Intelligence: What is it and How Does it Affect Teaching

I have always been told I was smart. The tests “proved” it. Even in college I kept a good GPA and graduated Summa Cum Laude from a pretty good university. But when it comes to meeting new people and negotiating certain aspects of relationships… I’m not bad, but I’m not as elegant as when I have pen and paper (or laptop) in hand writing an essay or an analysis of something I’ve read. My sister, though, she is super sensitive to people’s emotions and can smoothly manipulate a situation with a down to earth demeanor that I just sit in awe of at times. Still though, people tell me I’m “smart,” and she’s started to believe that by comparison she’s not.  Until recently, I never doubted it or thought much about it. I took the praise and relished it. In fact, being identified as intelligence or brainy has become tied to a large part of my self-esteem.

What’s So Wrong With Being Called “Smart”?
Absolutely nothing is being wrong with the labels “smart,” “intelligent,” “brainy,” or  “nerdy”(which I’ve personally come to enjoy). I have heard a lot of people wish they were any of these things and express their envy of my smarts. I look at these same people and say, “What! I wish I could do what you can!” I’m always met with disbelief. Is it somehow hard for people to see the ability to do crafts like knitting, playing an instrument (or two), or being really good at making friends as being a good quality, a form of intelligence? In the last couple of months, I have been thinking a lot about this and asked myself where this came from.

What Is Intelligence Anyways?
I think it’s important to look at what the standard for intelligence is. First, intelligence is culturally defined. What smart is in one culture can be deemed quite stupid in another culture. This is important to keep in mind. So… in much of the Western world what are some qualities of smart people? Being good at math, able to fix computers, have good test scores, being creative… Able to get what they want. Successful people are smart, right? Look at Bill Gates or Steven Jobs. Both are incredibly “smart”men by cultural standards, took an idea and made life easier for many people, making lots of money in the process. But what about Einstein? It’s common knowledge he was not an extraordinary student, but when you type in “intelligent people” in Google, his picture is everywhere. Let’s look at someone else’s take on what it means to be smart. In his book “What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?”, Alfie Kohn offers up some of what he calls “poor definitions” of being well educated (which we can say means being intelligent…right?):

  1. Seat Time (i.e. how many hours
    someone has been in class)
  2. Job Skills (a vocational skills set)
  3. Test Scores
  4. Memorization of a bunch o’ facts (p. 4)

Be honest with yourself and look at the list. If these were known aspects of a person, you’d be apt to think s/he was smart, would you not? I also want to introduce another way of thinking about intelligence. Howard Gardner is well known for his “Multiple Intelligence” theory*. He proposes eight types of intelligence, proposing that there are more than one:

  1. Musical/rhythmic
  2. Verbal/linguistic*
  3. Visual/spatial
  4. Bodily/kinaesthetic
  5. Logical/mathematical*
  6. Intrapersonal
  7. Interpersonal
  8. Naturalistic.

(*According to Gardner, these are the two intelligences that standardized tests assess.)

Regardless if this is true or not, the point is that even scholars acknowledge there is more than just general knowledge which is tested and assessed. So, based on my SAT score, I’m pretty good at math and reading, but what about other things? It is impossible to know if someone in intelligent in other, more practical ways by simply answering multiple choice tests or from reading an essay written for an exam on a predetermined topic. Maybe some people are catching onto this. Look at the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in which he proposes that “we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing.”** Maybe success and intelligence are not exactly as we think them to be. Keep this in mind going forward.

What Does All This Have to Do With Teaching?
We are a product of our culture and intelligence (a culturally defined term) is a respectful quality for any member of a society to posses, so who wouldn’t strive to be intelligent? We first learn in the comfort of our homes, from our families, but when we go to school everything changes and a whole new faucet opens up along with influences and experiences that shape us for the rest of our lives. Teachers have a huge impact on students, more than I had imagined. Unfortunately we cannot control how students perform on tests, but we can control much more important factors that can help students be successful.

Each student needs something different. You wouldn’t do the same for a student who excels in all her studies as you would for someone who barely passes his exams. This could mean you treat them differently (which students notice). Asking little Johnny to answer questions and never giving Suzie a chance can be quite disappointing and discouraging. As a teacher, you must be cognizant of your students’ emotions and perceptions. In Margolis and McCabe (2006)***, the importance of nurturing students’ beliefs about themselves is succinctly summed up in the following quote:

Low self-efficacy beliefs, unfortunately, impede academic achievement and, in the long run, create self-fulfilling prophecies of failure and learned helplessness that can devastate psychological well-being.

Mull that over for a second. What do you think that means not only for you as a teacher, but as a student? Did your teachers tell you you couldn’t succeed? If you did, how did that feel? Did s/he not encourage you to try an improve? If they did, did you study harder or try for a better grade next time? Maybe you had a teacher who commented on how well you drew a picture for an assignment and thereafter you drew insatiably until you became really good! I had that experience and looking at my past drawings, I wasn’t very good, but the fact someone told me I was motivated to improve through practice. The same can be said for academic skills. Encourage your students to do better and tell them what they are doing well. This could make all the difference in a young person’s life.

To Tie This into Language Teaching
Krashen hits the nail on the head when he discusses a critical piece of second language acquisition theory with his affective filter. Krashen (2003) claims, “The affective filter hypothesis claims that affective variables do not impact language acquisition directly but prevent input from reaching what Chomsky has called the ‘language acquisition device,’…A block, the affective filter, will keep it out. The presence of the affective filter explains how two students can receive the same (comprehensible) input, yet one makes progress while the other does not. One student is open to the input while the other is not.” As language teachers, keep in mind how you can help students control this filter with an environment conducive to learning. If a student is left to feel unsuccessful, this could destroy their self-esteem and discouraged them from learning the language in the future.

Well… If Intelligence is Culturally Defined Then What About Korea?
Teaching in South Korea adds another element to this ideas of intelligence, self-efficacy, and student motivation, but doesn’t take away from their importance. Korea has been a country relatively isolated from Western civilization until the last half century or so. Traditions and values from the past are still strong in the Korean people, but globalization is starting to touch Korean culture. From my experiences in Korea, the old world is still very apparent in some people and others are more open to new ideals, ways of acting, and beliefs. It would only benefit you as a foreigner in Korea to learn about these beliefs and what is important to the Korean people. The culture is fascinating and has so much to offer.

This could also help you as a teacher of young Korean students. The stress from high-stakes testing is worse in some aspects. Intelligence is important in Korea just like it is back home, but the idea of being “smart” is different here. Studying English is a requirement and is pushed by parents and society. Did you really want to study the Civil War? Can you remember when it started or ended? All the battles that took place? What it was even over? The stress and lack of intrinsic motivation could affect the students in your English classrooms, but as a teacher you can try to change that. If you ever learned a language, you know how important it is to have fun and not make it feel like a chore (this only makes it worse as I have experienced). It might take some work in the beginning, but I think if you could just change one student’s experience with English, that could change his or her view and success with the language for the rest of his or her life, and that would make it all worth it.

*Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th ed.). England: Pearson Education Limited.
*** Margolis, H. & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Improving Self-Efficacy and Motivation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(4), p. 220.


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