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Successful, Not Smart

Why Schools and Parents Have It
Wrong, and How to Get It Right

Part 0, and part of Part 1

Shortly before I headed off to college, I asked my father what he thought success was. He thought for a moment, and said, “Success means getting up in the morning and looking forward to going to work.”

That still seems profoundly minimalistic, something I always admire, like a great John Prine lyric (“She felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon”) or a recipe that makes the most of the fewest ingredients (the simplest tagliata). As a mini-ode to simplicity, my father enjoys nothing more than a good bike ride. In 2015 he set a personal best, logging over 6100 miles. If you’re not inclined to do the math right now, that’s three 40-mile rides a week — for a guy who’s 82. He also works three mornings a week in a super-high-end … wait for it … bike shop.

(Two paragraphs in, and I see I’ve already digressed.)

I think about my father’s words from time to time. Sure, my dad is plenty “smart,” but as I unpack his statement now, I realize that, without thinking about it, I didn’t ask what made him smart. I asked what made him successful.

Since leaving school work about 18 months ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about a handful of intersecting ideas:

  • Why are successful people not always the “smart” kids? Conversely, why are the “smart” kids in school not always successful later?
  • Why do schools often fail to engage many students who are obviously bright and, well, engaging?
  • Why are the ultimate school measures of “smart” (final exams, state tests, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT, acceptance at the so-called “elite” colleges) so poorly correlated with success after school — especially when compared to the correlation of “success” with the results of hard work — like grades?
  • And, the question that arguably underpins all the others: Why do schools spend so much time seeking to develop an archaic view of “smart,” and so little time developing most of the abilities of successful people?

I don’t have the patience or the stomach to try to answer that last question — at least not ad infinitum or even ad nauseam. Besides, many have beaten me to it: Witness the bookstore shelves sagging under the tonnage of ink and paper devoted to school policy and leadership — not to mention the entire Franklin-Covey empire.

Rather, I anticipate this as the first piece in a colloquial undertaking, not a scientific one. I’m interested in this question:

Given what we know about the abilities students need to become successful people, why do our schools do such a lousy job of preparing students — and how can we do better?

More than just a test score.jpg

So, begging the question: What are the abilities that make people successful?

Over the past 20 years or so I’ve put that question, or a form of it, to countless students and teachers and parents, in a wide variety of settings. I’m not surprised that the responses vary only slightly depending on the constituency and the era. Admittedly, I haven’t kept stats, so if I can’t verify that what I’m about to list are the Top Ten abilities — but I’ll go to bat saying they’re ten of the top abilities, as I’ve heard them from, well, nearly everybody:

  • The ability to plan and prioritize tasks
  • The ability to communicate ideas effectively
  • The ability to cooperate and compromise with others
  • The ability to ask for help when it’s needed
  • The ability to continue pursuing a goal after setbacks (“grit”)
  • The ability to learn from mistakes
  • The ability to reflect on experience and to accept constructive criticism
  • The ability to learn from others, and to appreciate different strengths
  • The ability to maintain a positive attitude
  • The ability to think logically and rationally, and to use information effectively

As I said, this is not a statistically verifiable list, and sure, we could disagree around the edges — but I think it’s hard to dispute that the list is a pretty solid one. A “Top Ten,” however, isn’t really the point; it doesn’t matter whether we change one or two of the items, whether your “top ten” are slightly different from these, whether the essential abilities really number eight or 15.

The list is merely a tool to explore a larger point, namely: that most schools are so focused on traditional content that they barely help students develop the abilities and habits essential for success. In fact, with only one or two abilities excepted, I’d argue that schools do a fair-to-partly-cloudy job of developing the abilities that are essential to people’s success.

A note about a famous guy…

Some may read this whole fulmination as a kinda-sorta restatement of Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” And in some ways, I admit that my thinking owes a debt to Gardner’s work, if only indirectly. Still, I think my ideas exist comfortably with Gardner’s, as complements, even though his are certainly more academic and scientific.

