As part of the first class in my teacher education program, I was sent to observe a decorated science teacher at a local high school and write about his practices, his students, and his classroom. I was quickly smitten with the man, who taught AP Physics and other exclusive classes. I loved that he incorporated inquiry into his teaching, that he seemed to have an easy rapport with his students, and that he seemed to love being in the classroom.When lunchtime came around I got to chat with him. One thing he said struck me. Not because I had never heard it before, but because my ideas about education were changing. He said that he felt lucky to be teaching “the brightest students in the school.”“Bright” is a pretty vague adjective. I assume he meant it as a synonym for intelligent – he was teaching the most intelligent students in the school. He took their presence in the most exclusive classes as evidence of their superior intelligence. He may have also taken into account their behavior, and their level of interest in what he taught as evidence of their brightness. The corollary of this belief, of course, is that the great majority of the school body was less “bright” than these students.I regret not asking him to expand on that thought. So he believed that the students not in his classes lacked a quality of mind – brightness – that would allow them to understand what he was teaching. But, did he believe that you either have it or you don’t? Or was he just referring to that moment in time? At that moment – that semester – his students were the only ones who made the choice and were accepted to take his classes and only the brightest could do that. Did he believe that the others could, under ideal circumstances, be successful in AP Physics? Would they then be bright? Can a student be dim one day and then later bright? Or would that mean that they were bright all along? That their light had just been somehow obscured?
I really don’t know what he believed. The way we talk about intelligence and ability obscures our beliefs. I have heard people use the word intelligence in two different ways in the same conversation. At once it’s a fixed trait that some people have and others don’t and then it’s something that you can acquire or build and then lose. Listen to the way people use the word “smart.”
Is intelligence about how easy it is for us to learn things or about how thoroughly we learn them? Or is it just about what we can do with our minds that other do not, cannot or have not?
Of course this is of the utmost importance for a teacher to think about, figure out. We are in the business of intelligence, but we hold on to contradictory ideas and vague language. And it’s hurting our students. For example, if we believe that evidence of intelligence is success in America’s schools than it follows that the “achievement gap” is really an intelligence gap. I’m smart enough to know that it’s not.