What Is Smart? Conversations Creating the Future

Friday Night Panel — 6pm-8pm — “What is Smart?” Introductions by Dr. Dennis Wint, CEO of The Franklin Institute opened the conversations creating the future.

David Warlick made a mindmap of this panel’s conversation. It is an enlightening synthesis of the conversation, forwarded to me by Jennifer Brinson.

The panel, left to right: Happy Fernandez, moderator Frederic Bertley, David Shenk, Eddie Glaude, Loren Brichter, and Martha Farah.

* Happy Fernandez — President of the Moore College of Art
* Moderated by Dr. Frederic Bertley, Vice President of the Center for Innovation and Science Learning, The Franklin Institute
* David Shenk – Author of The Genius in All of Us, Data Smog and The End of Patience (and others)
* Prof. Eddie Glaude – William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies. Chair, Center for African American Studies, Princeton University
* Loren Brichter – CEO of atebits Software and developer of Tweetie Twitter software
* Prof. Martha Farah – Director, Center for Neuroscience & Society and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania.

As this extraordinary conference begins in the Franklin Institute, Dr. Wink introduced the icon conference and remarked that the setting is fitting: the opportunity for passion, scientific inquiry, the ability to study science in the spirit of Franklin’s innovation. The Franklin Institute partners with Science Leadership Academy, which represents science, technology, and entrepreneurship and holds dear core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection emphasized in all classes. A special thank you to Chris Lehmann, the organizing Principal behind the school and the conference.

Panel Topic: What is Smart? Each panelist has 5 minutes to present an answer and then questions are opened and the conversation begins.

David Shenk:

We have been for years living under innate intelligence; what you got, you got. Binet-Simon test attempted to lift students up. Individual intelligence is not a fixed quantity; memory, judgment may be increased. The IQ test was co-opted from Binet, and we were still told that intelligence was a preloaded thing. But today we consider intelligence differently because of science; genes interact with their environment and are not “fixed.” So, the brain is responded to our environment with plasticity, but genes are turned off and on. A dynamic process is the creation of intelligence.

His second point states that intelligence is a set of competencies in development; it is a process and malleable. Understanding the malleability enables a mindset that can change intelligence and abilities, rather than depending on intelligence as connected and limited to a preset. Intelligence is in their (students) and our hands.

Loren Brichter:

Smart is specialization, diving into something so deeply because you are passionate. More appropriate question is how do you make smart? Lehman was Brichter’s teacher in high school, more of a mentor enabling self-learning.

Dr. Glaude:

His answer: I have no idea (generated applause and laughter). Smart = genius, talent, intelligence, reasonableness, and so when we think about ordinary language use, we need to ask what is the context of the utterance to parse the word. Each use of “smart” creates a different connotation, so we need to begin to think about the context of the utterance being singled out.

If we are to cash out “smart” (Henry James and Dewey), it rejects a notion of reason for critical intelligence = inquiry. The idea of smart is made manifest in light of desired aims we want to achieve. Methods of science enables us to engage in scientific inquiry. Therefore, we need a contextual understanding of smart.

Second, we need to think about critical intelligence. If we say that a formulation is beautiful or a mathematical problem is elegant, we begin to understand smart.

Martha Farah:

Is there a single thing called smart? Is it a single or multiple thing. The controversy began in the 20th century regarding measuring cognitive abilities because the different ways we manifest our cognitive abilities is coined as “little g” to discuss a certain way of defining intelligence. The evidence for that is simple; people will push a button when they see a light flash on a screen. Little g = the single underlying thing that governs intelligence. Influenced by neuroscience,  we now think that intelligence does not derive from one underlying form of intelligence but is rather multiple or interconnected. Intelligence is a combination of different selectors (Gardner). On unitary v. multiple, Farah thinks it’s a matter of semantics. She is realistic in understanding there is a suite of abilities that IQ tests measure that is important for getting ahead in the modern world. These abilities are often important but certainly as educators we need to recognize there are many types of human abilities, and that we, as educators, need to nurture them.

Happy Fernandez:

As an educator with a democratic egalitarian approach to the classroom, she wants to draw everyone into the sense of successful so they can become successful good citizens. Is smart changing with the times? Fernandez recalls elementary school education, and how we were not allowed to know our IQ, so she thought smart were academically achieving students who took tests well. Smart was good, rule-following to get good grades from teachers. Fernandez feels that not too much has changed, i.e, bluebirds, red birds… and that students still feel they are or are not smart.

Smart is artistic smart, as in a visual arts college like Moore. Smart is how to see things in ways others do not see, and to be good visual problem solvers. Smart is athletic talent, being athletically smart. Some of the highest paid people in our society are athletically smart, but not necessarily good decision makers. These people have a natural talent, but practice a lot, driven almost. Athletes often do well in school, but the highly paid and valued stars had an extra canny ability to see the opening, make the winning shot, or score more points. Our championship athletes see the field and where to put their focus. Smart is political smarts. Dealing with the complexity of politics, you need people who can navigate the complex forces of political life.

What is missing is having young people and young adults be part of a team to solve really big problems, and as we look to the future, we need to consider this point.

Q & A:

1. How does the concept of smart mesh with the bombardment of technology that is moving at warp speed?

  • Shenk: We agree with the notion of different types of intelligence and wonders if the way to get great at something is to find something you love, have persistence, push past failure, and get good at something. As educators, we need to find that thing, that inroad. His question: can we use that first thing that we can specialize in and pursue it and then use it as leverage to become smart at other things?
  • Farah on Shenk: We can get to an educational inpoint by using different things. Gene environment interaction allows a kid who is a little better genetically will pull supports from the environment. What looks like a genetic effect is really pulling from the environment.

2. How as educators do we navigate a classroom of multiple intelligences?

  • Glaude: All children have the ability to make intelligent choices. We can conceive children, no matter of their background, to exact good choices, to act intelligently. We label that smart. We need to smoke out something that is innate that teases out what is intelligence. There are ways we can educate to make good people who may just not have talent.
  • Fernandez: What is relevant to folks at this conference who are educators and need something relevant from this conversation?
  • Glaude: What do we do when we see students in front of us, and how do we develop intelligent action?
  • Brichter: Is it bad to let students focus on what they are good at?
  • Farah: The idea is to teach people in ways they are ready to earn and recognize and hope that you can get more people to the stage of education we want to get them to by teaching and letting them learn with the intelligences that are strongest in them. But how do you learn history with body kinesthetics?
  • Fernandez: In some schools in some classrooms, kids can be damaged by messages overt or covert; education is drawing out the abilities to build confidence in good decision making. To generate curious students and develop passion which can lead to imagination and good things is important; we cannot tell students they are not good at…. Backgrounds, bad parents/neighborhoods, cannot let us think negatively about our expectations for these children.
  • Shenk: students and abilities are malleable. We are beyond what we have to what we can be.

3. Are we changing what we value as smart in a changing technological world?

  • Fernandez: Technology is a tool to other ends, just like a paintbrush or book. Sometimes technology gets confused with an ends, and not a means.
  • Glaude: Students take notes on computers, typing away but it’s Facebook, Twitter… Technology can deform attention. That creates perpetual distraction and is dangerous to democracy because we need a cosmopolitan citizen open to the world.
  • Brichter: Agrees that computers must be used for something productive; it is a tool.
  • Technology is a huge distraction. As a tool, each piece of technology does a certain think. Now that we have so many tools, we need to know the end and use the tool, rather than the flash of the tool. What is steering what?
  • Farah: Need to memorize and retain things in your head is less; weakens memory muscle. We bemoaned calculators and now we have computers.
  • Shenk: Great to have tools, but we are losing something when we rely on external memory. Does technology make the mind active or passive? Or is it more active on computers.
  • Glaude: We need to find a delicate balance between the two. Used Haiti as a personal example with his son who texted his donation and then created a Facebook page at 13. He mobilized his friends quickly via social networking. But can he memorize and recite Keats.

4. Do schools mistake compliance with intelligence?

  • Fernandez: Are computers pacifiers?
  • Glaude: Students have a grade obsession with the next goal but ask them to think outside the box and they trip. He is referencing highly motivated students who see achievement as a critical dimension for success. Are we delivering products teaching to the tests?
  • Fernandez: Exams that do not ask for repeating the lecture but PBL like SLA engages in a different assessment process aligned with an outcome is better.

5. What was the definition prior to the written language, and how the the alphabet impact intelligence?

  • Audience: Survival.
  • Shenk: Likes survival. What he’s trying to do. Chief motivation was just to survive = one intelligence that was the focus.
  • Glaude: What is the difference between success and smart?
  • Shenk: Emphasis is away from critical thinking. Competition can be a good thing if you point motivation in a certain way.
  • Gaude: American education is oftentimes something squeezing the creative juices out of us. How do we give life in the classroom as a teacher to the beauty of the life of the mind without practical implications? What does it mean to revel in the mind?

6. Is smart a neurological truth or a societal construct?

  • Farah: Neurological truth; every thought we have, is 100 percent a function of the brain so intelligence is a function of the brain. But that is not mutually exclusive of a social context. Human relationships, kindness v. how stressful your neighborhood is are all elements of the social context we grow up in, and that affects learning.
  • Glaude: Brilliance can be exposed and nurtured in the most unlikely places. America has never genuinely committed to educating all its children. Gaude says he is a product of expectations.

7. What was the role of an influential teacher in your life?

  • Shenk: 3rd grade homeroom teacher made him a newspaper editor, wanted to meet teacher expectations, and believed the teacher saw his passion.
  • Brichter: Shout out to Lehman who helped him improve his skills, but it was never about feeling smart.
  • Glaude: Socratic method and intellectual vertigo.
  • Farah: High school English teacher, same one for 4 years and he gave her the confidence to voice her reactions and positive reinforcement.
  • Fernandez: 5th grade teacher who recognized curiosity and first attractive young teacher, so she wanted to be like her because of classroom climate. Students watch teachers closely, looking at you in all kinds of ways. Many emotional things go one beside challenging students.

It’s up to us to make sure we help America shape our children.

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