Wednesday, March 09, 2011

a cooperative view of intelligence

Einstein said, "my pencil and I are smarter than I am." And in that simple phrase, we see illuminated the foolishness of excessive reliance on standardized testing. We think that intelligence resides in our heads, but it actually lies within our social relationships and is embodied in the tools we use. Recent research on elephants confirms they are smarter than some would think they are, and also illustrates one particular failing of our own excessive dependence on standardized testing in American education. According to the article, Elephants Ace Intelligence Test,
Elephants recently tested for their intelligence and ability to work with others, astounded scientists with their aptitude to learn and solve problems.

Two of them even outsmarted the scientists who developed the test.

Do we ever test students in cooperative problem solving? And if not, why not? We test instead for those things which are most easily measured and quantified... not for those things which our students most need for their future success. Student ability to engage in cooperative problem solving is the most essential quality for their success in the work place. But we arrange schooling as competitive rather than cooperative. We separate those who are mechanically inclined from those who have no mechanical insight. We separate those who are interested in math from those whose interests are literary or scientific, and in essence we take away the "pencils" upon which our children's futures depend.

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, first, second and third grade students finished their dinosaur making project. For those who were already finished dinosaurs last week, we had "design your own dinosaur day." I had made a prototype which you can see in the photo below which I called a "dougasaurus." Can't we see why working together with real tools to solve problems through creative engagement is the most important thing we can experience in school? Our choice is either duh, or make fix and create.


  1. Actually, a lot of what standardized testing tests for are important job skills that all too few students- even those with good grades- have. I remember back in the 80s we hired a school teacher as an assistant manager- she was fed up with the school system, and just looking for good pay; and as she had a Master's degree, we were happy to get her. At first. Our first sign of trouble was when she described 3 7/8 as, and I quote, "Four minus one of the little things; not the littlest one, but the one next to it." And her math skills were not up to THAT standard.

    The really scary part? After we mutually agreed to part ways, she went back to teaching- at a raise.

  2. Joel, believe it or not, there are engineering graduates that don't know their fractions... they've never been required to use them for anything. Even if you knew things at one point, if you don't use what you know, the brain discards or cleanses itself of that information. The hands and hands on learning build clear pathways for the retrieval of information. So hey say use it or lose it. I say that in most cases we either use it or we won't really get it in the first place. Real knowledge must become embodied.

  3. Wanted to share this link with you. It is a workshed in London where kids will have tools to make, build and fix things. There seems to be a social/cooperative component also.

  4. Anonymous12:59 AM

    "We" do sometimes have kids do group projects for a group grade, and I've been involved in university engineering projects that were all about teaching teamwork. Lots of teacher think this is worthwhile. But once you hang a "grade" on the performance, people get nervous. Is this fair? What if Johnny worked harder, shouldn't he get credit? But then we'd have to ask, why is this a problem? In real life people make different contributions, depending on the abilities, interests, and extenuating factors.

    One "rule of thumb" I've come to rely on is that schools are largely ruled by fear. School boards fear activist parents, teachers fear tests, kids fear humiliation and failure... I'd bet the #1 reason we don't see more innovation in school is that somebody is afraid of how someone else will criticize the effort.