Is intelligence something you have, or something you get?

It’s only two days into orientation, and we don’t even start formal classes until next Monday. But already there has been much in BTR to challenge me and prompt reflection.

In the first place, the cohort is incredibly diverse, not just in ethnic background and gender but also in content area, family social class, politics, perspectives, and preferred approach to intellectual discussion. The very fact of such a broad cross-section of people in the same room, all educated and passionate, is bound to create a sense of hugeness to this endeavor. We also realize that, in order to effectively address our common purpose, we must face head-on a disturbingly large number of interconnected issues together, all of which even individually are normally “third rail” topics in polite and professional conversation. The resulting mix is as charged as a thunderstorm, yet affirming and heady at the same time.

My favorite discussion so far has been a small-group breakout session on Resnik and Hall’s “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education”. In it, the two authors explore the social and cultural forces that shape how we Americans often harbor misconceptions about the nature of aptitude, effort, and intelligence. They attempt to create a new working definition for “intelligence” based on cognitive and social science research. I won’t summarize the whole nuanced article here, but rather focus on a specific facet:

The core problem is that our strong belief in the importance of intelligence and aptitude leads to a devaluing of effort.

Most of the discussion focused on the the negative side of this (i.e. that low expectations of students can drive a self-fulfilling cycle of low-performance), and I think deservedly so since this is a central impediment to learning in urban schools. However, in reflecting later, I wondered if unreasonable positive expectations might be detrimental in their own way too.

An example, using “positive” ethnic stereotypes. I remember a Filipino friend of mine telling me that growing up, she was afraid of being seen as “the dumb Asian”, and therefore was afraid of doing anything that might reveal incompetence or lack of knowledge. In other words, the superficially positive perception that Asians (both east and south) somehow have a natural aptitude for learning and “just get it” or are “just smart” can make them feel socially pressured to appear as if they understand and don’t need to put in a high amount of effort to do so. Outwardly, they may have become good at “faking it”, latching onto key phrases and repackaging them for their peers and teachers, but inwardly they may really want to ask a question or admit they don’t understand the why and the how. Or, they may decline to use study hours to indicate that they are above all that, but make things harder for themselves later when they have to rush in privacy. Thus, a great amount of material is memorized and repackaged (great for standardized test scores and even grades in many classrooms), but little in the way of actual thinking and learning have taken place.

In any of these cases, the student’s learning is still compromised by a devaluing of effort brought on by perceptions of intelligence and aptitude, even though the perception is, on the surface, a positive one.

Anyway, soooo many more thoughts on this and other subjects, but alas, many other items on the to-do list at the moment. Summary: I love this program, and can’t wait for Day 3 tomorrow (we got the day off for the holiday).

Next on the list: beer and socializing with my new cohort! Very important.

Happy Independence Day everyone! Toward a more perfect union…

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