What Is "Smart?"

DS2 original.jpg
I was honored to be part of a discussion panel at The Franklin Institute this past weekend to kick off this year's EduCon conference. The conference is an offshoot of the Science Leadership Academy, an amazing new Philadelphia public high school, and its visionary founder Chris Lehmann. The open-ended question posed to the panel was: "What is Smart?" Here are my slightly-edited opening remarks:

What is smart? This is a really exciting time to ask that question. For a century, we've been living under the oppressive yoke of innate-IQism, the idea championed by Francis Galton, Charles Spearman, and Lewis Terman, among others, that intelligence was something you were endowed with--whatever you got, you got.

This was not the attitude of Alfret Binet and Theodore Simon, who invented the IQ test in 1905 in order to identify French schoolchildren in need of most attention. The Binet-Simon test aimed to lift students up rather than assign them a permanent ranking. Binet said:

"[Some] assert that an individual's intelligence is a fixed quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism...With practice, training, and above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment, and literally to become more intelligent than we were before."

DS1 orig.jpg
But when the IQ test was adapted by the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, Binet's approach was replaced by a very different idea. Terman and his successors proclaimed that intelligence was a pre-loaded thing, and they packaged IQ tests in such a way that it seemed to prove that notion. In the last twenty years, that message has been reinforced by the very misleading idea of "heritability," which come from twin studies and have been interpreted by many as saying that intelligence is 50-60 percent inherited and pre-ordained by our individual genetic codes. 

Now we know better, for two reasons.

First, we've learned a lot more about the relationship of biology to ability. The idea that genes contain instructions for a fixed intelligence doesn't wash anymore. Genes don't issue fixed instructions for anything. Rather, genes interact with their environments. The process is totally dynamic and "interactionist." McGill University's Michael Meaney expresses it this way: "There are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the environment, and there are no environmental factors that function independently of the genome. [A trait] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment."

So it's not just the brain that is "plastic." This is also happening on a cellular level throughout our bodies. We call this "genetic expression"--our genes are constantly being turned on and off constantly by our environment. 
This is kind of a mind-blower of an idea, and takes some getting used to, but the bottom line is that all complex traits in human beings are the result of a dynamic process--and we can and do influence that process with our culture, our parenting, our teaching, and our desires and actions as individuals.

DS3 orig 290.jpg
That's the first point. 

Second, we now know from Betty Hart, Todd Risley, Robert Sternberg, Anders Ericsson, Carol Dweck, James Flynn, and many researchers that intelligence is, as Sternberg says, "a set of competencies in development."

In other words, intelligence is also a process. It is malleable. Getting kids to understand that malleability is vitally important. Carol Dweck's work powerfully reinforces that notion. Having the I-can-improve mindset rather than the some-people-are-just-gifted-and-others-aren't mindset is critical to achievement.

We need to talk about achievements and abilities as a matter of development rather than innate ability. That doesn't mean we pretend that we or our kids have total control over our lives--many influences come into play. But should imbue them with the wonder of what is possible.

Photo credit: Sarah Sutter
Presented by

David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

From This Author

Just In