Rethink intelligence, says author

27th August 2010 at 01:00
"Gifted", "innate intelligence" and "natural born ability" are words and phrases that should be struck from the lexicon, says US author David Shenk.

The public's perception of how genes work is outdated and wrong, Mr Shenk, author of the best-seller The Genius in All of Us, told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week.

Genes were commonly described as "a blueprint" sitting in a person's core dictating how tall, intelligent, athletic or musical they were going to be. Instead, genes constantly responded to and interacted with a range of internal and external stimuli, including nutrition, hormones, physical and intellectual activity, and other genes, he said.

His preferred metaphor was that genes were not a blueprint but a mixing board, with the knobs and switches turned up, down, on or off by any tiny environmental input.

"The whole concept of genetic giftedness is widely off the mark," he said. "The human genome and brain are designed to adapt to environmental demands. What parents do and what great educators do is help people tailor themselves to these demands."

We need to wipe the slate clean and construct an entirely new understanding of genes, he said: "Kids need to think in a new way about intelligence - it's about improving."

Mr Shenk cited research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck which involved 400 American seventh graders (roughly S2). They were given a test that they could all complete comfortably. She then divided the group into two sets, telling one group they were naturally clever and the other group that they did well because they worked hard.

The pupils were then given the option of undertaking more challenging puzzles or sticking at the same level. More than half of those taught to believe intelligence was innate or a gift chose to remain at the same level, while more than 90 per cent of the pupils taught to have the "growth mindset", as Professor Dweck called it, opted for the harder puzzles.

Mr Shenk continued: "The lesson of this study is that kids and adults who think of intelligence as a `thing' are less ambitious and do less well in life than people who understand intelligence as a process and a set of skills."

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