Thoughts on two different ways to become “smarter.”
I have written about the concept of “intelligence” multiple times in the past: comparing it to critical thinking and expert thinking, expressing doubt that it can be quantified, and disagreeing with the stability and mensurability implied by notions like IQ. Some of my readers have expressed doubt about these posts, comparing intelligence to strength, a combination of exercise and stature. In this post I hope to split it into three, not two components.
Your cognitive processes have some limitations. You can’t pay attention to ten things at once, can’t remember everyone’s name, can’t develop habits after a single exposure, and so on. The degree to which these limitations vary by individual is not today’s subject, nor are the limitations themselves. Instead, we’ll name this part of intelligence mental capacity and move on.
Your cognitive systems have acquired some knowledge, skill, and understanding. You might know what “post-prandial morbidity” means, or not; you might understand what “post-prandial morbidity” feels like, or not; and you might have the skill to use the phrase “post-prandial morbidity” naturally and appropriately in a conversation, or not. All of these are unambiguously learned, not innate; you acquire them through experience, effort, and repetition. Because they are acquired, retained, and have value we will name them mental assets.
But these two do not adequately explain all the differences we see in people’s learning. It is not difficult to find two students both taking the same two courses both entering with measurably similar assets and interests, one of whom does better in one of the two courses and the other better in the other. There are many possible explanations for this: the alignment of topic and instruction with mental capacity, the applicability of unnoticed but relevant differences in incoming assets, different decisions on where to allocate time, and so on. However, I wish to mention on other factor I have observed: mental aptitude. I’ll motivate this idea by a few unscientific anecdotes.
A student was struggling in my class and told me they were struggling in all their classes. I set up daily visits where the student came to my office five days a week and just said “hi”. Within days I saw improvement in their work, and the reported all their other classes were improving too.
Some students’ grades are strongly correlated with the lecturing style of their teacher, while other students’ grades show no such correlation.
As a student, I sometimes realized I was not learning much in my classes: the teacher was boring, the material a mix of boring and confusing. I found that if I excused myself and spent a few minutes in the hall clearing my head and reminding myself of the reason I was in school, when I came back in the teacher was suddenly much more engaging and the material more interesting and understandable.
Many studies show a correlation between various emotional states such as anxiety, confidence, and a sense of belonging and student short- and long-term learning. One of the cleanest of these studiesDOI: 10.1126/science.1195996 found that having students identify what they personally value and write a paragraph explaining why they value it once improved the academic ability of a sizeable subset of the students for the next several months.
Each of these anecdotes admits additional analysis, but note that each is an example of evident intelligence depending on something that is neither mental capacity nor mental assets. Note also that in many cases this other thing, this mental aptitude if you like, can be manipulated both by external circumstance and by internal student thought processes.
We sometimes use the phrase “learn and grow.” I believe you can both learn to be more intelligent by acquiring new mental assets and can grow to be more intelligent by adjusting your cognitive processes to both more readily acquire future assets and to more effectively utilize those you have.