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Why myths of brightness need to be left in the shade

In the first of an occasional TES series on the mind, professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas argue that the science of learnable intelligence should be changing the way teachers work

In the first of an occasional TES series on the mind, professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas argue that the science of learnable intelligence should be changing the way teachers work

We are in the throes of yet another round of structural tinkering, destined - so the history of school reform teaches us - to have as little effect on the outcomes of education as the umpteen waves that have preceded it. There are many reasons for this impotence, one of which is that such reforms usually leave in place antiquated beliefs that block the changes that can really make a difference.

One of these core beliefs concerns the nature of children's minds, and especially the vexed issue of "intelligence". Crudely, if we see intelligence as a fixed-sized pot of general-purpose mental resource, we are led to think of teaching as an activity that exploits this intelligence, rather than one that expands it.

Ideas such as "multiple intelligences" have tended to replace the single fixed pot with eight or so smaller - but still fixed - pots. But now, new research is refocusing educators' attention on the expandability, rather than the fillability, of young minds. That shift is leading to practical changes in classrooms - which is where change really needs to happen.

In our book, New Kinds of Smart, we have explored the science that is overturning eight pervasive myths about intelligence, and the real advantages that then flow for students. When teachers act as if minds were expandable, students feel more confidently prepared for the complexities of work and life - and they get better results. Here we debunk eight myths to give a flavour of this mental revolution.

1. Intelligence is composite.

Getting on in the real world requires many kinds of smart activity. Intelligence is not a separate faculty, divorced from motivation and personality; it is more like an orchestra of skills and attitudes. Self-discipline and resilience, for example, count for much more, in predicting school grades than measured IQ. Real-life intelligence requires imagination, perseverance, perceptiveness, and collaboration, just as much as it needs solo, abstract reasoning. Teachers already design activities that cultivate vital lifelong dispositions such as resourcefulness and resilience, while deepening understanding of the Tudors, irregular French verbs or algebra.

2. Intelligence is expandable

Many of these mental habits are strengthened - or weakened - by experience. Real-world intelligence is, to a sizable extent, learnable. The focus on identifying students' "ability" levels - "Ruby is an able student", "Zack is average"- is giving way to a focus on the expandability of their learning power. In pioneering work with youngsters in the US, Carol Dweck, Lauren Resnick and others have shown how children who believe they can get smarter do so. They are more willing to experiment, make errors, try hard and extract every ounce of learning from their experiences. The implications for the way teachers think, talk and write about students are huge. If we talk as if intelligence were fixed, and praise kids for their ability rather than their effort, we are breeding anxious, conservative performers, keen to show how "bright" they are. If we talk as if minds were like muscles that can be strengthened, pupils will be more resilient and adventurous - and the research shows they get better results, too.

3. Intelligence is practical

Despite recent improvements in Diplomas and apprenticeships, schools still operate as if "real" intelligence was to do with abstract analysis, explanation and reasoning, while things to do with hands and bodies - design technology, PE - required less intelligence. While practical activity is valued in the early years, later on it becomes associated with less able students (see panel, left).

4. Intelligence is intuitive

There is a good deal of research that shows how much of our thinking goes on outside our own awareness, how our gut feelings are a vital component of our intelligence. Imagine you are house-hunting, trying to decide which of four houses to make an offer on. You are having to weigh up all kinds of conflicting factors - one is cheap and near the station but in poor repair; another has a great garden and is near a good school but is over-budget and on a busy road. Ap Dijksterhuis at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands has shown that you make better decisions if you allow yourself to heed your intuition rather than relying solely on rational thinking. Too much hard thinking actually reduces your intelligence in this situation. Why? Because explicit reasoning can only work with a small number of clearly defined variables. Buying a house - like many complex activities at school and in life - has just too many factors to juggle in a wholly conscious way.

It turns out that intuition can integrate a better "running total" of all these subtle factors than the kind of thinking that IQ tests require. So it is not eitheror; we need both intellect and intuition, and even more vitally to know when and how to balance them. If we don't help young people to develop this sensitivity to occasion, for different kinds of thinking, we are making them less intelligent than they could be and need to be.

5. Intelligence is distributed

Recent research in the cognitive sciences has shown that we have evolved to use tools to amplify our own intelligence. As our ancestors shaped tools, such as knives and baby-slings, so our brains evolved to capitalise on those artifacts. As far as a woodworker's brain is concerned, her chisels are literally parts of her body. Losing one's BlackBerry is no different in kind from suffering a mini-stroke. Schools have always been suspicious of tools - arguing long and hard about taking calculators into exams, for example. Yet they should be developing young people's tool-mindedness, not cramping it. Real-world intelligence relies on making smart use of as many tools as you can, and this kind of resourcefulness should be taught deliberately. We need to encourage learners constantly to be on the look-out for tools that will help them, and to know when and how to use them to best advantage.

