Knowing One’s Self: Mindset and Intelligence

Knowing One’s Self: Mindset and Intelligence

The ability grouping movement has waxed and waned over the decades, and had a revival after WWII. At about the beginning of the 20th century testing of intelligence began, and (contrary to its author’s views) was used to measure the mental abilities of children. It did not in fact provide a very good measure of a child’s Intelligence (IQ), but it did “sort out” children who had verbal and number skills from those who did not.

These skills were “learned,” and many psychologists, even in those days of “folk psychology,” were skeptical of “innate abilities,” but they were steamrollered by the hype and often went along with the sellers of tests and “believers” in an “immutable IQ that each of us was given at birth. I recall, as a school principal in the 1960s, declining to adopt at “primary plan” that sorted children by test scores at age 6, placed them in ability groups, and instructed teachers to “let the children work at their own pace,” without “pushing” them, until they learned their basic ABCs.

The schools that DID use the plan, after THREE years, found (yes, using reading and math tests, not IQ tests) that their average and below average students did LESS well than students who had NOT been grouped, but had been taught in classrooms with children of all abilities, (IQs). Why did that happen? There are several reasons.

FIRST, all children don’t develop at the same rate, and an IQ test given at age 6 doesn’t measure very much (especially those used 60 years ago). Second, (and this is critical, teachers of the less-able children did not teach the entire curriculum for reasons that should have been obvious (but weren’t). Working with classes of 30 or more below-average in ability students slowed down progress, and the curriculum was not geared to “directly teach to the test,” (there was a basic simple honesty in those days), and so STUDENTS IN THOSE CLASSES WERE NOT EVEN TAUGHT EVERYTHING THAT WAS TESTED AT THE END OF THE 3-YEAR PERIOD. Even today, where tests are administered to ability-grouped students, this happens.

SECOND, even in the “higher-IQ” groups, students didn’t do as well as they were expected to, in some cases because they were often expected to be “self-motivated” and because they found the “basics” easy, were sometimes not motivated at all to do schoolwork.

THIRD, teachers who were assigned to a specific “level,” (there were 14 levels), did not fully understand the importance of “re-testing” of students who found their “levels” too easy or too difficult, and for the three years some students were never “challenged” to perform at a higher level, and others were “overwhelmed” by expectations. This could have made some difference but was not often done.

FOURTH, there was no understanding of what is now well known, that a child’s brain develops over the “first 100 months” of its life in ways that disappear, never to be recovered. After the 3rd grade, then, teaching what might be just “absorbed” by any child’s alert and willing brain and mind becomes more difficult. And “remedial help” is NEVER able to fully compensate for it. In addition, the time spent in “remedial work” is lost from the students’ regular class work, again cheating those who were initially deprived of even more instruction. This process, when looked at logically and in terms of its impact on the individual child, looks like a carefully-planned effort to thwart those children from EVER being able to perform well. That is especially true when the testing of progress is based on tests that favor students who mature early, are advantaged by tutoring, parental help, economic status and better health care. Minority and ESOL students are especially challenged.

There are other reasons, but it seems clear that kind of ability grouping of very young children was NOT a good idea. Today, grouping by ability, interest, and specific problems identified a immediate needs is done more intelligently. Still, our thousands of public school districts vary widely in their allocation of resources. Many District of Columbia students in certain areas, for example, do poorly on tests, but those schools that receive more financial support do better. Nevertheless, the inequity STILL exists, despite clear evidence that SOMETHING more is needed to remedy it.

I am not addressing economic inequality in this BLOG post. The perspective of THINKING OTHERWISE—parents and mentors MUST take on the task of supplementing what schools do—is clearly spelled out in other posts. To broaden perspective and provide context, two books that may be useful are:

Dweck, Ph.D. Carole. MINDSET: The New Psychology of SuccessBantom Books, NY: 2006.

Koch, Ph.D. Kathy. HOW am I SMART: A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligencess. Moody Publishers. Chicago: 2007.

Dr. Dweck’s book is research-based, but inaddition has many useful examples. Its primary message, among many more, is this: Our ability to perform well depends on the way we see ourselves. Her research found that a person’s MINDSET determines in many ways how well they do in learning and in life. Her critical finding is that “our mindset is NOT a minor personality quirk; it creates our whole mental world.”

Everyone, she has found, has one of two basic mindsets: “If you have the FIXED MINDSET you believe your abilities and talents are set in stone—either you have them or you don’t.” She says people with that mindset must prove themselves over and over and LOOK talented at all costs. The other mindset is the GROWTH MINDSET. Thinking that way, you know your talents can be developed over time, that abilities can be developed and that with time you can succeed.

