UPDATE, 22 July 2012, 8:53 AM PDT: This post has undergone major revisions to correct scientific inaccuracies since its original, in response to feedback from Christopher Moyer.
But the post (and the WSJ story it is based on) are not scientifically accurate. Normally that might not matter so much, but we're scientists and we like to understand things and get things right, so it matters to you and me.
He has summed up POEM's very reason for being--helping stakeholders in the community of massage to figure out how to get things right--and he took the time to engage with my post and to spell out the problems with it, so that I could correct them.
Do you want to learn more about massage and how it fits into foundational human knowledge about the material physical universe, but fear you can't, because bad educational experiences in your past have locked you into an inescapable path?
That's not an issue at POEM--you're not going to be judged on your past education here, nor on how other people may have criticized you in the course of that education.
I originally included a story from the Wall Street Journal to reinforce that point--which still stands--but Christopher Moyer pointed out that the article was problematic and scientifically inaccurate in how it discussed intelligence, and that I, too, had propagated those errors in my original post.
Since here, we're all about getting it right, I've reworked the post to address the issues he raised, but I still want to ultimately keep the focus on this point:
Don't worry about whether you liked school or not, or whether they told you that you'd never do well because you aren't smart, because here at POEM we think the most important thing is a commitment to learning and we will help anyone who is motivated to understand what we are doing.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and science educator, interviewed in a recent Wall Street Journal article about recovering from educational failure, describes his views on people's capacity to learn as related to their attitudes about learning itself.
His views align nicely with our approach here, but before we get into just how that's true, we need to clarify inaccuracies in the article's lead-in:
Where do helpless students get the notion that intelligence is fixed? In part from our culture, which bombards them with the idea that IQ tests measure how bright they are.
Many people think of intelligence as static: you are born with lots of brains, very few, or somewhere in between, and that quantum of intelligence largely determines how well you do in school and in life.
Moyer points out that:
In fact, general intelligence *is* quite static. It is also true that it largely (a vague word here, but I'll agree to it for now) does determine how well people do in school. It also determines, to a lesser degree, how well they succeed in other areas of life. We may not like that, but it's well supported by mountains of solid evidence. The opening of the post suggests that those are not true.
He's correct, but that does not undermine my larger point, because general intelligence is not the only criterion involved in learning. And it is learning that we are concerned with here, not just general intelligence.
But the article does need to make that point more clearly than it did--it fails to explicitly point out that we are changing the topic from general intelligence to other factors that support learning. And I need to make that clearer in this post as well.
From this point on, we are setting general intelligence aside, and focusing on those other factors supporting learning instead.
The article continues:
The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has never liked this view. "I hardly ever use the word intelligence," says Mr. Tyson, who directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York. "I think of people as either wanting to learn, ambivalent about learning or rejecting learning."
There is a lot of implicit subtext here, and since it is not stated explicitly, it runs a large risk of promoting misunderstanding. We'll clarify those implicit assumptions, and then bring it back to how it relates to our educational philosophy.
As Moyer points out:
"The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has never liked this view."
As noted previously by me and then also by you, who cares? I don't like it either, but it's a fact. The implication here, of course, is that NDT, whose claim to fame is that he is really smart, must be rejecting the importance of intelligence because it isn't very important. In this case, he's wrong, especially if the content (say, astrophysics, or physiology) is complicated.
"Who cares?" is shorthand for at least three implicit references that he knows, and that he knows I know, so he doesn't spell them out every time he uses them--he's referring to the naturalistic fallacy, the moralistic fallacy, and the is-ought confusion.
In this case, the naturalistic fallacy would be that since nature, genetics, and material physical reality, in combination, are the source of general intelligence, then they would always do what is good and right, and never do anything else--they would dependably ensure that everyone has equal opportunity and capacity in general intelligence. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
The moralistic fallacy sounds a lot like the naturalistic fallacy, and it is, in fact the converse of the naturalistic fallacy: it's what you get if you reverse the direction of the relationship, either by changing the direction of the arrow, as in A, or by swapping the entities with each other, as in B.
In this case, the moralistic fallacy would be that since equal opportunity and capacity in general intelligence is good and right, then we can expect nature, genetics, and material physical reality to provide it.
The is-ought confusion results when people confuse how things ought to be with how things really are in fact. People ought to be equal in opportunity and capacity in general intelligence; in reality, people are not equal in opportunity and capacity in general intelligence.
If general intelligence were the be-all and end-all in learning, we'd find ourselves confronted with a quite insoluble problem
Fortunately, that's not the case--general intelligence is one factor among several others in learning; those others include:
We can create a lot of positive change in those aspects, and those are what we focus on from here on out.
As Moyer points out, although the article does not make it sufficiently explicit, Neil deGrasse Tyson also switches the emphasis to those other factors:
Next: ""I hardly ever use the word intelligence," says Mr. Tyson, who directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York."
Well that's fine, and appropriate; in his role as a public educator, it is not his job or even a good idea to try to sort people according to aptitude. Rather, the task is to present the information as accurately and effectively as possible, which is also the job at POEM. So this part is cool, but opening with the implication that intelligence isn't stable and isn't that important is misleading. It's both of those things.
So we say it explicitly, in order not to be misleading: we are focusing on those factors other than general intelligence here.
deGrasse Tyson's words sum up our philosophy here at POEM very well--if your experiences have been so bad that, as a result, you totally reject learning, then--unfortunately--we have nothing to offer you here, other than the hope that you will encounter enough good experiences along the way to convince you to give it another look someday.
If you do actively want to learn, then that's an easy win for all of us--all the content here is intended to give you ideas to think about in your learning journey. You don't have to agree with everything presented--it would actually be most surprising if you did--but in pushing back, thinking about, organizing, and expressing your viewpoints, learning will certainly happen, and you'll share that learning with the rest of the community.
And if you're ambivalent about learning, please give us a chance to meet you halfway and to build bridges to where you are. I hope it works for you, but if you give it a try and it's really not for you, we at least appreciate your efforts and your willingness to try, and hope that someday you find what you're looking for.
From the same WSJ article, although we'll mentally substitute "learning capacity" for "intelligence" to avoid the previous confusion, and to keep the focus on where we work:
A growth mind-set can be learned. In a 2007 study by psychologists from Columbia and Stanford, nearly 100 seventh graders (most of them struggling in math) participated in an eight-week workshop on studying. The subjects were secretly divided into two large groups. Both groups received instruction on how to use their study time most effectively and how to organize and remember new material.
But then came the difference: One of the groups read aloud an article titled "You Can Grow Your Intelligence." It explained research on how nerve cells in the brain make stronger connections after we learn something new. Students in the other group spent that time reading an article about how memory works and learning new strategies for recalling material.
Most of the students went into the sessions generally believing that intelligence was fixed for life, but the group that read about the brain's growth emerged from the experience with much stronger notions about improving intelligence with effort. That group generally showed greater motivation to do well in math class in the weeks and months after the experience.
As the researchers noted, someone's theory about intelligence may not make much difference when times are easy. But when failures accumulate, those who believe that they can improve their basic abilities are far more likely to weather the storm.
If you believe that you can improve your basic abilities, wherever you find yourself along your learning journey, then your chances of being successful are higher than if you believe there is nothing you can do. Here at POEM, we are in the process of building tools to help you take charge of your learning and build that success.
Moyer agrees with that point, and so we end on the optimistic note he raises:
That's great and definitely true. Practice, dedication, and routine exposure can and do improve concentration, effective habits, interest, and so on. They may even have a small but real effect on intelligence with enough time. (It is stable but not entirely immutable.)