Tag Archives: intelligence
Why I Refrain from calling my Students Smart
We all want our students and own children to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge in order for them to do well in life. In schools and at home, clever kids are praised whenever they achieve and/ or complete a task, like their home works. Often, these children’s parents and teachers exclaim ‘well done! You are really smart!’. While noticing and praising children’s achievements isa good thing, I would argue that praising their intelligence levels is not a good thing.
Some people, mostly in Western countries hold the belief that we are either born smart or dull, and that our levels of intelligence are fixed throughout our lives (Willingham, 2009). In turn, these people may instil this belief onto their children and as a result, we will have a generation of people who believe that they cannot do anything about their intelligence. This is dangerous as children may think that success will come easy if you are smart. Conversely, if you are working hard, it means that you are not smart enough. If this belief is reinforced in the classroom, students may believe that if they do not understand a concept or fail an exam, it automatically means that they are dumb.
There are a number of research findings including that of Dickens (2008), which strongly suggests that genetics play a huge role in general intelligence. I too, believe that our intelligence levels are different from one another, but I strongly believe that intelligence can be sustained or changed through hard work. This is the basis of my main argument presented earlier.
Changing our Beliefs
We must understand that intelligence levels are not constant and they change constantly throughout our lives. Our beliefs about intelligence matters immensely. Just imagine for a minute that you have been given a job as a teacher and that you can select your own students. You can either have students who believe that intelligence is fixed and are all concerned about whether they appear intelligent or not. This group will always choose the easy tasks to appear intelligent, and would make excuses why they cannot (or do not want to) do harder ones. The other group on the other hand, believes that intelligence is malleable and results depend on hard work. They all choose more challenging tasks, try to overcome failures and persist through hard tasks. It is easy to imagine that you would rather have a room full of students from the second group than the first one.
Children come with their own sets of beliefs about intelligence and effort, and it is quite exhausting to explain all the factors that influence their beliefs (I may write about them in the future). But one of the most significant factors is the way children are praised.
What can we do instead?
I argue that an effective way of praising children is to notice and praise children’s efforts. Effort is a lot easier to understand compared to intelligence levels. It is easier to show them what hard work looks like. One may argue that there are concrete examples of people displaying high levels of intelligence, but a closer look would reveal that intelligence alone cannot sustain success. Hard work and perseverance on the other hand, can.
Emphasise that working hard and trying their best is very important. This gives room for improvement as they will realise – through your explanations – that they may have achieved a reasonably high mark this time, but this is due to their effort levels. Conversely, if they have not done well, it is also due to their lack of effort, which could be changed. It gives them the sense of control that they may not have if they are given praise based on their intelligence.
A study conducted by Mueller and Dweck (1998) has shown that methods of praise have short-term effects on students’ beliefs about intelligence. They asked fifth graders to complete a set of problems- first of which is easy enough for all of them to get it right. All of the participants were told, ‘Wow, your did very well on these problems. You got (number of problems) right! That’s a really high score.’ Next, the participants were split into two groups. One was told, ‘You must be smart at these problems’, whilst the other was told, ‘You must have worked hard at these problems’. It was found that those in the second group were more likely to describe intelligence as malleable. This suggests that even a minor difference in methods of praise can have a short-term effect on children’s views about intelligence.
Copying the above style of praising in the classroom allows us to tell the children that their successes are due to what they do (hard work) and not because of who they are (level of intelligence).
Dickens, W. T. (2008). Cognitive ability. In S. Durlauf & L. E. Blume (Eds.). The new Palgrave dictionary of economics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. A brief and understandable overview of how to reconcile apparently large genetic effects and large environmental effects on intelligence.
Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
Willingham, D. T. (2008). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Wiley.
Why ‘Learning Styles’ Theories Should not be applied in the classroom
Educational practice is littered with myths that have permeated over the years and have not gone away. A particular example that is evident in most countries is the habit of wrongly identifying the differences between students- ‘right-brained’ or left-brained; ‘global’ or ‘holistic’; ‘visual’-, ‘auditory’- or ‘kinaesthetic’-learners. The latter is what this article will focus on as it has been found that there is a poor application of this Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic learning styles (VAK) theory, particularly in the UK. The Times Educational Supplement (2005) found that the UK’s Department of Education over-emphasise the importance of the VAK model in classrooms and that schools need to provide evidence of using a multitude of ways of teaching to accommodate students’ learning styles.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND ON VAK
The idea that individuals are either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners is probably familiar to most educators and students. This theory suggests that despite our ability to be able to receive information through different senses, we have a preference, i.e. some people prefer seeing, some like hearing, while some prefer kinaesthesia (the sensation that tells us where our bodies are). When learning anything new, visual learners prefer diagrams, drawings or printed words. Auditory learners prefer to hear songs or descriptions or anything they can listen to. Kinaesthetic learners on the other hand like to hold and use objects and/ or move their bodies.
FACTS AND WHAT THE FACTS?!?
It has long been established that people differ in their visual and auditory memory abilities. Our brains can store what something looks like and what they sound like. When asked to describe the physical properties of our sofa or bed, we tend to use our visual memory to recall what they look like and what they are made of. But when asked who the better singer is between Bruno Mars or John legend, we tend to use our auditory memory to recall how each of them sings. The difference between one person to the next is the amount of detail each of their memories are able to hold. Some people’s brains are able to store detailed and vivid visual and/ or auditory information, while some cannot.
I should also point out that our memories are not solely visual and auditory. We also remember meanings. Just recall the recent story you have read or heard. You may not remember it word for word, but I am certain that you will remember its meaning. In other words, meaning has a ‘life’ of its own.
PROBLEMS WITH VAK
The whole of learning styles studies and practice (not just VAK) lack theoretical underpinning which can reliably explain the whole discipline and its claims (Hay & Kinchin, 2006). While the differences between people’s auditory and visual memory abilities and capacities are very well supported in academic literature, they do not support the VAK theory. I must remind you that the theory’s key assumption is that individuals will learn better when the instruction and/ or information is presented in a way that matches their cognitive style. For instance, imagine two fictitious students Bob and Sam. Let us pretend that Bob is a visual learner and Sam is an auditory learner. Imagine also that I gave both of them two sets of new words and their corresponding definitions to learn- one presented as a written list whilst the other was a presented through a voice recorder that the students have to listen to. The theory suggests that Bob would learn the first list better than Sam and that the opposite would be true for the second list.
Hundreds of similar studies have been conducted and have found what the theory predicted, which is that students like Bob learned the first list better than students like Sam. However, I would claim that tests (and results) such as the one described do not support the theory simply because they do not test auditory and visual memories. One should note that even though the information is presented through auditory and visual media, what’s being tested is the meaning of the words. Using visual and auditory memories purely will not help anyone to recall meanings of words.
I must acknowledge that there are some lessons and topics wherein students must depend on either visual or auditory memories. For instance, visual memory is used to memorise how shapes look like while auditory memory is used to store and recall what a guitar sounds like. However, the vast majority of learning relies on students’ ability to learn, store and recall meaning, as well as sights, feelings and sounds.
ASSESSMENTS- another big problem
While it is all very well (to some extent) that schools encourage teachers to teach students in a variety of ways based on their learning styles or memory use, they are still assessed in the same old way. Everybody gets assessed in the same way. In most cases, students are given the exact same test papers or practicals.
DOES THIS MEAN THAT THE VAK THEORY IS SLIGHTLY RIGHT?
NO. We must acknowledge that proponents of the VAK theory claim that the same material should be presented in different ways to ensure that each student’s preferred style is matched. For instance, when learning about a country’s map, teachers should present visual learners with a printed map and written descriptions of it, while the auditory learners should listen to an audio recording of someone verbally describing the features of the map. Kinaesthetic learners on the other hand could be asked to create a model of the map. While this approach may work when learning a map, I assume (and know from experience) that this would not work in guitar lessons.
I agree with Coffield et al. (2009) when they condemned champions of ‘learning styles’ theories for pigeon-holing students unnecessarily using unreliable and poorly validated tests. I have witnessed experienced teachers administer VAK questionnaires to unsuspecting secondary and primary-school students and then labelled them using the results they have collated. I am also aware that some schools send teachers on a one-off ‘learning-styles’ training day. This is problematic as one-day trainings are insufficient to learn and critique any theory. Also, some of them are forced to apply these poorly tested theories by their head teachers despite their reluctance to do so.
WHY DOES IT SEEM SO RIGHT EVEN IF IT IS WRONG?
Most teachers and educational professionals believe that this theory is correct and here’s why I think that is:
- It has become common wisdom– i.e. everybody believes it, therefore it must be true.
- It is true that we all differ in visual and auditory memories. One may suggest that the child who is able to draw a building accurately after seeing it only a few times is a visual learner, whereas in fact, she has a better-than-average visual memory. Having a great visual memory is NOT the same as being a visual learner.
- Confirmation bias– we unconsciously interpret situations as being consistent with our beliefs.
USING DIFFERENT ‘STYLES’
Hodgkinson and Saddler-Smith (2003) have shown through research that it is possible for the same students to use different learning styles in different situations and lessons. They have also shown that it is possible for students to learn and strengthen their use of their non-preferred learning style in order to counter-balance their preferences.
SO WHAT NOW?
I believe that the way forward is to abandon most people’s unsupported beliefs about learning styles. The theories have not been supported by research and practical applications. However, I would still urge teachers to be creative and present information in different modalities- not to suit anybody’s learning styles, but in order to promote attention and engagement. We should know that any change in routine will catch us out. If a teacher has been talking for 25 minutes, chances are that most of the students in the class will get bored and lose their concentration. Putting on a video or getting them to do an activity that requires kinaesthesia would be a welcome change. Also, instead of individualising the required mental processes for each student, I urge teachers to let all of your students to practise learning and retaining information using different modalities or ‘styles’.
Lastly, although this point is almost out of teachers’ hands, students’ attainment should come from a multitude of assessment techniques and not only pen and paper ones. I must admit that this has been happening for a good few years now but I feel that more should be done.
ONE LAST THING…
In my opinion, the learning styles myth and the way it has spread highlights the growing concern in teachers’ knowledge of up-to-date research findings. Fresh graduates are often well equipped with the latest research findings and new exciting ways of teaching. But some (including Coffield, 2014 and I) have observed that the longer some teachers have been in their profession, the lesser they know about recent publications. It is important to keep up with the research in order to refresh one’s approach. It is also likely that what we know now may not be supported by research that will be conducted in the future. I would also add that it is not enough to read textbooks as most of what is written in one will be about 2 years old. Peer-reviewed journal articles are always the best source of information. In contrast to books, published peer-reviewed journals are carefully scrutinized and approved by a group academics and researchers.
Computer-Generated Consciousness: Holy Grail or Holy Fail?
As a part of this year’s Manchester Science Festival, The Museum of Science and Industry recently hosted a debate entitled ‘Brains and Computers’. This free event featured a discussion on whether brains are similar to computers, between Raymond Tallis, a philosopher, novelist, and a former physician whose research publications mostly focused on neuroscience and old age, and Professor Steve Furber, a distinguished academic whose work include designing the BBC Microcomputer and the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor. The debate was introduced and ‘chaired’ by the coolest scientist on the planet, rock guitar-wielding physicist, Dr. Mark Lewney. As a psychology graduate, neuroscience enthusiast and a guitarist, I did not hesitate to book a ticket. I ignored the horrendous weather (typical here in Manchester), and the possibility that I would be crazy tired the next morning (as the event was quite late for someone like me).
