Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not knowing how smart you are is more fun

By guest contributor Kate Fridkis
Cross-posted on Un-schooled.

I didn’t take any tests as a kid. None.

I wrote about how I didn't get graded as a kid yesterday in my post Making the Grade where I shared how I learned in college that grades were both really important and really random. Well, because I didn't get grades before college, I sometimes feel like I don’t know how smart I am. I didn't go through the usual sorting process. I never properly learned where I fit into the hierarchy of intelligence.

Maybe that doesn’t even seem like a big deal. Maybe it’s like, Ok, so you didn’t take tests…So what? Maybe you wonder how my progress was tracked. What if I never got better at anything? Oh my god! It’s true! I still can’t name the organelles. A few months ago, My fiancĂ© and I were trying to remember them all. Every time he came up with one, I’d be like, “Yeah! The Golgi apparatus! Totally! I was about to remember that one!”

I got good at sketching, and then painting. I did it every day. When you do something every day, you get better at it, no matter what it is. Which is why you should be careful if you’re yelling at people every day. That’s not something it’s good to be good at. And if you love something, or at least enjoy doing it, or feel motivated at all to keep doing it of your own volition, then you’re going to get even better at it than you otherwise would.

There wasn’t a test for painting. There were plenty of tests for other things, but I didn’t take them either. What would the point have been? I wasn’t being compared to anyone else, I wasn’t in a grade, and I didn’t have to move on to another grade. And progress, believe it or not, is pretty self-evident. It also happens at different rates for different areas of learning. I didn’t learn how to read at the same rate that I learned how to recognize individual birdsong. I didn’t learn how to draw hands at the same rate that I learned how to play a Chopin Nocturne. In fact, it took me at least a decade before I could capture hands with any real accuracy. But I wonder if I ever would’ve gotten there at all if I’d failed the hand drawing test after the first year of trying. Maybe I would’ve thought I was just inherently bad at drawing hands. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt worthwhile anymore.

There is a lot of debate about intelligence. Remember that book The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray? It is really, really thick. It has a big rainbow lump on the cover. It’s all about intelligence, and how a person’s success is pretty much determinable by how smart a standardized test says they are. As it turns out, according to The Bell Curve, Jews are definitely, on average, smarter than black people. Or at least, that’s what I got out of the section on race. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a book called The Mismeasure of Man about fifteen years before Herrnstein and Murray came out with The Bell Curve, but, laughing sadly to himself, Gould stuck a few more chapters on Mismeasure and republished, saying, “Seriously? We’re still talking about this?” He also said something along the lines of, “One of the big problems here is that people think intelligence is only one thing, and that thing is measurable by a single method.”

People think that intelligence is quantifiable. Well, I’m sure parts of it are. But the whole thing? Isn’t that a little too complex to summarize in a number?

The reality is that absolutely everyone learns. Almost anyone is capable of learning anything. It might take an incredibly long time. It might take a really good teacher. It might take a ton of dedication. A lot of successful learning is the result of feeling capable of learning. At least, that’s what I think. And when you learn that you’re bad at learning something, well—why would you ever want to keep trying? The kids who keep trying amaze me. They’re incredible.

There are things I know absolutely nothing about. Topics I sound idiotic on. I’m unpredictable, rather than well-rounded. But not knowing how smart I am is pretty nice. I feel like I have a lot of potential. I feel like I might be able to do anything.
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