, invigorated, engaged. Beyond that, the other major areas where I feel truly invigorated and highly motivated as a learner lie in various kinds of informal activities that I have sampled outside of educational institutions, including, for example, community-based informal workshops, self-organizing reading groups, open-source educational tools (including Wikipedia, podcasts, educational programming on public broadcasting) and in MOOCS.

So, in my case, I would say that “intelligence” and IQ testing had little effect, whether positive or negative, on my learning in school. My parents’ and my teachers’ focus on my “intelligence” and my “ability” was a distraction. What mattered most for my learning was engagement, a sense of control, a sense of relevance, developing a focus for my curiosity, having a passion for the learning content. Unfortunately, unlike one accomplished intellectual whom I admire, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I did not manage my time and attention well, or find an academically productive focus for my passion for learning when I was young. Unlike Tyson, I did not concentrate on any particular subject or cultivate any particular ambition during my formal primary and secondary education. I failed to develop resilience, grit or disciplined focus. I did not have a goal.

In retrospect, I wish that I had found my calling earlier in my life, rather than later. Through all of these experiences, I note that my “intelligence,” such as it is, had relatively little to do with my academic performance, broadly speaking. While it is true that my cognitive capacities helped me learn in those moments when I applied myself, my “intelligence” did very little to motivate me in school. My conclusion? I would say that, all things considered, generalized “intelligence,” “ability,” and “talent” are vastly overrated in learning and in formal education. There are many other factors that are far more important, like focus, persistence, resilience, discipline, passion, grit, relevance and, of course, “deliberate practice.” After embracing this point of view, I became a far more effective learner (and teacher).

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