Sunday, April 03, 2005

Learning from Pulp Fiction

When I’m flying somewhere I tend to read fiction, popular stuff that I wouldn’t read otherwise. I hate flying because I feel incredibly cramped and uncomfortable. I need something that will distract and hold my interest. And sitting in the airport of a connection city, while I will sometimes pull out my laptop, and in the odd event the wireless if free do email, the junk novel helps to be absorbed so that time passes.

The last couple of trips I’ve read Dan Brown books, first The Da Vinci Code and then Angels and Demons, both real page turners if not great literature. In both books the hero, Robert Langdon, is an academic, a Harvard Professor, an Art Historian. Of course he has a wealth of knowledge about the art, the artists, and religious/cultish organizations involved in the symbolic aspects of the work.

But what I want to concentrate on is his ability to solve puzzles, sometimes diabolic other times fairly straightforward, but always under rather intense time pressure. Langdon has that ability and so do the other brilliant people Langdon meets in the process of solving the mystery. It is interesting to me that intelligence is depicted as the ability to solve problems under time pressure. In film or on TV I can understand that as a plot device as there really is time pressure to have the story unfold. But in a book, even a page turner, there is space to develop the idea. Time pressure helps produce the suspense, the clock is ticking, yet if there were other ways to convey high intelligence (as distinct from intimacy with a body of factual knowledge) then I’d guess these other ways would be used. (I don’t recall that Sherlock Holmes was particularly speedy. His power was in making deductions – seeing evidence that was in front of everyone’s nose but only he could process in a way to understand what was really going on.) So I surmise that intelligence as rapid problem solving is something of a recent conception.

The issue I want to get at is whether that is accurate. Are people who are really smart also those who are “quick on their feet” in an intellectual sense? Further, does training our students to be quick on their feet in this sense help them to become really smart? We do a lot of this, some of it starting at increasingly young ages – intellectual life as the TV Game Jeopardy. For instance, my older son who is in seventh grade participates in something called “Scholastic Bowl” as part of his extracurricular school activities. This is like the old quiz show competitions. I did this on a show called “It’s Academic” which was popular in NYC in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But I was a junior and senior in high school then.

The quiz show stuff is regurgitation of disembodied information. In that sense it is unlike what is depicted in the Dan Brown novels. Closer to the mark is the SAT, particularly the math portion. There is problem solving of a sort. A lot of structure is already provided but the student still has to figure out what is being asked and oftentimes provide some framework to arrive at the answer. It is a problem solving test, not an arithmetic exam. And, of course, it is done under rather intense time pressure. Woe unto the kid who is deliberate and methodical and doesn’t complete all the questions. Many of the tests these kids will have in college, particularly in large science, math, or engineering classes will be similar in the problem solving nature and the time pressure.

There are a lot of hang ups about these tests because they are multiple choice. My own view on the Math test is that even with the multiple choice aspect a student has to solve the problems to do well. The test discriminates between those who do that and those who guess. So, at least at a standard deviation or two above the mean, the results of the test show the ability to solve those types of problems. But on whether that is intelligence, I’m more agnostic. I’m not willing to write it off completely, as some of my colleagues might, but I’m not willing to embrace it fully either. If being smart is something else in many cases, it sure would be nice to have suitable imagery of it to convey to the public.

No comments: