Nick Kristof has written a fantastic column about some recent studies suggesting that I.Q.--long thought to be at largely a byproduct of genetics--is, in fact, quite malleable. Some of the research Kristof highlights is already being reflected in public policy. For example, Kristof cites research showing that childrens' IQ scores rise dramatically if they are exposed to aggresive educational interventions in early childhood. That research largely validates a centerpiece of President Obama's educational agenda: increased funding and a renewed emphasis on early childhood education.
More interesting is Kristof's suggestion that intelligence is malleable even through adolescence. He notes that junior-high kids who are told that "I.Q. is expandable, and their intelligence is something they can shape" tend to work harder and get better grades than those who are allowed to believe that their intelligence is preordained by genetics. In other words, students who believe that that hard work will make them smarter, get smarter. Students who think that their intellectual destiny is pre-ordained, on the other hand, are more likely to wind up on the low end of the IQ scale. Kristof thus proposes an "intellectual stimulus" program that would both bolster early childhood education and teach students of all ages that their intelligence is in their own hands.
I would only add one thing to Kristof's proposed "intellectual stimulus": in order to get kids to believe that they control their intellectual destiny, we need to give them ample opportunities to experience intellectual success. As the Times reports today, kids need more than positive reinforcement--they need confidence. Adults can preach malleable intelligence until we're blue in the face, but there is nothing more powerful for kids than actually seeing that their hard work is paying off. And to give students the best chance at experiencing academic success, we're going to need to give them a wide array of academic experiences. Let's face it: some kids are going to grasp math more easily than others, while others are going to have an easier go at reading. Still other kids are just going to be more interested in science, social studies, art, or theatre, and are going to thus be more motivated to put in the hard work in those subjects. A diverse curriculum that appeals to diverse interests and inclinations gives students many more chances to quickly experience success.
By way of example: when I was teaching 8th grade social studies in the Bronx, I had a student named Ricardo (not his real name) who had struggled academically throughout middle school. Ricardo's reading scores were low, his math scores were low, and his grades were low. In most of his classes, he'd always make a good-faith effort to work hard, but he would get frustrated and give up fairly easily. For whatever reason, though, Ricardo loved analyzing historical documents--and he was pretty good at it. As Ricardo realized he was able to succeed at historical analysis, he started working harder at it. Whenever he got a B+ on a paper in my class, he'd beg to do it over again so he could get the A. And over the course of the year, Ricardo's other teachers reported that his overall work ethic had changed. Rather than giving up when things got tough, Ricardo was buckling down and trying his best, because he'd seen the effects of success first-hand in social studies class.
I'm not trying to fetishize social studies here, because that was just Ricardo's experience. I also noticed a change in my other students' work habits after they saw their hard work pay off on one of Ms. Rae's science projects, or one of Ms. Batchelor's literacy essays. The point is that our message "hard work pays off" is so much easier to convey when hard work has, in the past, actually paid off for a child. And you never know what transformative subject or project or paper is going to give a child that first taste of success. As an organization, that's part of what The Generation Project brings to the table: we encourage our donors to think about what co or extra-curricular experiences led to success, and design a gift that could recreate that experience for kids that might not otherwise have those opportunities.
The more opportunities we can give kids to work hard and succeed at something, the greater the chance is that they'll internalize that all-important message that intelligence is malleable. Conveying that message may indeed be our ultimate goal, but we need to give kids as many different pathways to realizing that message as we can. And hence, the inspiration for this blog title, courtesy of J-Live:
"Ask yourself, even if you got one target, Ain't you better off with two darts?"1
1. J. Live, "How Real It Is." Other quotes from the same song applicable to education:
●The illest weapon you can load ain't your nine, boy, load your brain;
●You can't hesitate but you gotta be patient//And use wise words in every conversation;
●A lot'a kids wanna show they got heart//So they wild out, skip class (come on man)//And trade book smarts for streets smarts (you know better than that)