The “ability grouping” I described above seems to have been specifically designed to PRODUCE students WITH A FIXED MINDSET. At age 6, students were grouped and told, in effect, “this is how well or slowly you can learn, and you will stay with others like you until we finish trying to teach you as well as we can, which means, as well as you are NOW able to learn.” ALL students, from those with the lowest test scores to the top scorer were told—”this is who and what you are, and these are our expectations of your abilities. DON’T ARGUE WITH US, JUST DO AS WELL AS WE EXPECT YOU TO, for the next three years.” (“And, of course, we expect that of you for the rest of your life, too.”)

As a parent, would you accept that? Of course not, and you shouldn’t have to. I believed when I was running a school, and I still believe, that a child’s potential can be developed far beyond the limits of any school’s curriculum. Schools should be — USED for what theY CAN do, and SHOULD do, but cannot be expected to DO IT ALL.

Dr. Dweck’s book provides a way for educators to do better jobs of preparing children and especially developing the GROWTH MINDSET. But parents and others responsible for a child’s growth and development need to become directly involved in two things: helping the child develop a sense that they have the growth mindset, and seeing to it that the school the child attends does not promote, even implicitly, the FIXED MINDSET. Parents CAN tell the difference in the way teachers and school officials express themselves and how children respond to what they are being taught. PARENTS MUST “PAY ATTENTION.” visit the school, look at the child’s schoolwork, talk to the teacher, find out what is being taught and follow up to see what help is needed.

Dr. Koch’s book, HOW am I SMART, was written for parents and teachers primarily in private, denominational schools. However, she has applied the research of one of the leaders in research on intelligence, Howard Gardner, Ph.D., of Harvard University, whose books on MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCE are widely used in teacher education and read by parents and educators worldwide.

Dr. Gardner’s research has shown convincingly that most IQ tests are basically tests of “general” intelligence, and that to truly understand how the mind works, measurement of specific abilities is necessary. The “fixed mindset,” of the early “ability grouping” advocates on an “unchangeable IQ” is contradicted by Gardner’s identification of eight “intelligences” that can be separately measured and developed in most students.

The “Eight Intelligences are clearly described for parents and teachers. Dr. Koch has a format based on five basic needs, which are: Security, (Who can I trust.) Identity, (Who am I?), Belonging, (Who wants me.), Purpose (Why am I alive?), and Competence (What do I do well.) . Gardner addresses the “crystallizing” of each intelligence so that it can become a positive and permanent source and goal for learning and positive thought. Koch warns parents and teachers to avoid putting emotion and controversy into the teaching of these abilities so they can be comfortable with them and with their understanding of how they function.

The eight intelligences were given descriptive names by Gardner, and a colleague, Dr. Thomas Armstrong, used less academic descriptions. Clearly, this could conflict with Dr. Dweck’s concern, that parents and teachers should avoid telling children “they are smart.” Her method of praise is to say “you are doing good work, or a great job.” (Praise the accomplishment, don’t exaggerate the scope of it.) Dr. Dweck warns that “labeling” your child as “bright,” or “clever,” or “smart,” CA– USES A FIXED MINDSET, BECA– USE THEN THE CHILD IS ALWAYS FORCED TO LIVE UP TO A LABEL.

The “label” “smart” in Koch’s book, however, is intended to describe the type of intelligence, NOT the individual child. This needs to be very clear. Dr. Dweck’s research has shown definitively that telling children that they are “bright”, smart,” “ the best,” etc., is developing in them a FIXED MINDSET. The result is the child’s focusing on comparison, competition, fear of failure, and other negative responses, rather than higher levels of performance.

Here, again, are the eight intelligences and labels for them, from Koch’s book (p. 19):

Dr T. Armstrong Dr. H. Gardner

Word smart Linguistic intelligence
Logic smart Logical-Mathematical intelligence
Picture smart Spatial intelligence
Music smart Musical intelligence
Body smart Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence
Nature smart Naturalistic intelligence
People smart Inter-personal intelligence
Self smart Intra-personal intelligence

Dr. Koch proposes an interest/ability process to identify the most promising of the abilities, assuming that high interest and high ability would be the easiest focus, while their opposite (low interest/low ability) the least promising areas. Intermediate focus would be high ability/low interest, with low interest and low ability the least promising of the areas of interest.

Of course, for the “fixed mindset” person, change would be difficult once they pursued an area, while those with a “growth mindset” would find it less problematic. These two perspectives—the “mindset” concept, and the “multiple intelligences” concept–are highly compatible.

From a “thinking otherwise” perspective, the growth mindset is essential. However, applying it requires creativity and an understanding of the concepts Gardner presents. To repeat, as we often will, most schools are not equipped, and teachers not trained to go to do all that is necessary to help every student become an “independent learner.” For that, extra outside help is almost always needed.


John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

One Comment

  1. Steve Sawmelle says:

    Apparently, Brittney’s response to your blog post was spam. See:
    http://rongiesecke.com/2015/05/10/blogging-my-spam-comments-on-purpose/
    ~Steve

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