Saturday, April 19, 2014

Knowledge versus Intelligence - My Take

Doing it the hard way is always easier.
Corollary to Murphy's Law

It now seems fashionable to say that intelligence is malleable and can grow over time.  Witness Mindsets Toward Learning from the Tomorrow's Professor blog.  On the one hand, I was happy to see Mindsets... as it seemed to confirm that a recent post of mine, Personal Transformation for Average Students - A Hypothetical, was at least in the ballpark on the goal if not the method. On the other hand, I was unhappy with Mindsets... as it seems to confound knowledge with intelligence and treat them as one and the same.  Below I will give my personal definitions of the two and then try to illustrate how they differ, but are related.

Mindsets... is written as an open letter to students, particularly those who are at least implicitly pessimistic about their own learning, because much of what they are studying seems over their heads.  The goal of the piece is laudable.  But because of the confounding I mentioned above, I found it less than satisfying.  Much of the basis of the letter is the research of Carol Dweck.  The difficulties I have with Mindsets... point to some issues in translating research results about learning into action plans for potential beneficiaries of that research.  A couple of years ago I had similar issues when I wrote about Ellen J. Langer's book, The Power of Mindful Learning.  It is not that I disagree that we should teach with a mindful learning approach.  We should.  It is that the experiments Langer reports about don't go far enough.  So good implementation needs to go beyond known research into areas that likely will be beneficial but the research hasn't confirmed that yet and it may be a long time coming.  (Atul Gawande's piece The Bell Curve has a very interesting presentation about going beyond known research in the practice of medicine.)  Going beyond known research might simply be a stab in the dark, in which case it should be frowned upon.  If it is done by expert practitioner's, however, it can be substantially better than mere trial and error.  These practitioner's have educated guesses about what will work. Those guesses are a product of intelligence coupled with knowledge rather than a result of just knowledge alone.

One exemplar who is given for the students in Mindsets... is Thomas Edison.  This well known quote of his, I believe, illustrates the issues at hand.

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

One big issue that Mindsets... correctly identifies with students, the ones who view intelligence as fixed, is that they don't put in nearly enough effort in their learning.  They are (mistakenly) pessimistic that the effort will not be productive, because they are lacking in that one percent that is genius.  Mindsets... is written as to put round-off error into that quote.  In the revised form, it is one hundred percent perspiration.  The message to the students is - you can learn as long as you put in the effort.  One might envision a dialog between the students for whom Mindsets... is intended and the authors of the piece.   The initial response by one of these students might be something like this:  "Okay, I need to put in additional effort.  How much do I need to put in?  When will I know that I've done enough?"  The authors, wanting to be truthful, might respond:  "You'll know when you understand what you've been studying.  It takes as long as it takes."  That is surely correct.  But it is an answer that won't please the student.  It leaves too much uncertain, both the time to get there and what understanding means.  In the presence of this uncertainty the student might fail, in spite of the effort.  Thus, my reading of Mindsets.... is that it wouldn't be persuasive in getting students who believe that intelligence is fixed to change their opinions.

We've reached a good juncture to give my definitions. I want to offer my disclaimer first.  I am not an education researcher.  I'm a practitioner.  These definitions might not concur with what scholars in the field would say.  They do make sense to me.

Knowledge - the concept is fundamentally retrospective.  Knowledge is acquired through experience of one sort or another.  It is exhibited primarily through recall, especially when it is quite clear what is being asked for ahead of time.

Intelligence - the concept is fundamentally prospective.  Intelligence is about "seeing" possibility in the presence of uncertainty.  There is prior knowledge of two and two.  Intelligence is about putting two and two together.  Intelligence is exhibited by showing a possible result that other knowledgeable people don't see.

The two often interplay.  Expression of knowledge in a novel context requires intelligence, because it must be determined whether that knowledge is appropriate for the context and the appropriateness is uncertain.  Conversely, it is already in the definition that expression of intelligence requires some prior knowledge. That the two concepts interplay doesn't make them one and the same.  They are two different concepts.

From this there arises two questions.  a) How is new knowledge acquired?  We call this generation of new knowledge invention.  (Mindsets... talks about how Edison invented the light bulb.)  b) How is already confirmed knowledge transferred from an expert to a novice?  There seem to be two possible answers to question (b).  One is via imitation.  The apprentice imitates the master.  After enough training of this sort, the apprentice becomes a master.  The other possibility is that the novice behaves as an inventor-in-waiting.  The novice discovers the knowledge as if it were fundamentally new.  After all, the knowledge is new to the novice.

The apprentice approach aims to establish competence in the novice, but it doesn't require expressions of intelligence.  One key component of the inventor-in-waiting approach is an expression of intelligence.  Learning this way requires expressions of intelligence on an on-going basis.  A third idea, related to the other two, is creativity.  As with the other two definitions, I will give my practitioner notion.

Creativity - the concept is distinct from intelligence but follows from it.  Intelligence is about generating the Aha! moment.  Creativity is about producing something useful, given the Aha.

Invention clearly requires both intelligence and creativity.  It also requires prior knowledge.  Otherwise there will be repetitions of reinventing the wheel.

Mindsets.... ignores the issue of whether students who view intelligence as malleable act as apprentices or as inventors-in-waiting.  That is one deficiency in the piece.  But there is an implied bias in Mindsets... toward the latter because it is a piece directed at the students, not at their teachers.  The authors clearly have in mind that students can change their mindsets on their own.

Let me close with the other problem in the way Mindsets... is written.  If, indeed, we want to encourage students to pursue a "discovery" approach to their own learning, but the students are skeptical that they're able to do this, a direct argument is unlikely to be persuasive.  Better would be to identify a context, quite possibly outside the school setting, where students already do use discovery methods to learn.  For example, one might have a conversation with students asking them about playing computer games.  Have they ever used cheat codes?  Why?  Have they had the experience where they've made good progress without the cheat codes?  What did it take to do that?   After a conversation of this sort one can pop the meta question?  What fundamental difference, if any, is there between playing a computer game and going about school work?

Let us get back to Edison.  The authors of Mindsets... do use this quote.

I have not failed 700 times. I've succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a light bulb.

The quote is clear evidence of Edison's optimistic outlook.  Might it show something else as well?  Although each of those times entailed some perspiration, could it be that the experiences were fun for Edison as well?  In other words, did Edison treat these experiments much the same way as current day kids treat playing computer games?

It may end up that it takes 700 tries before the result is attained, but at each try until the last one the inventor is looking for that short cut which will get him to the promised land in one fell swoop.  The finding of that short cut is fun.  And it requires intelligence.

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