The main crux of the discussion was whether it is possible for anyone to produce an accurate computerised representation of the brain, and perhaps more importantly, consciousness. Dr. Lewney first asked Raymond Tallis to comment. Dr. Tallis was quick to answer with a resounding ‘no’. To him, it is highly unlikely for anyone to produce such a computer-simulation of consciousness. To him, consciousness is far too complex to be deduced to mere computations and algorithms. He argued that no computer in the world appears to be conscious. One might propose that certain technological equipments are able to reproduce human-like actions, such as a pocket calculator which can ‘perform’ complex calculations just like, or at times even better than, a human being. However, Dr. Tallis insisted that the calculator is merely a tool which humans use to aid us in our daily calculations. In his words, “it is still you who does the calculations, but on a pocket calculator”. Tallis extended his argument in pointing out that consciousness involves a multitude of things including people’s awareness of their surroundings, their cultural background, feelings and philosophical beliefs, to which computers (at the moment) simply have no match to humans. He also stated that even if an entity would be invented that looks like him, behaves like him and acts like him, but have no idea what it is like to be him, then that entity, whatever that might be, is still not conscious.
After Raymond Tallis’ summation of his arguments, Dr. Lewney turned to Professor Furber and asked for his opinions. It may be important to point out that Prof. Furber and his team are attempting to simulate large-scale brain functions using millions of mobile phone processors, as a part of his spiNNaker project (Spiking Neural Network Architecture). One of the SpiNNaker Project’s objective is to “provide a platform for high-performance massively parallel processing appropriate for the simulation of large-scale neural networks in real-time, as a research tool for neuroscientists…” (SpiNNaker Website). Prof. Furber admitted that creating a simulation of the brain is an incredibly challenging feat as the brain has billions of neurons. Replicating a human brain would involve hundreds/thousands of microprocessors and may require output from a power plant. If successful, this project may aid neuroscientists to find out how the brain works, and how to fix those that are ‘broken’.
Prof. Furber explained that experiments have been conducted wherein circuit boards that simulate parts of the brain were attached to robots with specially designed eyes (those that resemble human eyes) in order to look at vision and visual processing. When asked whether robots and/or computer programmes can simulate learning through rewards and punishment, Prof. Furber pointed out that it is possible to put a ‘bump’ with a sensor in front of a robot. Sensors on the bump will beep if the robot knocks something in front of it, and afterwards would be able to ‘learn’ not to do it again. He also explained that computer programmes nowadays are becoming so complex that even their own programmers do not know how they will behave- similar to a ‘conscious’ individual who is unpredictable.
Both of Prof. Fuber’s and Dr. Tallis’ arguments are persuasive, interesting and based on empirical evidence. However, althroughout the debate, I sat there wondering why they have not (at least attempted to) define consciousness. Granted that Dr. Tallis admitted that as of yet, nobody knows where consciousness lies. As a result of this lack of a consensus on a definition, there is no existing measure of consciousness. So, how would anyone know whether a robot, or indeed a human-being, plant or non-human animal, is conscious if we don’t know what it is or how to measure it? Nevertheless, the debate was still thought-provoking. Regardless of whether the SpiNNaker Project would produce a simulation of a conscious brain or not, as long as it can simulate the workings of an ideal human brain, it can still be a valuable tool.
I would personally like to thank the organisers and volunteers of the Manchester Science Festival for putting together such an amazing event!
Click HERE to see the full listings of events in this year’s Manchester Science Festival.
Being Intelligent Does Not Guarantee Success
When I was a young child, I was always taught that in order to be successful in school, work and in life in general, I needed to be intelligent. High I.Q. according to my first teachers, equals a high grade. However, as I went through high school to graduate school and now as an educator, I discovered that having a high I.Q. does not guarantee that individuals will succeed. Intelligent students do not always get the highest marks/ grades, and the not-so-smart ones do not always get the average or lowest grades.
Life events and well-being immediately come into people’s minds when asked why this is the case. In addition to these, Angela Duckworth proposed that success depends on another important factor: Grit, defined as the ‘perseverance and passion for long-term goals’. Watch her TED talk below:
To read Angela Duckworth’s seminal research on Grit, click HERE