Can Students Get Smarter Over Time?

Without discussing the many types of intelligence or the common testing instruments to measure them, the question remains: Can students get smarter over time?

Tasked by the French government to create an instrument for measuring intelligence more than 100 years ago, Alfred Binet is credited with inventing the first mass test for this purpose. However, even Binet himself did not believe that his psychometric instruments could measure a single, permanent, and inborn level of intelligence.

Shortly after, in 1916, Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman took Binet's original test and standardized it, and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale was born. This test was first used by the US military to determine which candidates were suitable for military service; however it also became accepted as the standard tool to evaluate “intelligence.” The quotation marks are mine for two reasons: 1.This assumes a pencil-and-paper test can determine intelligence; and 2. This assumes that the test can measure the variety of talents that collectively contribute to our intelligence.

I am interested not in measuring intelligence, but rather whether intelligence can change over time; and if so, which inputs can best improve our abilities to think and do.

Over the last 20 years, most people have come to accept the research that suggests intelligence is not fixed. As a result, cognitive researchers have been immersing students in demanding, long-term intellectual environments. What they have found is this: one's intelligence is the sum of one's habits of mind. (I will write about “habits of mind” another time.)

Intelligence is the habit of persistently trying to understand things and make them function better. Intelligence is working to figure things out, varying strategies until a workable solution is found. Intelligence is knowing what one does (and doesn't) know, seeking information and organizing that information so that it makes sense and can be remembered.

Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth became famous in educational circles for building on this theme in their best-selling books, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” and “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” consecutively. Additionally, Daniel Goleman and Robert Sternberg, among others, have successfully demonstrated that success in life is more closely correlated with emotional intelligence (EQ) than IQ, or intelligence quotient. The research indicates that if we do the right things, we can improve intelligence.

Modern researchers, when studying what accounts for success and failure, found that the answer is closely related to the amount and kind of effort put forth in situations of learning or problem solving. If we can design learning tasks and programs to improve resilience, perseverance, self-confidence, and a love of learning, we should be able to improve thinking skills...which means we can increase intelligence.

How do we encourage children to believe this? One of the things we want to avoid is telling children they are clever, smart, or talented. Why? Numerous studies have shown that children want to please people–teachers, coaches, parents. Repeatedly reminding young people that they are smart has the opposite effect from helping them develop a growth mindset.

Instead, praising effort, examining failure, and encouraging them to try again builds both their self esteem and their belief that they can learn. Research clearly shows that students who are told they are smart or talented quickly begin to worry about making mistakes or endeavoring into to new learning where there is a risk of “exposing themselves as less than bright.”

Lastly (for this blog), let´s remind ourselves how confidence is earned (yes, earned). I believe we gain confidence from trying new things, then working hard enough to become successful at them. This is one reason we teach our 5- to 8-year-olds to play the violin.

Confidence can also be earned by doing anything really well. It cannot, however (at least for most of us), be accomplished without hard work, effort, and overcoming challenge. In my next blog, I will explore more specifically what schools can do to take advantage of this research.

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