To Be Intelligent
What does it mean to be broadly intelligent? Our schools and communities need to develop this capacity in our young people as they face the complex challenges of life today. Research on the brain and its infinite complexity can help.
For several summer holidays, when my three sons were young, we had swapped our home just outside Cambridge, England, with friends in Virginia. To our children, America was a land of long summer days, plenty of ice cream, and visits to national parks and historical sites.
Late one evening back in England, we were driving home from a day in the country with the children. My wife played a Garrison Keillor tape - the one describing his fictitious one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota. "At one end of the room there was a portrait of George Washington and at the other end one of Abraham Lincoln, beaming down at us like two long-lost friends," Keillor drawled in his best Lake Wobegon style.
"That's silly," piped up 7-year-old Tom. "They weren't alive at the same time, so how could they have been friends?"
I asked Tom how he knew that. "Well," he said, "when we went to Mount Vernon they said how sad it was that Washington didn't live into the 19th century - and you once told me Lincoln was born after Admiral Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar." His logic, and the connections he had built, fascinated me.
Several years later, at a dinner party in Seattle, I recounted that story. "How I wish American elementary schools taught history as well as that!" mused our host, a professor of education.
"That's silly," said our adolescent Tom. "History lessons in school are boring. I just love everything to do with America!"
My wife interjected, "What's your favourite subject?"
"It's maths, because my teacher always gets us to think about connections and patterns. That's really interesting; I can see how things come together."
Patterns and relationships, emotions, the need to make sense, intrinsic interest, formal and informal learning, history dates, and mathematical formulas - these elements in Tom's learning defy any logical structure. The process of learning is wondrously spectacular and messy, and it does not easily fit within a closely defined, classroom-based curriculum - particularly for adolescents.
Try as we might to accommodate children's spontaneous questions, too often their natural enthusiasm is dulled by the needs of the system for order. Nevertheless, the capacity for self-organisation ("I want to think this out for myself") is valued more and more highly in our society, which is changing so rapidly that today's questions are answered almost overnight. Some people call such an ability wits. In the north of England, people use an old expression - nous, a level of common sense that goes beyond book learning. It's what the brain is all about.
Reprinted with the permission of the 21st Century Learning Initiative.
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