An article in a recent Sunday New York Times reminded me of the reunion I attended a few months ago, where I had dinner with the members of my Toronto Hebrew Day (Elementary) School class whom I had not set eyes on since 1958.
Although the experience put an indelible smile on my heart, there was an incident during that gathering that troubled me.
A classmate I shall identify as K. had had a successful career owning and running a manufacturing concern. Despite that success, however, on at least two occasions that evening, K. brought up the question of which kids in our Parochial School class were the smartest.
Full Disclosure: K. included me on his list of “Smartest Kids in Our Class.” But he also told an anecdote in which I apparently tossed a quarter onto the roof outside our second-story classroom, and when K. and some others climbed out to get it, I slammed down the window, so they were unable to get back in. (File Under: “Smart Kids Doing Inexplicably Hateful Things.”)
It is possible K’s point was that although he was identifiably not one of the “Smartest Kids in Our Class”, he had nonetheless done extremely well for himself in business.
K’s attitude, however, revealed a different story.
It suggested that, to this day, K. retained a longstanding feeling of intellectual inferiority. (Could I be mistaken about this? Absolutely. But I shall proceed as if I’m not.)
My heart went out to K., realizing that he had carried this negative self-image his entire life. I wanted to tell him that, although I was classified as one of the “Smartest Kids in Our Class”, I admired, bordering on envied, his impressive accomplishments.
But I did not have the words.
I had the words. But they were the wrong words.
When K. repeated the idea of ordering our class’s “A-List of Brainiacs”, instead of saying,
“K., I could never have done what you did.”
I said, sounding petulant concerning the “listing” proposal,
“What difference does it make?”
Which went entirely unheard.
As it correctly deserved to be.
It was believed back then that our grades reflected our I.Q’s. Mediocre grades proclaimed – publicly – a proven deficiency in intelligence.
More importantly, I.Q’s were believed to be immutable. Your I.Q., reflected by your grades, said definitively not just,
“This is where you are.”
“This is where you’re staying.”
Classmate K.’s fifty-seven year long funk.
The thing is, the New York Times article purports, supported by a study it cites…
Wait. Let’s let the article speak for itself.
“...there is intriguing evidence that the attitude that young people have about their own intelligence – and what their teachers believe – can have a big impact on how well they learn.”
What followed was a description of the study, conducted by psychology professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University, testing the merits of that hypothesis.
“…Dr. Dweck and colleagues gave a group of low-achieving seventh graders a seminar on how the brain works and put the students at random into two groups. The experimental group was told that learning changes the brain and that students are in charge of that process. The control group received a lesson on memory, but was not instructed to think of intelligence as malleable.
“At the end of eight weeks, students who had been encouraged to view their intelligence as changeable scored significantly better (85 percent) than controls (54 percent) on a test of the material they had learned in the seminar.
“These findings appear to have profound implications for educating young people because they suggest that a relatively simple intervention – teachers encouraging students to think of their own cognitive capacity as a quality that they can improve – can have a powerful effect: enhancing learning and motivation.”
Not to mention essential feelings of self-worth.
We were ignorant of this information back then. The thing is, a continuing need for such studies indicates that we are still thinking like it’s 1958.
Years ago, it was believed if you went swimming less than an hour after you eaten, you would get cramps in the water, and die.
We do not believe that anymore.
When are we going to get smarter about this?