Why Our Definition of *Smart* Is Hurting Humanity

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For more than twenty years, Christopher Langan was heralded as “America’s smartest man”. With a score well over 190, his IQ sits thirty points comfortably above that of Albert Einstein — putting him in the exceptionally gifted category. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover that the smartest man isn’t that smart.

Secluded in a hay farm in Missouri’s outskirts, Langan earns a living as a club bouncer. When he’s not kicking troublemakers out of the club, he likes to spread conspiracy theories and anti-immigration ideas online. For years, Langan tried to convince the scientific community of his theories on the origins of the universe. The only answers he gets are mockings from the experts who see Langan’s arguments as pseudo-scientific nonsense. Frustrated that he’s not been taken seriously, Langan campaigns against what he calls “white people genocide” and “government plots” to undermine his ideas.

The rupture between IQ and success should not come as a surprise these days. It has been decades since scientists debunked the relation between stratospheric IQ and how successful a person could be. Best selling books have been written to cement this fact: Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, to name a few. Yet here we are, with an educational system and assessment protocols entirely inspired by classic IQ tests in one way or another, neglecting many aspects of what makes a person smart.

But look a little bit closer, and you’ll see a silent revolution happening. Many educational researchers and brain scientists are taking intelligence, creativity, and improving education very seriously. A quick trip to google scholar, and you’ll uncover some legendary names in these fields: Alan Shoenfled, Jing Zhou, Howard Gardner, Andrew Huberman, Robert Sternberg, and many more. Some of these folks have spent the past forty years of their lives building models of the perfect schools: where anyone can succeed, where anyone can discover their talents, strengths, and passions. Their ideas contrast sharply from standard schooling, where many students leave after discovering their weaknesses only.

In his latest essay in the New Scientist, psychologist and human development expert Robert Sternberg gives a stark warning on the damage caused by our outdated views on intelligence. He calls for a systemic shift in the ways we evaluate children at school, students passing college admission tests, and people’s cleverness in general. Because they are worth hearing and heeding, I felt compelled to share and expand on his ideas.

IQ Tests Had the Same Fate as Dynamite

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite to revolutionise mining. Yet, his invention quickly became the perfect weapon of war. To make up for his mistake, Nobel vowed to donate his fortune to honour outstanding, peaceful, and human-centred science discoveries in the form of monetary awards. Thus were born the Nobel foundation and the Nobel prizes.

If you look closely, you’ll see that IQ tests suffered a similar fate. Like dynamite, IQ tests were invented to make the world a better place but were used for the wrong reasons. When Alfred Binet came with the first version of intelligence tests in 1905, he never meant for his invention to segregate people as smart vs stupid. Far from it. Binet wanted to help schools identify children who didn’t respond well to regular schooling and, as a result, needed special instruction. So he worked on a system to help children succeed regardless of their social status and abilities, giving them ways to explore various aspects of their intelligence. Sadly, he died in 1911 before developing his ideas fully.

Yet soon after his passing, the tests he left behind started to be misused. Psychologists noticed that various forms of tests to measure mental abilities correlate with one another. If you score well in one test, you tend to do well in them all. They suggested all the tests measure the same metric they labelled “general intelligence”. The idea of intelligence as one rigid number was born.

Performance monitoring protocols at schools as we know them — in the form of assignments, tests and exams — are nothing more than IQ tests proxies. They tend to measure that same supposedly general intelligence: a narrow range of recall and analytical skills. But don’t get fooled. Exams and IQ tests fall short to account for other abilities, such as creative thinking, practical problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. Yet, here they are; more important than never in defining the opportunities and career paths people will have.

“Rather than being primarily tools to help people realise their full potential, school exams and assessments don’t capture the full picture of intelligence.”

— Robert Sternberg

We badly misunderstood the purpose of IQ tests. Binet’s vision was to conceive a tool to liberate people from the constraints of the old educational system — to explore students’ affinities in a broader range of possibilities. Yet, standard performance monitoring in school, compounded with our biased view of what makes someone smart, restricts people’s opportunities. As Christopher Langan’s persona proves, a high IQ is far from enough to label a person as smart. Other factors, more important factors, are to be considered.

Standard Exams Widen Social and Economic Gaps

Standard exams don’t capture the full picture of intelligence. This fact alone has repercussions between academic success and students backgrounds.

In her seminal paper, Parental Beliefs and Children’s School Performance, education and human development expert, Lynn Okagaki, along with Robert Sternberg, showed that, when raising their children, families with different ethnic backgrounds (e.g., Asian, Latino, African-American), and different socioeconomic levels, emphasise different aspects of what it means to be “smart” to their kids. European, American, and Asian-American parents typically focus on cognitive skills, while Latino-American parents emphasise social skills. This means that when growing up, people from various backgrounds will have different views on intelligence. This fact in itself is a good thing because once you group these various views, you’ll have a rich picture of what constitutes intelligence.

But here’s the problem. Because teachers are predominantly European-American and Asian-American, they tend to favour the same abilities they were raised to value. An Asian-American teacher will tend to label students who excel in math and science as smarter than those who excel in leadership and arts. As a result, teachers and examiners are biased toward a certain group of students without even realising it.

As they grow up, these students with different backgrounds will not only show different views on intelligence but would also display various skillsets. Yet, standard tests and exams fail to reflect that. Taking things further, Sternberg found that American university admission tests tend to favour white and Asian students’ skill patterns and dismiss those of black and Hispanic students. The researcher finds this disparity so frustrating that he compares it to an admission protocol in which only very tall people are accepted.

The findings from the educational researchers are clear. Whether done intentionally or unintentionally, college admissions and school assessments are rigged in favour of certain groups.

But the moment things are made a bit more personalised, the truth unravels. When researchers measured students against what truly matters to them in terms of intelligence and skill patterns, they showed strengths hidden by conventional exams and admission tests. Verdict? It’s not because some students are smart, and others are stupid. No, it’s because everyone is smart differently. Yet, college admission tests and school exams fail to account for this diversity in talent and skills.

“Imagine a world where admission to the top universities — to Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard or Yale — were limited to very tall people. Very soon, tall people would conclude that it is the natural order of things for the taller to succeed and the shorter to fail.”

— Robert Sternberg

Our Definition of Smart Is Unfit for World Problems

Consider the following problems:

  • How do we balance individual freedom and public health measures in a pandemic?
  • How can we drive bolder actions on climate change?
  • How do we intervene if two colleagues are fighting?

Contrast these questions with the questions students face in school exams. Needless to say, real-world problems are very different from a school exam. Tests are filled with problems that can be solved using well-known patterns. Far from it, real-world problems (like the ones above) are supercharged with novelty, high-stakes, emotions, human interaction, and cultural differences.

Unlike school exams, real-world problems often lack a single “correct” answer. That’s why, after years of correct vs wrong patterns, students risk finishing their education with limited binary thinking: wrong vs right, good vs bad, black vs white. Sadly, the challenges they will face in their personal and professional lives often require “grey” thinking, compromises, and ambiguous answers.

So how do we fix things? Sternberg says we should fully embrace the paradigm that intelligence is about adaptation. He proposes a new model of intelligence that he calls adaptive intelligence.

Adaptive Intelligence — a Better Way of Engaging the World

What is adaptative intelligence? Put simply; adaptation is the power to change ourselves to suit the environment. Sometimes, we shape the environment to suit our needs, and sometimes, we need to find a completely new place if the current one isn’t working. It naturally follows that adaptive intelligence is a person’s ability to identify the need for change and develop strategies to carry these changes.

According to Sternberg, adaptive intelligence is four kinds of skills:

  • Creative skills. These skills involve generating new and important ideas, imagination, and resourcefulness.
  • Analytical skills. These are the skills we use to gauge our ideas and those of others and examine what’s and isn’t working in a given situation.
  • Practical skills. These are the skills we use to execute our ideas and convince others of their value.
  • Wisdom-based skills. These skills help us guarantee our ideas will offer a common good (for us, our families, and the world).

The covid-19 vaccine is by far the most incredible illustration of adaptive intelligence at work. To create a vaccine against a new virus in such a short amount of time required all kinds of skills. People involved in this breakthrough needed to be creative to come up with the mRNA vaccine. They needed to be analytical to ensure that trials are scientifically rigorous and correctly interpreted. They needed to be practical to upscale the production, distribution, delivery, and administration of billions of vaccine doses swiftly. And behind all this incredible collaboration are wisdom-based skills. Decision-makers had to recognise that some people will be afraid of the vaccine. Others will be anti-vaccine. Some will object for political, religious or ideological reasons. They had to develop strategies to convince all these factions of getting themselves vaccinated for the common good.

Schools, however, focus too much on analytical skills and neglect creative, practical, and wisdom skills. But not all is lost. Adaptive intelligence can be taught and learned. And once we inject its aspects into our educational systems, we will breed generations of people capable of solving the most challenging problems we face.

“Solving problems requires a mixture of creative, analytical, practical and wisdom-based skills — these are the foundations of adaptive intelligence.”

— Robert Sternberg

Reforming Education Through Adaptive Intelligence

To graduate, students spend hours cramming abstract concepts and formulas into their brains. “What’s the formula of the exponential curve? Compute the integral of a quadratic function. Recall such and such theory.” Instead, Sternberg proposes that we engage students with more variety. For instance, we can ask, “What does an exponential curve look like? What real-life problems can arise exponentially?” Instead of asking them to recite a theory, we can engage students through social conflicts: “If two countries are clashing to control resources from a common river, how can we resolve the conflict?” Or “How can you convince a friend of quitting smoking?”

Questions designed to test adaptive intelligence have more variety compared to standard IQ tests and regular exams. And research has shown that teaching students to answer these kinds of questions is a better indicator of talent and future success than conventional academic tests.

We all have seen politicians and decision-makers underestimate the threat of the coronavirus outbreak. We forget that our leaders were once children taught to regurgitate the exponential curve without understanding why or the problems it represents. Yet, this very same curve came back to haunt them when the pandemic was spreading “exponentially” in their cities. If we don’t take action, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes — breeding generations of leaders and politicians who passed exams by memorising formulas they never understand and concepts they never knew how to leverage in real life.

Students falling behind at school often feel they are not smart enough. The truth is that the system is failing them. Our ways to judge who is smart and who isn’t are not smart enough to unravel an individual’s potential and true capabilities — a mistake that compounds later into people’s careers and lives.

But thanks to the work of Sternberg and people like him, things could get better. Including adaptive intelligence in the educational system is showing huge promises. By helping students compensate for lack of analytical skills with creative, practical, and wisdom skills, they can perform far better.

Let’s be honest. Our schools and colleges are not equipped to tackles global issues such as climate change, white supremacy, and pandemics. Such problems require a mixture of skills that standard exams and college admission tests are failing to assess. It’s past time to let go of our narrow, old-fashioned notion of what it means to be smart because the stakes couldn’t be higher. Emphasising various skills, helping the next generations explore their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, will ensure we form leaders who can face tomorrow’s toughest problems.

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: https://youneshenni.substack.com/

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Younes Henni, PhD

Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: https://youneshenni.substack.com/

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