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Smartest People

So, this is a thing that’s happening now. As you might guess, I have mixed feelings on this one.

On the one hand, the possibility of a more widespread knowledge of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences pleases me – daily I see students who claim they ‘aren’t smart’ because they can’t get above a 65% on a mathematics test or only achieve average grades (which have very little to do with actual intelligence for the most part). On the other hand, the idea of a reality TV contest program to find the ‘smartest person’ in Canada gives me the heebie jeebies (and yes, that is the most technically appropriate term for my feeling, why do you ask?).

A couple of things that I find myself anxious about with this concept: first, the idea of competitively determining ‘intelligence’, and second, the narrowness that the format imposes on these definitions of ‘smart’. Let’s take them one at a time.

Competing to be ‘the smartest’ is something that many children do, and many parents encourage, I think to the detriment of both the competing person and those around them. We have, at least in Canada, this idea that it is not enough to be ‘smart’, you should try to be ‘the smartest’. You can see this philosophy in concepts like a ‘valedictorian’, where only the person with the highest marks (what many people still see as intelligence) gets the reward of being held up as a model to follow. Spend any time in a classroom, and you will also see this – little Billy gets upset because he only got 18 out of 20 on his very hard math quiz whereas Jane got 19 out of 20. A proud accomplishment (90% mastery!) is held as worthless because someone else who has a different set of natural abilities and doubtless prepared differently attained a slightly higher level of accomplishment. Of course the kicker is that Jane’s mark of 19/20 has absolutely no effect on Billy’s mark of 18/20, and in the long run, has almost as little to say which of them has really mastered it in the long term! In the present, meanwhile, Billy is upset because he isn’t ‘the smartest’ (so he says), and Jane feels bad because she wants to be proud of her achievement but every time it is mentioned she sees that it hurts Billy. Furthermore, their mutual friends are less happy because they are supposed to empathize with Billy while congratulating Jane, and the tension there causing everyone to get grumpier! Meanwhile the teacher takes another Tylenol for the headache that is developing due to this little spat.

Not every scenario of being competitive with others to demonstrate intelligence ends in this way, of course, but there is a fundamental futility in trying to become the ‘smartest person’ or even just to ‘prove’ your intelligence in the first place. Basically, there is always someone who is better at certain tasks than you in certain contexts, and any attempt to prove your superiority is in reality refusing to learn that someone else can do something better than you. By attempting to prove yourself smart, you are in fact demonstrating a trait that is detrimental to learning and intelligence – intransigence.

My second quibble with the program is that you can only fit so much stuff onto the screen at once. If you’re going to claim to try and find the ‘smartest person’ in the country, you’d need, in reality, a massive battery of tasks run over a large-scale time period with a method of assessment that somehow manages to weigh it all appropriately. And of course, since it’s a TV show, it needs to be done in a way that interests the audience.

My fear is that instead of a bunch of cool tests for intelligence, you end up with 20 variations on the ‘build what you can with 10 pieces of spaghetti, 30 cm of string, and 1 marshmellow’ activity that gets used a lot for corporate team-building and collaborative exercises. Which is probably lots of fun to watch, but as a teacher, leaves me with a feeling of ‘you could do so much more’.

Of course, although it makes me anxious, there is one really good thing that comes out of this, and I hope it’s the actual goal of the concept (the website suggests it may be). You cannot help but talk about this thing, what with the provocative title, doubtless entertaining activities, and citing of some excellent research into intelligence. My hope is that people see this show and actually talk to each other, and especially to their kids, about what it actually means to be smart.

Because I have to be honest with you, I’m getting tired of having to tell students that getting 60% doesn’t mean you are stupid and have them not believe it.

Here’s to more and more smart people! As soon as I can figure out what that word means and I can actually find them.

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