In “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird,” poet Wallace Stevens takes something familiar—an ordinary black bird—and by looking at it
from many different perspectives, makes us think about it in new ways.
With apologies to Stevens, I’m going present eight ways of looking at
intelligence—eight perspectives provided by the science of learning. A
few words about that term: The science of learning is a relatively new
discipline born of an agglomeration of fields: cognitive science,
psychology, philosophy, neuroscience. Its project is to apply the
methods of science to human endeavors—teaching and learning—that have
for centuries been mostly treated as an art.
As with anything to do with our idiosyncratic and unpredictable
species, there is still a lot of art involved in teaching and
learning. But the science of learning can offer some surprising and
useful perspectives on how we guide and educate young people. And so:
Eight Ways Of Looking At Intelligence.
The first way of looking at intelligence: Situations can make us
smarter. The science of learning has demonstrated that we are
powerfully shaped by the situations that we find ourselves in:
situations that can either evoke or suppress our intelligence.
What do I mean by situations? Situations can be internal or external.
They can be brief and transitory, or persistent and long-lasting. They
can be as varied as the conditions under which a student studies, the
conditions that prevail in the classroom or school a student attends,
the conditions exerted by a student’s peer group. The physical
conditions that students experience by way of how much stress they’re
under and how much sleep and exercise they get, and the mental
conditions students create for themselves by the levels of expertise
and attention and motivation they’re able to achieve.
Situational intelligence, in other words, is the only kind of
intelligence there is—because we are always doing our thinking in a
particular situation, with a particular brain in a particular body.
On one level this is obvious, but on another it is quite radical.
Radical, because, since its earliest beginnings, the study of
intelligence has emphasized its inherent and fixed qualities.
Intelligence has been conceptualized as an innate characteristic of
the individual, invariant across time and place, determined mostly by
genes (or before that, what was called “heredity”).
This was the view of Francis Galton, the Victorian gentleman who is
the father of psychometric testing. He used the notion of inherent,
fixed intelligence to show that it ran in the blood of England's most
eminent families. This was the view of Lewis Terman, the creator of
the modern intelligence test. He used the notion of inherent, fixed
intelligence to identify and cultivate children who were 'gifted.' And
this was the view of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of
the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve. They used the notion of
inherent, fixed intelligence to argue that America's class structure
was the inevitable product of the IQ levels of various racial and
So to assert that intelligence is in large part a product of the
situations we find ourselves in is a departure, not only from the way
science has traditionally thought about ability, but from the way many
of us think about ability today.
As I run through the rest of my “ways of looking at intelligence,”
think about how you could recast your own role (as a teacher, an
administrator, a parent) as a situation-maker: a creator of
circumstances that evoke intelligence in others.
On to the second way of looking at intelligence: Beliefs can make us
smarter. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes two types of
mindsets: the fixed mindset, or the belief that ability is fixed and
unchanging, and the growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can
be developed through learning and practice.
These beliefs matter because they influence how think about our own
abilities, how we perceive the world around us, and how we act when
faced with a challenge or with adversity. The psychologist David
Yeager, also of Stanford, notes that our mindset effectively creates
the “psychological world” in which we live. Students’ beliefs, whether
they’re oriented around limits or around growth, constitute one of
these internal situations that either suppresses or evokes
The third way of looking at intelligence: Expertise can make us
smarter. One very robust line of research within the science of
learning is concerned with the psychology of expertise: what goes on
in the mind of an expert. What researchers have found is that experts
don’t just know more, they know differently, in ways that allow them
to think and act especially intelligently within their domain of
An expert’s knowledge is deep, not shallow or superficial; it is
well-organized, around a core of central principles; it is automatic,
meaning that it has been streamlined into mental programs that run
with very little conscious effort; it is flexible and transferable to
new situations; it is self-aware, meaning that an expert can think
well about his or her own thinking. Expertise takes a long time to
develop, of course, but the adolescent and young adult years are not
too soon to begin encouraging students to go deep in a subject area
that interests them.
The fourth way of looking at intelligence: Attention can make us
smarter. You’ve probably heard about the “marshmallow test,” a famous
experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s.
Mischel found that children who could resist eating a marshmallow in
return for the promise of two marshmallows later on did better in
school and in their careers.
Well, there’s a new marshmallow test that is faced every day, almost
every minute by our students: it’s the ability to resist the urge to
check one’s email, to respond to a text, to see what’s happening on
Facebook or Twitter. I know we’ve all heard that 'digital natives'
grew up multitasking and therefore excel at it, but the fact is that
there are information-processing bottlenecks in the brain—everybody’s
brain—that prevent us from paying attention to two things at the same
time. The state of focused attention is a very important internal
situation that students must cultivate in order to fully express their
The fifth way of looking at intelligence: Emotions can make us
smarter. We sometimes give short shrift to emotions when we’re talking
about academic success, but the science of learning is demonstrating
that our emotional state represents a crucial internal situation that
influences how intelligently we think and act.
