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Intelligence

What is intelligence? I know I have touched on this before. Traditionally we define intelligence as IQ, or Intelligence Quotient. This is something inherent to us that does not change within our lifetime, or at least that is how it is thought of. IQ is a way that we are all assigned a number that puts us on a line from less intelligent to more intelligent. There is no second dimension to it. More or Less, that is all.

But I believe that there is more than that. Think of it as the difference between plotting a point on a one dimensional number line and plotting a point in three dimensional space, except that I want more planes than even that and adding time (as a fourth dimension) would allow. There are so many different ways that people (and animals) can be intelligent. This is how we generally think of animal intelligence.

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But not only do they probably think the same of us, but what if they are the smart ones? All it takes is a small perspective shift. They have figured out a way to let us do the work while they reap the rewards. Pretty smart.

In my opinion, intelligence is made up of many things, including some that cannot be tested for. I don’t really see the point of testing for it anyway. As I see it the point of testing is to see who is superior, and I would argue that no-one is. Everyone has their own strengths, and beyond finding a way to discover those, testing is superfluous.

Children are a perfect example of this. People often laugh at children because they believe the things they say are stupid. When I was young I put together the fact that I saw the world as flat and the fact that I knew there was another side of it and imagined that the world was a cube. Obviously my conclusion was incorrect, but you cannot fault the logic. I had used the information available to me to come to a more accurate representation of the world than man had for centuries. Intelligence, in this case, is about taking pieces of information and putting them together.

My son still has a very limited vocabulary, but he is figuring out ways to tell a story. Sometimes he will say ‘hot’ and ‘mom’ while pointing to the kitchen. It is pretty clear at that point that he wants a meal. He is communicating not only that he is hungry, but he wants hot food, or a meal. One time I came home and he said ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ and pointed at a wall. I was a bit confused, until my husband told me that they had been pointing out the eyes and ears of the girl in a picture on the wall. My 18 month old was telling me what they did while I was at work.

I know that may not sound like much, but one of the smartest things about kids, and this applies double to babies, is that they soak up information all the time. Learning itself is a part of what intelligence is. And, as many parents have discovered, they don’t only learn what you try to teach them. Many parents find to their dismay that the kid has picked up curse words. This is for the same reason that many babies first word is ‘no’. Kids say what they hear.

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These type of images are all over the internet, and people laugh at the dumb little kids. Really though that is a very smart kid. He knows that he is hungry, and food comes from boobs. He is just missing some information that led him to a false conclusion.

All the time kids fall down because they are still learning physics. If a kid learns to walk in a room with a perfectly flat floor and nothing on it, they will stumble when he gets on a ramp or a hill. But the younger they are, the quicker they are able to learn to compensate.

Another group that is often mocked for low intelligence is older people. When someone with Parkinson’s shakes and drops something they are called ‘retarded’. (We will address that in a minute.) The person’s mind can be as sharp as ever, but if the motor function starts to drop off, the labels fly off the shelf. In many cultures, and I am sad that mine is not one, older people are respected for their wisdom.

I completely understand that it can be very frustrating to try to teach someone who did not grow up using a computer how to do something that my generation regards as basic. But all it means is that the person’s mind is less malleable. They have more information stored in their brains than we do. Their intelligence is generally called ‘wisdom’ and it comes from the build up of all of the information that they have accrued in life.

Even people with what most people would consider ‘diminished mental capacity’ are intelligent in their own way. Today Einstein would probably be diagnosed with half a dozen learning disabilities. The reason that we think in terms of higher and lower intelligence is because we are giving the fish and the birds the same test as the monkeys and the elephants.

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This image has been used as a mockery of our current educational system, and it is. But the problem goes deeper than that. While many kids can excel at reading, teaching a dyslexic student in the same way can be disheartening, and make them wary of not only books, but the information contained in them. While trying to teach an autistic child to read can be completely futile. (And yes, under No Child Left Behind they are held to the same standards of ‘proficiency’ as anyone else in their grade).

That same autistic child might be a savant at something else. For some it might be advanced mathematics, another might be just obsessed with trains. While some teachers might try to use that obsession to motivate the child, (nothing wrong with that) I would suggest going even further and trying to figure out what it is about trains that they love so much. It might be that she is interested in creating the path for them because in their mind they can instantly see the most efficient route, or maybe it is the idea of multiple things following in the exact same path.

Sensory Processing Disorder is diagnosed when people’s sensory perception is abnormal. It is often described in terms related to ‘broken’ but what if some of them feel the need to re-confirm the solidity of objects because they somehow subconsciously know that atoms are mostly empty space? When Earnest Rutherford first discovered that fact, he is reported to have been afraid to get out of bed in the morning because he did not want to fall through the floor.

I am not presenting any of these ideas as fact, but as a thought exercise, a reminder that things are not always how we perceive them. Something that we see as stupid can, in fact, be signs of intelligence. It just means that we not see something in the same way as someone else. Rather than judging in the moment, we should give some time to consider how they came to that conclusion. It might just be that our own understanding of the situation is missing some information, or that they understand something better than we do.

