Smarter Than the Rest
No, It’s Not Me
I do well on tests. Someone early in my life clued me in on the secret to standardized testing, and I think that most people now know the formula:
- Look at the answer choices, then read the question.
- Eliminate the two obviously wrong answers.
- Analyze the two remaining answers to determine the most probable correct answer.
Having learned this, and by being able to read at a level that was scored five or six years advanced of whatever age I was, I was able to convince teachers and those around me that I was exceptionally intelligent.
I wish I hadn’t done that. I wish I hadn’t convinced my teachers and parents that I was smarter than all the rest. I wish I had spent more time actually learning and studying and working hard than trying to show off to people. I didn’t master the materials. I mastered demonstrating mastery, and I have since learned the difference. My mother told me later that she had made the same mistake. She did well on standardized testing and scored “145″ on the Stanford-Binet assessment. While this may mean that she was smarter than Obama, it also led her to study to do well on tests while not mastering the materials.
She was praised for doing so well on the tests. She earned As all the way through high school. I have seen her report cards, and she received praise from all her teachers and from her parents. But she was frustrated, because she would rather have taken the time to learn the workings of the cell and how biologists knew what they knew. She would rather have spent more time applying maths to things that she wanted to do with them. She would rather have retained her knowledge beyond the most recent test rather than rush off to prepare for the next test. She would rather have taken her time learning.
She didn’t finish a four-year degree. She earned a two-year degree and passed her certification to be a teacher in the public school system. She loved her job as a teacher and reluctantly gave it up to be a stay-at-home mother to four kids. ((I was the 5th of 7 and she had left teaching full time just before my twin sister and I were conceived.)) When we were old enough, she entered continuing education, but when she died two years ago she had yet to finish her bachelor’s degree. Her lack of a degree was not a measure of her intelligence any more than her score in the Stanford-Binet.
She told me all this one night just after I dropped out of college. She was upset that I hadn’t talked to her about it first and shared her reasoning. Her bachelor’s was the one goal that she had yet to achieve and she regretted that she hadn’t yet walked down the aisle at a commencement ceremony. She never gave up the idea, because she knew that she was intelligent and she believed that she was letting herself down by not living up to her potential. She didn’t want to see this happen to me, and here I am always just inches away from a bachelor’s degree in something.
Whenever results from the standardized test such as the Iowa Basics came back, it turned out that I had scored in the 99th percentile, so the teachers always cut me more slack than they did the other kids in elementary school. If I hadn’t finished a math, spelling or reading assignment, the teachers would give me extra time because they assumed that I had been busy reading a dictionary or an encyclopedia instead. They were justified in thinking so, because that was often the case. I learned to coast through school without getting caught or warned or straightened out by the teachers in charge of me. I can’t completely fault them; they wanted to make sure that the “less intelligent” pupils received the attention that they thought I didn’t need so badly. I learned to coast because I was not held accountable for effort.
I also learned that the values pupils and students placed on their peers was related at various stages to their perceived intelligence. In elementary school, I was valued by my peers for being smart, but that changed as I moved into junior and senior high school. These were the ages when athleticism was more valued than intelligence. I lost my status because I was most definitely not very athletic. Yes, in sixth grade basketball I had helped my team win the intramural championship, but this was mostly because I was taller than the other sixth graders and was able to get the occasional lucky tip to a teammate who always seemed to be in the right place. In seventh grade, the other guys grew beyond me and I was never better than a second-stringer. In the meantime, my smarts were not important except that my classmates always wanted to sit next to me so that they could read my answers and cheat.
I was being used by them. To get away from that, I started playing down the fact that I was “smarter than the rest” among my peers in hoping to gain acceptance. It never worked, and I found myself becoming less and less popular and having few friends in school. In retrospect, I should have done what I wanted and spent my after-school time in the science lab doing extra work and digging into the ways to answer the questions that were not being answered in the textbooks. I should have done extra data collection and analysis. I would have served me well and I would have been more excited about actually doing science than reading about what other people were doing in science. I treated it too much like a spectator sport, I think.
I still treat science as a spectator sport. I am fascinated by the results of scientific exploration, study and analysis. I read it voraciously, even though I usually have to skip over most of the details of published papers to get to an understanding of what the authors either demonstrated or disproved. I want to understand and know the details as to how they arrived at their results but get frustrated that I only know experimental design and methodology up to a certain level of comprehension. I don’t have a strong enough understanding to read through the literature reviews that helped them shape their studies and so, when all is said and done, I ultimately am put in the position when reading a published paper of having to “trust” the authors and reviewers to have done the work properly to justify those results.
When learning more and more about skepticality and how it works, I hate having to “trust” at the level that would give me the confidence that the results and abstracts are accurate reflections of the dataset and variable interactions. The reason I get frustrated is because I have learned that they can make mistakes and still get published in peer-reviewed works, which is why they publish. Their results are read, analyzed and retested by yet another set of researchers who know how to approach problem-solving in that area.