6. Intelligence is social

The school system has traditionally focused largely on individual learners. Learning is "personalised" for individuals. And of course it is helpful to be able to know your own strengths and work on your own. But in the real world, most of what we do will require us to work, learn and play with others. Learning must be socialised as well as personalised. Providing children with effective strategies for learning and working collaboratively has to assume more importance. The odd bit of group work is not enough. Schools are evolving new approaches to systematic project work in groups, for example, and the development of forms of group assessment so that we can compare the effectiveness of team effort other than on the sports field.

7. Intelligence is practical

At the core of learnable intelligence is the idea that children can become more conscious about their choice of method or approach. Imagine a drop-down menu of options in the child's mind's eye or a voice in their head acting as a coach: "How did I do this last time I faced it?" "Who else could help me?" "How could I do this differently?" Smart learners have always done this, but we have not been good enough at being explicit with students about what this strategic mentality requires, and coaching them in its development. Crucially, we need to get better at teaching children how to transfer their learning from one context to another, from home to school and back, for example. Good reflective, formative assessment practices, as exemplified by Assessment for Learning, help. But they are only the beginning.

8. Intelligence is ethical

Finally, intelligence is not neutral. We can use our minds for good or ill. The challenge for educators is to set all learning in a broader ethical context. Howard Gardner's "good work" project in the US has shown the importance of learning and working in ways that blend the "three Es": excellence of achievement, the intensely pleasurable experience of crafting those achievements, and the deep satisfaction of knowing that your work has been ethically sound. Schools should be in the business, we think, of helping all young people unearth their talents and passions, discover what gives them the three Es, and develop their confidence and capacity to enjoy what Ricky Gervais called "the joy of the struggle". That means being willing to be interested - vital though they are - in more than examination grades and literacy levels.

The evidence for learnable intelligence takes us way beyond the old nature-versus-nurture debates. If we are to develop the full potential of all young people, we need to accept the idea that much of intelligence is malleable and coachable. We can all, in short, get smarter - and the sooner schools wake up to this, the better. For it will subtly but significantly change the way they configure their cultures. The earlier in the educational process we start this, the better. It will be interesting to see whether the coalition Government's priorities can be influenced by sound science, and therefore start embracing the ideas in New Kinds of Smart, or whether the history of expensive but largely ineffectual tinkering is doomed to repeat itself.

Professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas are co-directors of the Centre for Real-world Learning at the University of Winchester. Their latest book, New Kinds of Smart, is published by Open University Press

Join the debate at


1. Intelligence is essentially a one-dimensional commodity largely to be found in the kinds of thinking required by IQ tests.

2. Intelligence is relatively fixed: educators make use of it, but do not really alter it.

3. Mind and body are separate and truly intelligent activity is located in the mind.

4. Intelligence is rational and conscious.

5. Intelligence is a personal "possession", and using tools which have the effect of making you smarter is a kind of cheating.

6. Intelligence is an individual not a social concept.

7. The idea of intelligence is universally valid, and not closely tied to the details and demands of one's "habitat".

8. Intelligence is an intellectual function, separate from moral functions.


Handy meeting of mind and body

"Intellectual" intelligence is not the same as its real-world counterpart. People with high IQs are not necessarily good at solving complex real-life problems - designing a bridge or setting the odds at race meetings. PGCE students with firsts from Oxford are often shocked at how little their academic expertise helps them design good lessons and control teenagers. Olympic athletes and virtuoso cellists need to be able to think clearly, but they also need acute perception, emotional toughness and a keen eye and ear for imitation.

Research in embodied cognition is showing that minds and bodies are of a piece. Young children's intelligence becomes less when they are prevented from using their hands to gesture, for example. It is not just that bodies exemplify intelligence; they are intricately involved in the processes of intelligence. So we must create opportunities for young people to become more "manipulate" as well as more articulate.

Jacob Bronowski said "the hand is the cutting edge of the mind" and recent studies by Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago show how true that is. When children were asked to explain the thinking behind their answers to maths questions, those who were able to use their hands as well as their words showed higher levels of understanding. Their thinking was also more creative. She concluded: "Gestures can allow people to introduce novel ideas that are not entirely consistent with their current beliefs, without inviting challenge from their own self-monitoring systems ... Once in, those ideas can catalyse change." Our gestures do not just externalise our thoughts; they are vital in the thinking process itself.

David McNeill, also at Chicago, has shown how our ideas start to germinate deep in our "cognitive unconscious", and can then develop in different and complementary directions. They crystallise into words that carry precision, and at the same time may also be evolving into gestures and bodily feelings that carry more holistic, tentative or creative aspects of the same root thinking. To be really intelligent, we need both.

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