Strengths & Weaknesses

I was in the Gifted Program in school, I was lucky. My mother was a teacher and advocated for me. What this meant was that I was able to receive extra instruction. In elementary school this might mean an art, Spanish or guitar class during a time that my class was reviewing things I already knew. In third grade I spent one hour a week in a sixth grade class while they did science. I was also permitted to get ahead of the other kids in my class. I remember in first grade practicing counting money on my own (including dollars) while the class was still learning what each coin stood for. In fourth, fifth, and sixth grade I was in a pair of classes that worked together. One teacher taught language arts, while the other taught math. This allowed the students to divide up by ability level instead of grade level. But by sixth grade I had covered the main math information that they taught to the rest of the classes, so I spent the year doing more self-directed studies.

I am very thankful that I was able to do things like this. It allowed me to not be super bored in my classes and move at my own pace to a certain extent. However there are many problems with this system.

First and foremost: Not every child has access to it. This type of program is not set up in every state, those that do have it vary widely in implementation, even between districts. Within a district some schools support it, some do not, just like any special education program. The middle school that I went to did not have a gifted program, but I went there because that is where my mother taught. Because she knew the teachers, she was able to get me in the best classes for me, even though I had to go outside the established ‘team’ structure the school used at the time.

Even if a child is lucky enough to live in the right place to be able to take advantage of the system, their parents might not know to get them involved, and their teachers might not advise them to do so.

Secondly: Tailored education for all. I do not write this post to tell you how smart I am. I used to think that I was better than other, normal, people and I apologize for that.  I now know that everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses. Because my family was full of teachers, and traditional education was such a focus of my upbringing, I thought that it was the most important thing, and that since I was good at that, I was some kind of super-genius.

I now do not support the use of the IQ test. I do not support a system that puts a single set of abilities over another. I believe that it is very damaging. The first thing you may think of when I say that is the people who are told that they are not smart by such a system, and that is a huge part of what I mean. But because that is so obvious, I am not going to go into it. I will tell you why it is not good for the above average kids as well.

As I grew up and I saw the strengths of my friends, I thought that because I was ‘Gifted’ that I should be better at everything than people who did not receive the same label. This is probably part of why I have dabbled in so many different things. It’s not just that I get bored with it, or that I like to be a Jack-of-all-Trades, but that I felt the requirement to beat others at their own strengths. Obviously this is an unrealistic expectation. Through a long and arduous journey I have discovered a long list of things that I am not very good at. And every time that I try these things again, I find the realization again. And every time I have to get over the disappointment again. I have to fail over and over again, and waste my time repeatedly just to re-learn the same lesson I did not learn when I was young. No-one is good at everything.

For a long time I assumed that the people that I made friends with were also in the Gifted Program, because they were smart. I would later find out that most were not. Some were actually in the lower levels of Special Education. Some had failed grades in school. This surprised me. Yes, if a child has dyslexia, that needs to be addressed, but they should also be addressing the things they are good at.

I believe everyone should be allowed to pursue the things that they excel at. This does not mean they should ignore the things they struggle in. Everyone needs to understand trying to learn something outside of their strength. I do believe that there are some skills that should be universal, but these are extremely basic compared to the requirements for school today. (I also understand that these concepts are outside the realm of possibility for some people.) People do not all think in the same way, and as a society we should use each-other’s strengths to grow, rather than requiring everyone to maintain roughly the same experience from which to grow.

Third: Labels. The Gifted Program is part of the Special Education program. As we all know, there is a stigma that goes along with being a Special Ed kid. (When I first got into the program, I did not know that and bragged about being special ed. I was very confused as to why people were not in awe of my awesomeness.)

Referring to my previous point, everyone should be able to get the tailored education that the gifted program is supposed to provide. There should not be a need to label someone as unusual in any way in order to give them what they need. We all are different, we cannot expect everyone to be good at the same things or to learn at the same pace.

In my time in school, the Gifted program offered me the opportunity to explore many things. But unfortunately I found that the extra classes that I was able to take did not make sense for me. These were the first classes I ever struggled in. Because school was so easy for me I expected everything to come just as easily. I know that these classes were supposed to challenge me. I understand that intention now, but at the time, it just seemed too hard. During my time as a substitute teacher, I saw students struggling with the core concepts of math so much they cried. This gave me an insight as to how much strength and weakness really affect our learning. (As well as the problems with expecting too much of students too soon.) I gave up many of these extra classes before trying very hard. This means that from my experience in school I have no way of knowing if I could have been good at them if I gave them a chance. Having tried again later more doggedly I have come to the conclusion that these were not my strengths. It seems odd that because I was good at one thing, I should be given the opportunity to pursue things that I was not good at, while other students were denied the opportunity to pursue something that they might have excelled at because they struggled with something completely unrelated.