Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I.Q. is notoriously tricky.  Does creating a test where scores follow a predictable bell curve mean that you have identified an accurate measure of what it is to be intelligent?  Or is it simply a measurement for something you have now constructed--"I.Q."--which may be correlated with intelligence, but may also be quite flawed?

To begin with, what is human intelligence, exactly?  When I make snap judgments regarding how smart other people are, I often link it to verbal expression: I am unimpressed when someone misuses a word or requires an explanation for a term that I think should be common knowledge; conversely, if someone can articulate an abstract or unusual idea, I elevate my opinion of his/her intelligence.  I like to joke about my roommate's ex-boyfriend's stupidity because he routinely made errors mistaking things like Barbados for Barcelona (although it turns out he actually was thinking of Pamplona, so his issues with intelligence can be argued to go beyond language).  But what I can observe of verbal expression is really a measure of performance, and so by definition my perception will be skewed to favor performers.  What of those with performance anxiety or who are hesitant to show off, to say nothing of those whose intelligence is non-verbal?  Granted, there are other accepted ways of demonstrating intelligence besides the verbal, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.  One of the few I can think of off hand would be performing an advanced math operation.

Is the construct of intelligence as we commonly use it even compatible with a non-verbal or mathematical form of intelligence?  We use other adjectives to describe aptitude in other areas--musical, talented, gifted, artistic, creative, skillful--even though accomplishments stemming from these same feats can arguably represent the greatest heights of human brain power: the most moving music, the most stunning art, the most innovative design.

I think about this quite often as regards my ESOL students, who are by definition limited in the reception and production of the English language.  Students who have strong academic language skills in their primary language transition relatively well to an English -only schooling system: while they often have predictable struggles deciphering new vocabulary or correctly using English syntax, the linguistic structure for how to think, analyze, and organize an argument is already firmly rooted in their first language.  In my experience, teaching these latter skills is infinitely more challenging and abstract than explaining when to use present perfect or memorizing new vocabulary.  The language part of my job has surprisingly turned out to be relatively straightforward.

I worry a great deal about my students who lack both general English proficiency and academic proficiency in any language.  I worry that kids who may be pretty smart in the sense of having a sharp awareness of the world may find themselves feeling horribly stupid as they navigate the American educational system.  The way it is set up now is hardly conducive to creating a well-rounded citizenry or workforce (if that is actually what we want our schools to achieve--even that is not something clearly agreed upon).  Students who are either athletically gifted or who do well in a traditional academic environment emphasizing the verbal/mathematical intelligence can finish high school feeling pretty good about themselves, but those whose gifts lie elsewhere will only struggle to find relevance.  Well-meaning school boards and law-makers add academic requirements for graduation without considering if another Algebra credit is universally desirable--what about the student who just can't do well in math, who wants to work in a totally non-math related field, who has no desire or inclination to go to college?  High school success just got that much trickier.

The great pendulum of public opinion swings back and forth on this issue, but I would love to see a greater investment in vocational programs in high schools.   I love the idea of open enrollment in Advanced Placement courses so that students from working class backgrounds or without a history of academic success can push themselves if they choose to, but I also love the idea of schools openly acknowledging that an academic route isn't the only one, and that we value the roles of those who do the tangible stuff in our society--designing our clothes, cutting our hair, making and serving our food, manufacturing products, stocking shelves--and that these too, can be done with skill and pride.

No comments: