What Does it Mean to Be Intelligent?

What do Standardized Test Scores tell us? Are school’s today hindering or helping kids? What do we actually know about intelligence?

When I used to consider the word “genius,” I’d immediately conjure up pictures of grey-haired men with bags under their eyes as they plugged away at something related to math or science. In school, math and science were praised as the most valuable courses, and those who possessed prowess in these subjects were praised and admired above all others. I have many memories of sweating over an unnecessarily complicated calculator and somehow skirting through each science experiment by demonstrating creativity and determination in lieu of actual skill or understanding of the material.

Meanwhile I excelled in both Theatre (drama) and English, easily and consistently earning A+’s in both subjects. Although my grades in these subjects were excellent, any time for independent creation and daydreaming (past times which I thoroughly enjoyed in elementary school) were eaten up by my exhaustive efforts at achieving a satisfactory grade in math and science.

Is an Aptitude in Science and Math an Accurate Measure of Intelligence?

I was rather happy to come across this passage by Sylvia Plath who expressed similar sentiments in a letter she wrote home to her mother during her second year of university:

Photo of Sylvia Plath

Photo of Sylvia Plath (poet and novelist)

“What earthly good is this going to do me in my future life? I hate it, I find it loathsome. I have built it up to a devouring, malicious monster. How could I convince the psychiatrist I would go mad if I didn’t escape from these horrible formulas and, for me, useless chunks of memory… Every week I dread opening my science book; it is the subject which annihilates my will and love of life… Science is, to me, useless drudgery for no purpose. A vague, superficial, understanding of molecules and atoms isn’t going to enhance my understanding of life. If only I wanted to understand it, but I don’t.”

If you’re like me, this passage probably made you smile. In Ken Robinson’s TED talk on how school’s kill creativity he explains that “academic ability has come to engulf our view of intelligence. The consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant people think they’re not, because the things they were actually good at in school weren’t valued, and were actually stigmatized.”

Had Sylvia Plath accepted her difficulty with Science as a reflection of her ability in other disciplines, we would have lost the voice of a prominent writer. Luckily, she had received a large amount of encouragements in her artistic output as a writer, so the course frustrated rather than defeated her.

It’s a little bit scary to think of all the people who maybe, having not yet received the same encouragements, allowed the deficits in the school system to defeat them.

“I am Intelligent” – An Autistic Peyton Goddard Weighs in on the Discussion

Shortly after learning how to use a IEP (a breakthrough in the field of autism where individuals who are incapable of using speech are able to communicate using a keyboard), Peyton was asked what it’s like to be autistic, she responded: “I am not able to control my body. I cannot talk. I need help to do most things. But I can open my heart to most people, can you do that?”

Photo of Peyton Goddard

Photo of Peyton Goddard. She is autistic, and a highly sought after speaker on the subject of mental disabilities, education and equality.

Peyton’s biography “I am Intelligent” is primarily written by her mother, and yet the text is supplemented by interjections from her which she has typed using the IEP system. In the following passage she speaks about how the school system is failing those with mental disabilities:

“Many teachers either don’t recognize students’ learning differences, or they are impervious to try to accommodate people who mull data differently. Students hurdle millions of hills and teachers are their greatest mentors, but teachers are also their greatest hurdles if never willing to look deep and find what is golden inside.”

What I’ve found to be most inspiring about Peyton is her concern and empathy for others in the same position as her. I have full use of my physical instrument and yet I often become engulfed in feelings of loneliness. Alternatively, despite all of her physical limitations, Peyton was able to recognize that she was not alone in her experience and able to recognize that there were other people just like her who she needed to help. Reading about her astounding generosity and empathy for others is amazing to me. I would have incorrectly assumed that someone trapped in their own bodies would be absorbed in their own experience and incapable of this sort of understanding and empathy. I was clearly wrong. And yet, Peyton was diagnosed as being “severely mentally retarded” and treated as invalid and stupid by many of the teachers, educators and doctors with whom she came in contact. If it had not been for the belief and encouragement of her parents, her voice would never have been heard.

What Do We Know about Genius and Intelligence?

Author Lois Banner, in her biography on Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox) identifies two out of three of the criteria for genius (the third being about being born in the right time period) as:

  1. A grandiose and mystical sense of the world.
  2. An ability to concentrate obsessively on a goal and to strive for perfection in reaching it.

In his TED talk (featured above) Ken Robinson identifies intelligence using these three words:

  1. It’s diverse: We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, with sound, kinaesthetically, we think in abstract terms, we think in movement.
  2. It’s dynamic: intelligence is wonderfully interactive.
  3. It’s distinct: recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type.

So what does this mean?

It means that intelligence has a lot to do with believing in yourself and your ability to make a difference. Intelligence has to do with recognizing your individuality and understanding what it is that you love to do. You can only discover your own intelligence and genius when you begin to work on those skills which you both excel at and enjoy. Intelligence and genius are visible in those who are following their purpose.

It’s also about recognizing your ability to make a significant impact and about looking at those who have succeeded before you as mentors instead of idols. 

What Does Standardized Testing Tell Us?

standardized tests

Learn more about how standardized tests affect students

The standardized tests you might remember from your high school days are hugely misrepresentative of intelligence. Harvard Professor Tom Kales has this to say:

“What education leaders want is a fair, straight-forward measure of school performance, to be able to monitor schools and hold them accountable. The problem, in Koretz’s view, is that we tend to overestimate what tests can do. ” Read more

And in an article for CEA, Joe Bower (an author and teacher) suggests that:

“When it comes to numeracy and literacy, standardized tests tend to be limited to measuring forgettable facts while ignoring the higher-level creative and critical thinking. It makes a lot of sense to question the scores when you know that the tests are a contrived and unrealistic form of assessment that measures what matters least. It’s time we shifted from valuing what we measure to measuring what we value.” Read more

I vividly remember sitting in my grade eight classroom as a teacher verbally assaulted me with math problems that I was meant to answer in 30 seconds or less. They were testing us on our ability in mental math, but I felt like beating my head against the wall. Every question was left unanswered, not because I couldn’t do the math, but because the high stakes, anxiety-filled environment which they created were not at all conducive to my ability to think. My brain shut down as my levels of panic an anxiety rose and I ended up passing in my test with possibly 4 or 5 out of 20 questions answered.

Luckily, because I was naturally gifted and interested in English, those standardized tests were easy for me and helped to boost the self-esteem that had plummeted during the mental math exam. But my younger sister, who has a “learning disability,” did not have that saving grace and was told that she was stupid for most of her life. And yet, she has a enviable ability to relate to other people in a meaningful way. They didn’t measure that, did they?

We All Have Intelligence and the Capacity for Genius

I will fittingly conclude this post with a quote from Albert Einstein:

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

As Peyton Goddard so eloquently put, we need to be willing and eager to search for “what’s golden inside” of ourselves and those we love. Because it’s there. And intelligence is most visible in those who are willing to throw out the rules and to embrace what they love with an imagination that is full of possibilities for the future.

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