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Dispelling the Myth That Intelligence = Instant and Easy

This is a guest post by Robert Ward

A startling number of students believe that if you are smart, correct answers and brilliant ideas come quickly and with little exertion. They think intelligence equals “instant and easy.”

Consequently, they also assume that students who pause, ponder, or take pains of any sort must not be brainy. They even equate scholarly labor, multiple attempts, and waiting with weakness and incompetence.

Struggling and Stellar Students Require Growth Mindset

This fixed mindset concerning intelligence is problematic for both low-performing and advanced students because these misconceptions are alternately used to judge others and oneself, and aren’t helpful in either case.  Instead, teachers must cultivate in every student a growth mindset that grants measure and grace to oneself and extends a generosity of spirit to others.

Harsh criticism toward those who struggle academically is not only unkind, it overshadows the tangible benefits of trying, travailing, and tackling any task that is nowhere near easy—and these arduous endeavors vary from person to person and from subject to subject, including the arts and physical education. Because all children will (and should) frequently find themselves in formidable or unfamiliar situations, where the tasks before them are at once complex, worthwhile, and personally meaningful, lessons in the advantages of growth mindset are crucial and transformative.

Intelligence = Attention, Effort, Time, and Thought

Emphasize to every student that acting intelligently usually entails extensive attention, effort, time, and thought. In fact, those who ardently observe, strategically strive, earnestly invest, and carefully contemplate are the same students who not only achieve academically but who thrive emotionally. Most often, innate intelligence had very little to do with it.

As has been noted by Carol Dweck, it is important to also realize that effort alone is not enough. Students must be taught and given praise for using processes and action plans that change the mere act of trying hard into purposeful perseverance that pays off.

Intelligence = Patience, Persistence, and Practice

In one way, instant access to information, media, and “gratification” is doing a disservice to our youth, many of whom do not know what patience is—they just know they do not like it. Sorry, but one cannot always “fast forward to the good part,” especially when a teacher is trying to show students that every bit of a discussion, text, lesson, or film is the good part and a vital piece of the whole!

As far as persistence, too many students liken commitment to folly. Dedicating oneself to something that may or may not materialize for quite some time unfortunately seems a fool’s errand to students transfixed by “instant and easy.”

If practice makes perfect, what does a woeful lack of routine and repetition make? Well informed educators have long progressed beyond drill-and-kill, but students still need to see and embrace the benefits of preparation and purposeful iteration, as well as see how that type of adherence directly serves them, both in the long and short run.

The value of showing students patience, persistence, and practice in action cannot be overstated. All students must witness these positive, productive qualities in real time and over time. They should view firsthand what it takes, as well as how long it sometimes takes, to see results.

Intelligence = Conversation, Collaboration, and Cooperation

Class discussions are fruitful in modeling the distinct advantages of a growth mindset. Often it takes the germ of an idea from one student to spark a more thorough or profound answer from another. In fact, it may take several insights, opinions, and pieces of evidence for an entire class or a small collaborative group to arrive at a complete answer or compelling theory.

Explicitly point out to students that no one has to go it alone or have every answer (and certainly not immediately). Also, provide opportunities to prove that two or more heads in true collaboration are often better than one.

In order for students to become resourceful and independent, first equip them with a wealth of dependable strategies. Then create structured practice—both individual and collaborative—augmented by those trusty systems and scaffolds. This is the basis by which working intelligently replaces merely working hard.

Also, reinforce that help and feedback are always available and that accessing these supports is an ordinary aspect of intelligence. Cultivating the openness to accept and seek out advice and assistance is a hallmark of a growth mindset. Encourage your students to avail themselves of the resources offered so they develop the initiative and drive to advocate for themselves instead of silently waiting for someone to come to them.

Intentional effort, endurance, and assistance can be made familiar, fruitful, and fulfilling when combined with the reliability and reassurance of a growth mindset.

Empower all of your students with these qualities that exemplify true intelligence!

Robert Ward is currently in his twenty-fourth year of teaching English at public middle schools in Los Angeles. He is also a blogger and is the author of three books for teachers and parents. Follow Robert on Twitter @RewardingEdu

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

7 thoughts on “Dispelling the Myth That Intelligence = Instant and Easy

  1. Robert’s article is so timely considering we are heading into exam season. It does take work to learn; but, are we always able to give students the space, time and processing needed to do that?
    Thank you, Robert, for another opportunity to look inside ourselves to consider what we can do to support our students and each other.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments, Peg! I really responded to the word “processing” that you used. Allowing all students the room to ruminate results in calmer, more confident responses. I wish I had read your excellent NCTE article, “Struggling Reluctantly” (http://blogs.ncte.org/index.php/2017/03/struggling-reluctantly/), before I had written mine. I would have used your suggestion and substituted the word “struggling” for “developing” when referring to learners.

  2. What an insightful article! Not only do students need to know that learning isn’t always quick and easy, but educators need to remember this as well. Oftentimes if a student doesn’t immediately give a response, it is assumed that student doesn’t have the same skills as others. This isn’t always true and this article articulates that very well.

    1. Nicole, thank you for reinforcing some of the main ideas of my article. Your point about teachers themselves needing to change their mindsets about intelligence and the importance of providing students time to think is spot on! These shifts in how we approach our students make all the difference.

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