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updated 12/4/2012 10:36:23 AM ET 2012-12-04T15:36:23

In "Your Child's Path," Susan Engel provides solutions for parents worried about providing the correct conditions for the children's ideal development. Here's an excerpt.

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

At three, Stevie was jubilant and inventive, a lively little guy. He had a wiry, lithe body, brown, cheery eyes, and wide cheeks. In a photograph taken of him when he was four, he is lounging on the limb of a tall tree, his arms draped casually and comfortably over a branch. He looks spry and savvy, as if he knows what the photographer sees and gets a kick out of it. What doesn’t show is any sign of the fierce intensity that later became such an integral part of his intelligence—for better and for worse.

His nursery-school teacher wrote this about him in his midyear evaluation: “Stevie loves to paint and enjoys experimenting with new techniques. Last week, he tried using two paint brushes at once. He is an avid block builder and often spends hours making complicated structures. He enjoys helping our janitor clean the room at the end of the day and almost always helps move the chairs and sweep the floor. Stevie needs to learn that teasing is not a good way to make friends.”

A year later, the art teacher from the same school sent home a note to Stevie’s mother: “I would like to talk to you briefly about Stevie. Until now, he has always loved arts and crafts so much. He’s been one of the most prolific students in the woodworking area, but recently, he seems to have lost interest. He appears completely indifferent to what he makes. He seems like a different child—even his hand-eye coordination has slipped backward. He doesn’t seem to have the interesting ideas for projects that he did just a few months ago, and his wood projects are carelessly put together.”

Stevie’s mother, Francis, was concerned. Highly intelligent, well educated, and extremely ambitious, Francis assumed that all three of her children would excel at school. It was a given, from her perspective, that her children had superior intellectual ability. Both she and her husband were smart and came from academically oriented families. Her husband was a well-regarded doctor in Boston, with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. Francis was a freelance book editor who had been the president of her class at a top women’s college. They read constantly, discussed the news at dinner, went to art museums, and traveled. Stevie’s older sister and brother were top students. What was wrong with him? Perhaps he just wasn’t as smart as the rest of the family.

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Who’s Smart

Is there anyone who doesn’t want his or her child to be smart? Whether you live in a family of schoolteachers or a neighborhood of factory workers and farmers, everyone values intelligence. There are few jobs where it doesn’t matter, and most of us intuitively know that smarter people do better in all kinds of settings. They get more done, have better ideas, learn things more quickly, are better at their jobs, are often more fun to be with, and can solve unexpected problems.

Years ago, psychologist Robert Sternberg set out to learn what ordinary people think about intelligence. He sent his students at Yale out into the streets of New Haven to ask passersby what they thought were the essential characteristics that make someone intelligent. In particular, he wanted to know if people from different walks of life would agree or disagree about the qualities that make up smartness. It turned out that almost everyone found it easy to answer the question. To a great extent, at least within our culture, people tended to agree.

Whether we are highly educated or not, whether we work in offices or factories, almost all of us feel, even if we don’t admit it, that we know whether someone is smart or not soon after meeting him or her. On what do we base this? We look for humor, savvy, verbal skill, competence within a domain, and a general air of “quickness.” And as it turns out, our collective intuition about who is smart, and why, falls for the most part right in line with what psychological research has to say on the topic.

Herbert Crovitz, a social psychologist at Princeton University in the 1960s, used to tell his students, “Theories do two things: they account for the data, and they make people happy.” As it turns out, theories of intelligence do one or the other but usually not both. And in the past two decades, theories that make people happy have gained some ground over theories that best account for the data. Many people in our society resist thinking of intelligence as a narrow, quantifiable characteristic. They find the traditional view of intelligence, conveyed by IQ tests, to be too restrictive. In my psychology classes at Williams, few students will say openly that intelligence is the ability to do math and comprehend texts, the very abilities that got them into a college like Williams. They worry that such a definition is elitist and are quick to point out that one can be intelligent in many ways. My students are like many across the country who are drawn to the idea that being “book smart” is only one way to be intelligent.