When we’re in a positive mood, for example, we tend to think more
expansively and creatively. When we feel anxious—for instance, when
we’re about to take a dreaded math test—that anxiety uses up some of
the working memory capacity we need to solve problems, leaving us,
literally, with less intelligence to apply to the exam.
One line of investigation within the science of learning has to do
with the feeling of hope. Research in this area has found that a
feeling of hopefulness actually leads us to try harder and persist
longer—but only if it is paired with practical plans for achieving our
goals, and—this is the interesting part—specific, concrete actions
we’ll take when and if (usually when) our original plans don’t work
out as expected.
The sixth way of looking at intelligence: Technology can make us
smarter. There’s a fascinating line of research in philosophy and
cognitive science investigating what’s called the extended mind. This
is the idea that the mind doesn’t stop at the skull—that it reaches
out and loops in our bodies, our tools, even other people, to use in
our thinking processes.
Brain-scanning studies have found that when we use a tool, say a rake
we’re using to reach an object that’s out of our grasp, our brains
actually designate neurons to represent the end of the rake—as if it
were the tips of our own fingers. The human mind has evolved to make
our tools—including our technological devices—into extensions of
The problem is that our devices so often make us dumber instead of
smarter. I’ve already alluded to the way in which technology can
divide our attention, producing learning that is spottier, shallower,
and less flexible than learning that occurs under conditions of full
concentration. Technology can also make us dumber when we allow key
skills to atrophy from disuse, or fail to develop those skills in the
To give you a common example: The ready availability of technology may
persuade students that they don’t need to learn facts anymore, because
they can always “just Google it.” In fact, research from cognitive
science shows that the so-called '21st century skills' that we’re
always hearing about—critical thinking, problem-solving,
collaboration, creativity—can’t emerge in a content-free vacuum. They
must develop in the context of a rich base of fact knowledge:
knowledge that’s stored on the original hard drive, one’s own brain.
In order for tech to make our students smarter and not dumber, we need
to help them understand when to take full advantage of their devices,
and when to put them away.
The seventh way of looking at intelligence: Our bodies can make us
smarter. A line of inquiry related to the “extended mind” research I
mentioned earlier is the work now being done on what’s called
Ever since the cognitive science revolution of the 1970s, the dominant
metaphor for the brain has been the computer: a machine that processes
abstract symbols. The science of learning is demonstrating that the
computer metaphor is seriously flawed when it comes to describing the
human brain. It might be more accurate, in fact, to compare the brain
to the heart. All the tings that make the heart work better—good
nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise, moderate stress—make the
brain work better too.
I’ll take up the issue of sleep as an example, since sleep is
something so many of today’s students are lacking. They—and we—often
don’t recognize that sleep is actually a key part of the learning
process. It’s during sleep that the brain consolidates the memories it
formed during waking hours—meaning that it sorts through those
memories, weakening the ones that are trivial, strengthening the ones
that are important, and connecting up these new memories to the memory
structures that already exist in the brain.
If we don’t get enough sleep after learning, or if that sleep is of
low quality, the learning process is truncated, and we remember that
information less well and less flexibly. That’s just one example of
how physical state of our bodies is a key conditions under which our
brain operates and under which our intelligence is evoked or
Lastly, the eighth way of looking at intelligence: Relationships can
make us smarter. I mentioned earlier that the human mind is very adept
at looping in our bodies, our tools, and even other people to use as
instruments of our own thinking.
You’ve experienced this if you have a spouse or significant other:
it’s likely that one of you is “in charge” of remembering when the car
needs to go in for inspection, while the other is “in charge” of
remembering relatives’ birthdays. This is called transactive memory,
and it’s just one of the ways that relationships with others can make
us smarter than we would be on our own.
There’s one particular kind of relationship I will wrap up with, and
that is the relationship that students have to their academic
institution and to their fellow students. The science of learning has
demonstrated that a feeling of belonging is critical to the full
expression of students’ ability and intelligence.
The notion of promoting a sense of belonging goes against some of what
we’ve traditionally done in academia. We’ve all heard that old line,
“Look to the right, look to the left; only one of you will be passing
this course”—and while professors may not say those words anymore,
there are plenty of courses that are intended to 'weed' students out,
and plenty of situations in high school and college in which students
feel very much left on their own, to sink or to swim.
I’ll end by reminding you of something I mentioned earlier in this
article, about seeing your role as one of “situation creator,” and by
asking you: What situations can you create, or help your students
create for themselves, that will give them a sense that they are not
numbers in a database, but members of a community?