My Thoughts on Intelligence

I want children to believe, “I belong here, I can do this, I am brave.” When they step into the classroom they should be flexing those thoughts, experiencing challenges and building skills in perseverance and resilience.  I know that not all children believe they are smart and/or can learn when they are in the classroom. 

The following excerpt comes from the book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom by Thomas Armstong. It is from a section in the book where the author is describing how he introduces students to the theory of multiple intelligences. 

“I usually begin by asking, ‘How many of you think you are intelligent?” I’ve discovered there seems to be an inverse relationship between the number of hands that go up and the grade level that I am teaching-That is, the lower the grade level the more hands go up; the higher the grade level, the fewer the hands.”

Pair that discovery with this survey shared in the book Mindsets in the Classroom By Mary Cay Ricci and the urgency to address this decline in confidence and sense of ability as our children progress through school must be improved. She surveyed students about their beliefs about intelligence. She used the following statements in the survey:

  • Everyone can learn new things. (a growth mindset)
  • Some kids are born smarter than others. (a fixed mindset)
  • We can change how smart we are. (a growth mindset) 

Here are the percentages of children who believe they can learn new things and they can change how smart they are, by grade level:

  • 100% of kindergartners 
  • 90% of first graders
  • 82% of second graders
  • 58% of third graders
illustration of results

The percentage of students who believe in a growth mindset has a downward trend, just like the number of students who think they are intelligent.

A child (adult too), who doesn’t think they are intelligent, and who doesn’t believe they can learn new things doesn’t feel in control of their path, because there isn’t anything better to move towards.  That helplessness leads to feeling stuck ,and  unmotivated. From there, participation can drop and interest and effort can fall. All of these outcomes are difficult obstacles for teachers and students to overcome.

In part, I believe this is happening because we are teaching for test results. We are trying to upload as many facts and as much information as we can into our children before the test taking time comes. Due to pressure and limited time, we are overlooking the skills and understanding they need to process, and find meaning and motivation in all the work/information given to them. Time is taken away to experience, explore and find connection with all they are being shown. For the students, and for the teacher, school is a race to cover all the needed information before testing, taking the tests and then possibly feeling defeated by a seemingly fixed label (test results they have seen, heard, or felt).

We can make progress to lessen these downward slopes. A shift in our goals, a thoughtful change in our focus in our schools, in our classrooms and at home. We can  help children to expand the word intelligent to be more encompassing, have a broader meaning. We can teach them about the brain and it’s amazing abilities to learn, relearn, problem solve, adapt, and connect. We can also help them to strengthen their mindset by providing appropriate challenges and time to explore and grow, in safe spaces where they feel it is okay to wonder, try, fail, connect with others through struggle and progress. We can share tools with them to help them to practice their perseverance, and resilience. 

This quote from the book Going Right by Logan Gelbrich points us to a shift we can make, a direction we can head, 

“…in a world where we think results are everything. I’m asking you to have a mindset that says the process is everything.” 

We need a shift from too much focus and time spent on testing and results. Instead we can focus, with more care and energy, on building up their understanding of the process of growth that we all share, and helping them to notice their amazing ability (intelligence in action) to adapt, problem solve, persevere and learn new things as they navigate towards better.

We can focus more on the right side of this diagram and allow for movement to happen for all children so they continue to believe in their intelligence and their ability to make progress.

By Kay Lybeck,

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