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Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University, provided an alluring alternative to traditional views of intelligence when he published Frames of Mind in 1984. In it, he railed against the narrow-minded idea that the full range of people’s mental acuity could be measured by something as academic as a traditional IQ test. He argued that there are not one but seven kinds of intelligence (logico-mathematical, spatial, verbal, musical, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal) and that there are a range of ways to express intelligence. A child who is wonderful at dance but has a small vocabulary and trouble with numbers would be considered to have high bodily kinesthetic intelligence but low logico-mathematical and verbal intelligence.

As Gardner’s idea began to take hold, teachers embraced the idea that they could use it to identify the particular kind of intelligence each child had. Teachers felt that Gardner’s scheme helped them fine-tune their curriculum to fit the particular kind of intelligence each child possessed. As the theory got diluted within schools, some teachers simply used the idea of multiple intelligences as a way to help each child feel smart, even when he or she didn’t excel at traditional school tasks. This egalitarian conception of intelligence has taken hold like wildfire, and in every town in America, you can hear teachers talk about the specific kinds of intelligence their students possess. “He might not be good at math, but he sure is smart when he’s on the basketball court.” “She struggles with English class, but she’s so artistic; her visual intelligence is outstanding.” Or the most common form: “He might be book-smart, but he’s street-dumb.” The theory of multiple intelligences makes people happy. But does it explain the data?

The Smartness Thermometer

Ever since psychologists began formally measuring things, they’ve been trying to measure intelligence. Until Howard Gardner introduced multiple intelligences into the common lexicon, people tended to use the term IQ as a stand-in for intelligence. The intelligence quotient is a mathematical expression, devised in France at the turn of the twentieth century by Alfred Binet. He developed the test to help the French school system identify children who were retarded or significantly slower than others in their age group. His goal was to make sure that “slower” children were not punished for their inability to learn. The original IQ (as well as almost all subsequent forms of it) was based on a very simple concept in psychological assessment: Ask children of a certain age a series of questions. The number of questions they get correct is then divided by their chronological age. Thus, although a given ten-year-old might answer more questions than a seven-year-old, the younger child might well have a higher intelligence quotient. Using the test to compare children depends on a much-trusted practice among researchers: norming. This means that in order to evaluate a given child’s IQ, you have to compare it to the average (mean) score of children that age. As a result, each child of a given age is being compared with what is considered normal or typical of all the other children in that age group.

What kinds of questions do IQ tests involve? The test is divided into several components, each asking questions that tap into a specific kind of thinking. In one part, children are asked to say what is missing from a picture (a door knob from a picture of a room that includes a door, for instance). Another component requires children to recall a string of numbers. Another involves moving around a collection of colored blocks so that they form a pattern presented on a card. Another asks children to answer questions about famous books, presidents, the weather, and different parts of the country. Although the test has been criticized for favoring children who live certain kinds of lives (if a child looks at a picture of someone riding a horse and doesn’t know that the missing piece is the stirrup, it might well be because the child has lived her whole life in the inner city, with little access to books about riding). On the other hand, many of the questions test more content-free abilities, such as memory span. However, even these supposedly content-free questions might well favor children with certain kinds of experiences.

In the early 1960s, Sylvia Scribner and her colleagues set out to show the invisible bias in intelligence tests. Scribner was sure that something about school experience was helping some children do better even on parts of IQ tests that had been considered relatively culture-free. Her previous work in nonliterate communities had shown her that children who go to school regularly seem to acquire, without even realizing it, specific techniques that might help them do well on the kinds of memory tasks used in IQ tests. Sure enough, when she and her colleagues asked students to recall a fairly long list of words, such as apple, banana, desk, hat, plum, shoe, chair, and sweater, the children who had missed a lot of school days because of poverty, migrant work schedules, and segregation seemed to struggle. Scribner knew, from her literacy work, that learning to read leads people to conceptualize in a different way. Thus, the school children were using categories to chunk the items, making it easier to remember them: first the fruits, then all the furniture, then all the tools. Unschooled children didn’t have this strategy at their disposal. However, when Scribner provided the category names (“Tell me all the kinds of fruit on the list, now all the pieces of furniture, now the clothing”), the children with little schooling performed similarly to the others. It seemed, then, that memory span per se did not differ between the two groups. Instead, what differed was the savvy to use category labels as a mnemonic, a skill found in school.

Scribner’s research, which was really so simple, dealt a serious blow to the notion that any aspect of the IQ test, even the most seemingly culture-free part, was the same for all children. However, for all of its weaknesses and built-in biases, it taps into something pretty steady and real. But it’s been hard for psychologists and lay people to put their finger on just what the test measured.

