Sunday, September 12, 2010

Intelligence, Attitudes and Altitudes

This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on September 13, 2010.

The idea that our I.Q is fixed, that our genes alone determine how smart we are, has been long disproven by science, but remains a popular myth that shapes our attitudes, the way we tackle our school work, and often the way we spend our time.

When I was a senior in high school, there was a Korean kid in my Advanced Math class that became a good friend of mine. He always out-scored me on tests—he’d typically get a 98 or 99, I’d typically get an 88 or 89. Since I was competitive, this bothered me, so one day, I told him, half kiddingly, “You Asians are just better than us in Math.” I remember he became serious and asked me, “How long did you study for this test?” “I dunno”, I said, “maybe 30 or 45 minutes.” He went into his bag and pulled out a notebook and showed it to me. He had worked through every problem in that chapter, over 100 questions, on his own. It must have taken him 4 or 5 hours. “I’m not smarter than you” he told me. “I just work harder.” I remember getting defensive, probably because I knew deep down he was right.

In 1995, they began giving international tests to 4th graders and 8th graders in science and math to see how countries stacked up against each other. Out of 36 countries taking the tests, we generally come in somewhere around 10th. Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Chinese Tapei come in #’s 1-5. They ask the participants on this test what they believe is the most important ingredient for success in Math and Science. The #1 most common American answer? Ability, or in-born talent. The most common answer among the Asian countries? Practice, or hard work.

It's common to hear in American high schools, even at JPII, “I’m no good in Math or Science.” Unfortunately, that’s often used as an excuse not to work very hard. If I am no good at Math, we might unconsciously think, it’s the way God made me, so it’s his fault, not mine, if I don’t do well in this class. And since it’s the way God made me, there’s really no point in killing myself to try and do well. It’s just who I am.

But that’s hogwash. Yes, it’s true that some people have a greater affinity for math than others. But where ever our starting position, whatever our intelligence in a particular area, we have the capacity, with practice, with hard work, to improve our intelligence in that area. At the risk of over-simplifying brain research, the brain is a muscle that improves its “strength” through exercise, similar to arm muscles and leg muscles. When we exercise our brain, it makes more neural connections. When we don’t, it atrophies, similar to what happens when we put our arm in a cast and don’t use it for several months.

In the end, the people who are most successful in life are not the ones who are the most naturally gifted or talented, but the ones who tackle the challenges of life with the right attitude and who work the hardest.

Your attitude, and not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.


Kerry Palmer said...

Thanks for a great post. I am going to discuss this very thing with my students.

Hope all is well with you!

Charlie Roy said...

Have you ever read any Gladwell? I can't remember off the top of my head which book it is in but he has a nice long piece about the differences between Asian and American cultures.

Essentially the argument goes the Western culture grew up around certain types of agricultural practices that are labor intensive but only at certain times. You plant in the spring you harvest in the fall and in the winter and summer you have plenty of ample time to do nothing. In most Asian culture rice dominates agriculture. Contrary to the grain and animal based agriculture of the west - rice is labor intensive on a daily basis. The paddy needs constant work and attention to maximize yields.

Gladwell argues this difference essentially lends itself to different cultural attitudes towards school work. I have a friend who teaches at an international school in Korea. Students line up for extra help and tutoring on Saturdays and Sundays. Give that a go here in the states? If it isn't an activity that ends with some variation of ...."ball" (baseball, basketball, football) it isn't being played on the weekends.

But then again for all the hard work there seems to be something missing that Chao points out in "Catching up or Leading the Way" = Americans do seem to corner the market on teaching creativity.

Michelle Crowley said...

I stumbled across your blog while looking for something else, as is often the case, and I will definitely keep reading it. I noticed the Montgomery Catholic link, looked at your name and realized I have heard about you over the years from my husband's family. I am married to Peter Crowley, son of Joe and Tricia! They speak very highly of you. It's a pleasure to read your posts.