Tag Archives: intelligence

Learning to learn

I’ve recently dedicated myself to a fairly ambitious learning project, and it’s made me aware of a number of things I have going on around learning and intelligence. When it comes to other people learning I have a clear understanding that room to make mistakes is necessary to the process. However, when it comes to me I have this feeling that I should be able to see something once and then know it, or be able to do it perfectly thereafter. In reality, learning is a process, and it takes a while to get things to stick in your head. What I’ve learned about learning – as it applies to me – is clearly rubbish.

Cleverness is often measured in terms of speed – that’s inherent in taking exams. To get something quickly may be seen as evidence of being a good and clever learner, and it may seem to reflect well on the teacher. In practice, learning is just showing up and doing the work. It’s just time and effort – it helps if you have good resources and guidance, but even if you don’t, time and effort can get a lot done. Cleverness and speed, without determination and application, doesn’t lead to much.

To go from seeing to doing is a leap. It takes time to build body knowledge – that might mean your hands developing the muscle memory for the shape of a tune. It takes time to learn exactly how a specific sort of pen, or paint works. The odds are that on the first go, you won’t perform a dance move in the best possible way. It takes repetition to build insight, familiarity, understanding and to find out how best to do it as yourself. But apparently I think I’m supposed to be able to do everything perfectly at once.

This is a story I have been told. The consequence of this story is not that I feel clever when I get something immediately – because that almost never happens for me. It means I feel stupid when it takes me a few goes. I feel useless when I forget things I’ve been trying to learn. I feel inadequate. I’ve spent the last three weeks fighting these feelings, telling myself the things I would say to anyone who was my student: it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s part of the learning process. It takes time to really consolidate learning and properly embed it. You are doing ok, just keep going over this and you will get it. And, after three weeks, I have learned how to draw and read the characters of the Japanese Hiragana writing system. It’s not exactly an alphabet, it’s phonetic. It was all graft – there’s no innate skill here, no natural gift and that’s fine because learning is mostly about graft.

Intelligence isn’t about effortlessness, it is about being able to effectively apply what you know. Intelligence isn’t about magically knowing things no one has taught you. That’s simply not how anything works. It’s nice when something makes sense quickly, but that’s all it is. It isn’t a measure of anything. How fast you can take something and apply it effectively may be a measure of something, but it’s not the only measure.

Epic fail

I’d meant to write about something else entirely today, but I’m so angry about this that I need to vent. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/11/genetics-teaching-gove-adviser
Apparently government advisor Dominic Cummings thinks that genetics play a far greater part in a child’s learning ability than any teaching. This is clearly meant to be a justification for dumping on the scrap heap any child who doesn’t achieve enough at a speed the government approves of. Einstein was a late starter. Not everyone blooms at the same pace, and every child deserves a chance no matter what the issues of their background.

What really makes me sick is that, scientifically speaking, this is bullshit. It’s more than twenty years out of date bullshit as well. We’ve been studying intelligence in humans for more than a century. We know, firstly, that intelligence isn’t one thing. There are many different, identifiable forms of intelligence – the physical intelligence of a footballer is very different from the abstract reasoning intelligence of a mathematician, which is different again from the social intelligence of a charismatic leader and so forth. It can take a while to figure out where a person’s strengths are, and current education is geared towards academic thinking. Which intelligence were you talking about, Mr Cummings?

What the current scientific thinking identifies is a range of influences on the development of intelligence. Yes, your genetics are one of those. The culture of your family, what praise and support you get, the culture of your peer group, and to some degree, your educational experience are also in the mix. No, education alone won’t do it AND WE’VE KNOWN THAT FOR AGES. The culture the child is in makes a huge difference so VALUING EDUCATION is a critical part of making a culture that allows people to flourish. We’ve known for a good twenty years that the most critical role of genetic intelligence comes when the environment is deprived. In a stimulating environment, genetic intelligence is less informative of outcomes. In an impoverished environment, genetic qualities really stick out. A few minutes with a search engine will fill you in, if you want more details.

We also know that the single greatest indicator of your likely success in life, is how much money your parents have. Not how clever they are, but how rich they are. The two do not dependably go together (see the royal family, half of America’s ruling elite, and the Tory government for clear evidence that there is no correlation between wealth/power and intelligence). Mr Cummings, it appears may be unable to distinguish between the effects of wealth, and the effects of genetics. Whether this is because he lacks the wit to put it together, or it’s a consequence of serving a political agenda remains to be seen, but either way I hold that such an under-informed, under-read person should not be in any position at all to make pronouncements about education.

I was, for the record, the first person in my immediate line of descent to go to university. This was not due to a blip in family intelligence, but to opportunity. Most of my cousins have also been able to do this. since It was never about the brains, it was about being able to afford to go. Judge me by my ‘genetics’ by the level of formal education my parents or grandparents had, and I’d have been booted out of education at 16 and sent to stack shelves.