That is, until psychologist Joseph Fagan published a paper in the 1980s arguing that traditional IQ tests, the kind developed by Binet and modified by David Wechsler, created the illusion of coherence where there wasn’t really any. That is, traditional IQ tests measure concrete knowledge (“What is the capital of Pennsylvania?”) with more basic processing skills (remembering a list of words). Researchers have found again and again that while each person taking the test might do better on some parts of the test than others (For instance, I always do terribly at creating a visual pattern to match a picture, but I do well at analogies), there is, generally speaking, a lot of consistency— in other words, a high correlation between components of the test. The person who gets a higher score than others her age on one part is likely to get a higher score than others on most of the other parts of the test. It is easy to see how scientists, and ultimately the general public, came to think of this test as actually measuring a particular quality of mind or even a physical part of the brain.

Psychologists have even given this imagined underlying quality a name: g (for “general intelligence”). If you’re high in g, you are smart, and if you are high in g, you are likely to do well on many components of the test. Fagan didn’t disagree that intelligence might ultimately be a single quality of mind, but he wanted a test that would actually focus on just that quality, the ability that produces g. So he zeroed in on the single characteristic he thought underlay the myriad of abilities we push together and call intelligence.

Fagan argued that what makes one person do better on an IQ test and seem smarter in real life as well is what he called speed of processing. We are all familiar with that concept from our computers: the faster the processor, the more the computer can do. It’s the same with the human brain. The faster it can take in information, the more information it can take in. Hence two children might be exposed to the same environment, but the one who can take in more will know more. Fagan’s point was that speed of processing is a much simpler, more precise, and more value-free characteristic, which might actually explain the correlation between items on traditional IQ scores. But how do you directly measure something like speed of processing?

This is pretty easy, as it turns out. From birth, babies stare at something until they become used to it—in other words, until they have processed it. Then they look for new stimuli. Fagan showed babies two pictures projected onto a screen in front of them. Then he measured how long it took them to absorb (become familiar with, or process) the first picture before turning their heads to look at the second picture. Of course, it’s possible that some children simply have shorter attention spans than others. And yet the important thing about Fagan’s test was that there was enormous consistency between his infant test and more traditional IQ tests. Babies who processed visual information quickly on Fagan’s test also did well on IQ tests when they were in elementary school.

Fagan’s IQ test cannot be bought over the counter, but that doesn’t mean parents aren’t looking for signs of their babies’ intellectual potential. Most parents think their baby is smart unless they see signs of trouble. In particular, there are two points when parents tend to worry about their children’s intellectual acumen: when they learn to talk and when they start getting evaluated in school.

Stevie learned to talk at the usual age for a third child and a boy. By the time he was two, he could name many familiar objects, and by the time he was two and a half, he could speak in phrases, and he learned new words rapidly. So far, he seemed as smart as the other bright pennies in his family. He only began hitting a snag when he went to school. When your child has trouble with schoolwork, it’s only natural to wonder, even if you don’t admit it, if it’s a sign that he’s not as smart as you had hoped. Recently, my husband was skiing at our local slope in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was a Wednesday, and usually on weekdays, the only other skiers are local people sneaking in a few hours or children coming en masse from one of our nearby public schools. But on this day, my husband found himself riding up on a chairlift with a man in his late forties and his twelve-year-old son. They had taken time off from work and school to celebrate the day the son was adopted from Korea. As they glided up the side of the mountain, the boy and his father began discussing what trail they would ski on next.

The boy said, “Let’s try the triple after this.”

The father answered, somewhat uncertainly, “OK. But I am not sure I know how to get over there.”

The boy quickly replied, “I know how to get there.”

The father said skeptically, “How could you possibly know? We only have been here once before, and that was a year ago.”

The boy answered, “I memorized the map.”

The father smiled and shook his head. “How is it that you can memorize a whole map so easily, but you can’t seem to do math in school?”

The boy said, “Because school is boring.”

Here was a clear example of a child whose intellectual abilities weren’t in sync with school tasks. When a child has trouble in school, does it mean he isn’t bright?

Excerpt from YOUR CHILD'S PATH by Susan Engel. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Engel. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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