Human Intelligence

I think every teacher, especially beginning teachers, mentally rank orders students by "intelligence."  I did.  Until I got to know my students better.  And the better I got to know them, the more and more unexpected and profoundly sobering discoveries I made.

One, a "D student," was flunking out of my physics course–and school–and I suggested he look over my shelf of textbooks to see if perhaps some different approach might help him.  He did, and after looking through several, picked The Feynman Lectures on Physics. I suggested he look again (most physics instructors themselves find the The Feynman Lectures rather difficult reading).  But no, that was his choice.  In a few days he came into my office and we discussed what he had read of Feynman.  To my great surprise he had not only understood what he had read, he insisted it was easier to follow than our course textbook.  And for him, it was! 

One class assignment was for each student to choose a reading in Scientific American and write appropriate learning objectives for the class.  I gave them criteria to be met by those objectives.  That "D student" was the only one in the class who understood, and was able to satisfactorily meet, those criteria: evaluation by criteria is the highest level of educational objectives in the Bloom Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. He flunked out of school the following semester.

That's a surreal experience for a physics professor his first year of teaching.

But I remember a fellow student from my undergraduate days who also flunked out of physics and out of school.  I knew him to be intellectually sharp, if a bit unconventional.  He just barely flunked his physics class on an exam where his understanding of one problem was better than that of the grader of the exam.  The problem was to describe the trajectory of a ski jumper (ignoring air friction, of course) while in flight.  The "correct" answer was "a parabola."  My friend insisted the correct answer is "an ellipse," which is an obvious correction for the curvature of the earth since the ski jumper's velocity is clearly not precisely escape velocity, which is the criterion for a parabolic orbit.  My friend lost his argument with the test grader.  He flunked physics. . . and out of school.

Then there was my "C student" who shot to the top of the class when we went to a self-paced, mastery format.  His understanding of those "simple but subtle" concepts which underlie physics was superb.  He became my best proctor for mastery testing of other students on conceptual course objectives.  When we returned to traditional lecture format, he returned to his "C-student" status.

Virtually every student has one or several intellectual skills by which that student excels.  Rank ordering students–or anyone else–by some scalar of intelligence is like a totally colorblind view of color.  It's a one-dimensional view of a multidimensional space. This logical error of the IQ concept is seen by some and plaintively pleaded.  But it persists and is pervasive.

A plot of intelligence must be multi-dimensional, just as a plot of color must be.  The people who produced the TV program on color vision were undoubtedly strong on some scalar of intelligence, certainly the IQ one.  But they were weak on one factor of inoculation against "The Singles"[?] : they did not see multiple dimensionality.

When Richard Feynman evaluated seventeen shelf-feet of science textbooks for the California State Curriculum Commission, he found all of the textbooks "were written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always!..."  (See "Judging Books by their Covers," in Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman.)  He found those textbooks to be useless for teaching science and "UNIVERSALLY LOUSY! . . . Perpetual absurdity."  We can be pretty certain those writers would test rather high on IQ tests.  But the science they tried to teach is at the edges of human comprehension, and not what it seems at first.  They hadn't looked further to achieve those "Eurekas."  They hadn't worked hard enough to suppress the Herpes simpletonisus virus so as to work within those other dimensions of intelligence.  They had learned their science, but the learning was hollow.  It wasn't useful knowledge.  (Quo vadis?)

How difficult it is for us to imagine a bird's six-dimensional color!  Just as it's virtually impossible for a protanope to imagine "normal" human color.  Joy P. Guilford finds about seventeen dimensions for the space we should plot human intelligence in.  How staggeringly difficult is for us to even start to imagine the properties of this space.  And how easy to let that Herpes simpletonisus virus take over and let us rank order people by their intellectual "value."

"Simpleton is us" is not a put down.  It is a fact of life we are born with.  Just like its namesake, Herpes simplex, once we have it we never get rid of it.  We can only suppress its active inflammation of our nervous system. Simpletonisus corrupts our knowledge (a function of our central nervous system), and we must immunize against it's effects by extending the scope, the dimensions, of our thinking.

"Simpleton is us" cannot be a put down.  Logically, it can't.  Because "down" is a valid concept only in a scalar world.  It's like saying one color "is less than" another color: meaningless!

Centuries of science teaching have passed with most teachers virtually unaware that most of their students were learning prodigiously but without useful understanding.  Even today, most physics instructors would, I believe, be surprised at the responses to the bouncing ball problem most of their former students would give.  Even their "A students."  Inability to easily see the answer to this question puts into question a person's useful comprehension of almost all of an elementary physics course.  (In fact, most who do easily see it suspect that it must have a catch to it because it's one of those "Who wrote Beethoven's fifth symphony?" kind of questions.  It answers itself in the last phrase.  There's no catch.  Beethoven wrote Beethoven's fifth.)

But, in the last decade or so, awareness of the problem has reached a critical mass, and new research has shown us ways to help learners widely achieve understanding at depths not before seen except in the "brilliant" student.

So, what do we mean by a "brilliant" student?

Nothing. . . . . . 

         . . . And it is here we are getting close to The Platinum Plover Egg.

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