[Disclaimers: For whatever it’s worth, I decided against taking Gardner’s class in grad school when I had the opportunity. Also, I’ve never actually read his books, including the (reputedly) seminal Frames of Mind, completely. Yeah, I know — and I called myself a school administrator. Pshaw.]

That said, it’s important to distinguish Gardner’s ideas about “intelligences,” and the work his many votaries have implemented in schools, from the well intentioned but simplistic vogue of “learning styles” — a point that Gardner himself made a few years back in a brief, energetic, well argued Washington Post piece.

Gardner’s best-known work, that on multiple intelligences, seems to assume that “intelligence” actually comprises many components, or “intelligences,” all of which together account for one’s overall “intelligence” — a concept I can support despite its semantic awkwardness to my ears. I diverge with Gardner semantically in that I understand “intelligence,” however one defines it, as the sum of many abilities. Some of those abilities are explicitly “thinking” abilities, and together they may conflate as the sum total of “intelligence.” But it’s also important to understand that some abilities are not necessarily related to “thinking” in a traditional sense — but rather to interaction, to reaction, to perception, or to temperament. The use of the term “intelligence,” or its plural “intelligences,” rather than the broader "ability” or “abilities” — obscures this point.

For the sake of clarity, I have come mostly to avoid using the term “intelligence” (as well as the term “smart,” if not quite so adamantly). I avoid it because I have observed that the word “intelligence,” at least in the popular use, almost always connotes, to use Gardner’s terminology, linguistic and logical-mathematical “intelligence.” When we say, “Tasha is so intelligent [smart, bright],” our meaning is narrow: We are almost always referring to Tasha’s linguistic and/or logical abilities. If you doubt that, ask: Did you think the compliment referred to Tasha’s musicianship (Gardner’s “musical intelligence”) or her lightning-quick turns in the 100-meter backstroke (“bodily-kinesthetic intelligence”)? No? No. Me neither.

Reinforcing that limited view of “intelligence,” there is a tendency among nearly all people, especially those of high logical and linguistic intelligence themselves, to see those particular “intelligences” as the ones that really represent “intelligence.” I think it is no accident that those are the kinds of intelligences easily measured and scored by the very tests that obscure and devalue people’s other abilities. Sic transit gloria mundi. Or, in its English translation: Follow the money — in this case, to the testing industry.

And so I will try to be precise when using terms that refer to various capabilities.

One final introductory semantic note — important to any pretentious academic paper, yes? When I use the term “ability,” I think we could almost always interchange the term “skills.” In fact, I think “skills” even implies a bit more elasticity than “abilities,” which shades toward the innate, rather than the malleable and “developable.” But given the slight difference I perceive in their definitions, I am generally comfortable using either term.

Project-based classroom.jpg

So with that in mind by way of introduction, let’s consider the specific abilities listed above, the ways they play out in schools and families, the implications of our biases toward “smart,” and the ways we could become increasingly oriented to “successful.”

Ability 1: The ability to plan and prioritize tasks

When my daughter was a high school sophomore, she was selected for the varsity volleyball team, a nice honor. At an introductory meeting for fall-season athletes, I was discouraged, but not surprised, to hear the school’s athletic director explain in very sober tones to students and parents alike: “At this school we always put ‘student’ before ‘athlete.’ You kids will need to manage your time well if you want to be successful student-athletes.”

The threat, implied but clear, was: “Woe be unto the kids who don’t manage their time well. Theeeyyyyy won’t be successful.”

First: Duh.

Second: How? (I am reduced to mono-syllables when confronted with any heavy idea.) I mean, how will they manage their time well?

The question is a serious one. Time management is a skill — innate to some people, learned through dogged perseverance by others, elusive to many despite practice. How are students supposed to manage their time well — indeed, how are they supposed to learn to manage their time well — if it’s not an innate ability?

Dot dot dot ...

Over the next several weeks or months I hope to pry into some of these questions in a more systematic way, and to look at some of the ways schools don’t address these fundamental abilities — but could.

Stay tuned.