How do you talk about ‘intelligence’?


Thanks to Carol Dweck’s work on the Growth Mindset, we know it matters how we react to student performance.

Compliments for “being smart” help foster a fixed mindset and a reluctance to embrace challenge, while shout-outs for “working hard” foster a growth mindset and a desire for challenge.

That’s all well and good, but what are the implications for talking about “intelligence” — or responding when kids inevitably do?

It seems like we should avoid using that term at all. But unfortunately, our students have already absorbed this message…

Intelligence = IQ = good grades = successful future

… and it often overrides whatever we say about the growth mindset. Ignoring is not enough.

Also, as an AP Psych teacher, I can’t avoid this topic. We have an entire unit on “Intelligence and Testing,” and IQ also came up yesterday in our discussion of nature v. nurture. A research article I shared with students reveals that variability in IQ test scores at age 50 is mostly due to DNA — by a large margin. They were shocked, assuming their own effort would have a bigger impact (and they could be “smarter” than their parents).

So how do we respond? And what does it signal to our students about their own perceived intelligence and potential?

This has become more challenging for me over time. I’ve become convinced of the power of mindset, emotional intelligence, and divergent thinking, and I believe they are critical to our students’ future success, but I still know that Lewis Terman’s work showed intelligence isn’t a throwaway concept. It is also powerful.

I’m not alone in this quandary. In a touch of irony, this week’s Education Week Special Report notes that PSAT scores are the strongest predictor of AP test scores — in the context of an article promoting the growth mindset. The PSAT isn’t measuring effort, folks.

What I try to do is always, always add nuance to this conversation and steer my students to think critically about the construct of IQ. If I say the word “intelligence” or “IQ,” I immediately qualify it by pointing out that intelligence is broad and ill-defined, and IQ test scores are imperfect measures.

I also try to break the link between IQ and future success by telling a lot of stories about personal friends and former students, people who struggled with academics but found success using their people skills, street smarts and creativity. (Many of the biggest income-earners I know were not straight-A students, but yes, they are “smart”.)

I also acknowledge there are real differences between humans when it comes to our processing speeds, our stores of knowledge, and our expressive capacities. These differences make learning easier for some of us and more difficult for others.

I think struggling students are more likely to buy what we’re saying about mindset if we at least acknowledge these differences — and the fact that some kids seem to unfairly sail through classes with easy As. They’re also more likely to persevere if they know we don’t put too much faith in a single test score.

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