One of the most crucial scientific issues that we face today is the effect of anthropogenic global warming. I am at a level of understanding in this issue that is hardly any more advanced than the rest of the general public. I read popular articles on the subject, I read realclimate.org, I read Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, I read James Hrynshyn’s The Island of Doubt, and I read Greg’s series on AGW each time he republishes it. I think I understand the issue more each time I do this, but I am still left in a position of trust on their explanations because I am not a climatologist. I trust these writers and explainers, but as a skeptic, I still have to hold back on complete acceptance because I don’t have the skill and background to sufficiently analyze what is going on. I do trust the people I refer to here, but it doesn’t give me the degree of certainty that makes me satisfied that I am able to defend completely the conclusions that are presented to me except as scientific consensus.
In the meantime, I am thinking of how stupid it was for me to make an emotional and irrational decision to leave college when I did. It was a decision that I can’t undo, and I can only try to finish what I started. I realize that if I hadn’t done so, then I would be able to be more fully confident in what I read about scientific issues, or perhaps I would actually be participating in the study.
So, what happened? When I got to college, I realized that I couldn’t “coast.” The professors and evaluators hadn’t seen my standardized test results, and if they had they wouldn’t have cared. They wanted me to demonstrate more than a good casual understanding of the material. They wanted me to demonstrate not that I had accepted their lectures, but that I had mastered the process that they were teaching me.
In my first foray back to the university world following the dropout, I studied experimental psychology at North Dakota State University in Fargo. I had previously taken classes in statistics and analysis at the Psych 200 levels, and as a result the first two weeks of the course were largely review of materials I understood very well. I earned an A+ on the first exam. I was proud of that, but then I coasted in that class while concentrating on others and working at a restaurant 60+ hours per week. I ended up failing the class, because I couldn’t write the paper for the final grade.
There are some clues now as to what may happen to pupils who are praised in their early education for their intelligence, and they indicate to me that I may not be alone among people who have a great capacity to learn and understand but haven’t lived up to their potential. A study published in 2007 shows that pupils who are praised for their ability follow with decreasing effort and subsequent testing reveals that they didn’t concentrate on mastering the subject material. There is a good article on the study in the New York Magazine:
Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
And I do tend to avoid doing things that I may fail in, and have to push myself in order to “jump in.” Dweck adds to her point in this Q&A in Education World:
EW: Some students see intelligence as a fixed characteristic; it is a quality that people are born with and little can be done to change it. Others hold a more changeable view of intelligence; they think most anyone can learn new things and “stretch” their intelligence. Clearly, it seems that students with a changeable view of intelligence might fare better when faced with a learning challenge. But can anything be done to change those students who have a fixed view of their intelligence so that they might do better when facing a challenging learning task?
Dweck: You’re right. Students who believe that intelligence is a potential that they can develop do fare better when faced with challenge. For example, they often blossom across a challenging school transition when their fellow students with the fixed view are busy doubting themselves and losing their edge.
We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that the changeable view can be taught. Students can be taught that their intellectual skills are things that can be cultivated — through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc. When they are taught this, they seem naturally to become more eager for challenges, harder working, and more able to cope with obstacles. Researchers (for example, Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas) have even shown that college students’ grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed.
It is interesting to me that these beliefs about intelligence seem to be fairly stable individual differences when left to themselves. But they also can be changed fairly readily when students are confronted with the alternative view in an explicit and compelling way.
Further, I have found in working with my own kids on their homework that I don’t have the patience to be a teacher. Since I grasped many of the things they work on rather quickly, I expect them to do the same when they approach new problems and assignments. I assume that they are wanting me to do the work for them, because they look to me to provide the answers. When they can’t, I have found myself getting angry at them for not trying hard enough. I seem to place the same value on the idea of “fixed intelligence” that my teachers and parents placed on me. Their mother forbade my helping my oldest daughter with homework when she was in 4th grade and struggling with pre-algebra arrays. I saw and worked with the patterns as soon as she showed them to me, and I tried to explain as well as I could, but when she still didn’t understand how to work with them, I got angry and yelled at her. It was not a proud moment.
Intelligence is complex set of values, and it certainly can not be determined through design and application of multiple choice exams. Neither can it be applied across cultures and experiential norms without careful definition of what “intelligence” is when it is measured. On Monday, Stephanie posted a series of links to articles and discussions of the psychological implications and measurements of intelligence and they are written for those of us who don’t have advanced experience in the field. I encourage readers to go back to look at them and read them. Also check out the great discussion that followed in the comments.
In my experience, the label was detrimental. I got by even though I was lazy. My sister, labeled as less intelligent than I, graduated Summa Cum Laude and went on to a Master’s degree. I am proud of her, because she achieved through effort. She hated that she had to work so hard while I skated by, but now look.
My IQ from one test I took as a college student seems to be 145. The same score as my mother. Barack Obama’s has been reported as 142. I am, then, smarter than him. He is now President of the United States, and I work in a phone bank. I can’t conclude that I am “smarter than the rest.”
This entry was posted on Friday, December 25th, 2009 at 4:41 pm and is filed under Mike Haubrich. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.