Can You Teach People to be Smart?

George P. Davison, Head of School
Adopted from a talk at the Annual Patron’s Breakfast in February 2015.
Can you teach people to be smart? This question, of course, forces us to ask another question: - What do we mean by smart?
I have had a good time asking people what they think it means to be smart.  Here is the consensus. Smart people:
  • Are quick at assimilating and processing information.
  • Can see through the fog of conflicting information and come up with an answer that is not only correct, but often is not obvious and even contrary to conventional wisdom.
  • Are the ones who see how things fit, whether it is an artistic sensitivity or the basic puzzles of life.
Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary tells us that the word smart is derived from the Old English word for pain, smeortan, as in, “that smarts.” Maybe that is why we think smarty pants people are all such pains. Not until you get down to the third level of definitions do you arrive at the more familiar versions like brisk, spirited, mentally alert, bright, shrewd, clever, sophisticated and stylish -- but you do not find the term intelligent.
When we talk about smart we are not talking about genius. Genius is generally limited to one field. Geniuses are not necessarily geniuses outside of their area of genius. For example, I can teach someone to hit a baseball, but I cannot teach someone to be a Hall of Fame player. I do not believe that genius can be taught. It is a product of nature and genetics. Genius does need to be cultivated, but that is a subject for another time.
We are also not talking about people with prodigious memories. There are people who can memorize large piles of information and give it right back to you. They can do it rapidly, which can be very useful, but they are not necessarily smart. Similarly, there are those who can learn many languages with seemingly no effort. They have an uncanny knack for assimilating codes. An amazingly impressive attribute, but also not teachable or smart by itself.

Through my research, I have devised an acronym for smart:
S.M.A.R.T.T. - Strategic, Multi-Step, Artful, Repeatable, Timeless and Timely.  So can we teach people to be that way?  You have probably guessed that my answer is yes, otherwise why would this be our subject today?
I will begin with an anecdote from my youth. I had a friend with whom I basically went to school for my whole life.  We were together through elementary school, boarding school and college.  We were at the same university for graduate school; he went to law school and I got a degree in education. He always got better grades than I. I think it was 10th grade when I asked him for the secret to his success. His reply astounded me. "I try to get the maximum grade with the minimum effort."  His answer bounced right off my consciousness. I had two reactions. If I am killing myself just staying close enough to eat his dust, how could I possibly come close if I eased up? My code has long been that while I might get outsmarted, I will never get out worked. My second reaction was, what a waste. Think about how much more he could do if he worked like me. A little self-justification and then I could feel that I was better after all.

What I did not realize was that he had figured out how to be strategic. He would start with the goal. He would analyze which steps were vital for achieving the goal and which were extraneous and then only do those that were necessary. I, by contrast, would start with the first step, power through each of the steps in order until I reached the goal much later with more information than I needed. All this surplus information clouded my ability to discern what the right answer might be, and I had used much more of that finite resource of energy. He would get a sparkly-eyed A, and I would get a bleary-eyed B+.
I had the moral of the tortoise and hare story backward. I thought, as most people, that slow and steady wins the race. My friend was smarter. He understood that the moral was that if you are the hare, stay goal-focused and you will win every time.

So can we teach people to be strategic? Yes, but only if we give them the correct framework first. Too often in schools we present material one step at a time. We ask students to repeat material until they have proven that they mastered it, then we allow them to move on. In his book, “How We Learn,” Benedict Carey shows that mixing up the things we ask students to repeat actually allows them to learn skills more quickly. It also shows students how to pick the quickest and most effective process for solving a problem or defining a course of action. That can mean giving different kinds of math problems in a problem set. It can mean breaking a class into distinct and different activities that are dissimilar but related. The effect is to create a habit of mind that is comfortable with multiple solutions not just "the right one.” 
One of the interesting studies referenced in Carey's book is about the correlation between environments when something is learned and when it is accessed. If you study while listening to jazz and are tested listening to jazz, you will do better than if you are tested in silence. Vice versa, if you study in silence you will do better if you are tested in silence than if you are tested listening to jazz.
There are two takeaways here. First, if our job is to prepare students for a life where their intelligence will be called upon in multiple environments, then we should be teaching them in multiple environments. Second, if we are teaching to a test, we should teach only in the environment of the test. (So the next time your child says they need music to concentrate as they study for the test, ask them if the teacher will be playing the same music during the test.)

An impediment to teaching strategic thinking is that we have built curricula that value processing through material at a fixed rate. Students, quite rightly, see that the goal for which they are rewarded is processing through material. This is the “Test is King” culture of education, which does prepare students for tests, but does not teach them to be smart. In order for students to learn to be goal focused instead of process focused, we need to build goal driven elements into the program and reward them for first identifying and then attaining that goal.
Obviously, this has to be spiraled so the number of steps grows as they grow, but it also has to be valued at the same level as the standard processing fare. It can be the JK Variety Show, the Lewis and Clarke Museum in 2nd grade, Medieval Day in 5th grade, robotics teams in Middle School and High School, the Science Fair in 7th & 8th, lab electives in 9th, March Madness in 10th, or service learning in 11th and 12th.  
Another great book on the power of project-based learning, “Shop Class As Soul Craft,” by Matthew Crawford, lays out how goal-oriented work is just as powerful, if not more powerful a teacher of strategic multi-step thinking as any purely cognitive exercise. The road to being smart is not vocational education, but the habits of mind that come from it are crucial to being smart.

You cannot be smart in a vacuum. You need to have a basis of knowledge. A gear head has to know how an engine works in order to figure out what is wrong and fix it. A neuro-scientist needs to know the inner workings of the brain in order to devise a new cure for Parkinson’s.  In order to do something smart in a particular realm, we need to have the essential background. Preparation is vital. You do not need Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 reps, but you do need to be prepared.

The flip side of preparation is that we often see people who become overwhelmed by too much information and do not make the smart move because they cannot, or do not take the time to, sort it. Sometimes you need to take time away from a problem and let it incubate. In his book, “Be Successful at Anything, “Tony Schwartz swears by sleep. In one study, a group of people were taught material for a whole day. At the end of the day half of the group were tested on what they learned. The other half were sent home without access to the material and were given the same test the next morning. Who did better? The sleepers, by a huge margin.
The power nap really works. In addition to sleep, one might take long walks, cook a meal, do something entirely different. We have to leave the brain alone and let it do the work of sorting through the data. Clear your head. Take a deep breath. Walk away. Don't rush it.  Everything does not have to be done yesterday. Sometimes the best things come to those who wait. These are all folk wisdom sayings that actually are smart.

If we want to teach people to think deeply, then schools need to build a reward structure that honors quality over quantity and allows students to understand how to pace themselves appropriately. Things need to be timely but not necessarily on time. We have tried to build new schedules at GCS that allow for more time in and between classes when students can incubate and consolidate. The schedule though is still quite an unforgiving task master and not a universal panacea.

Smart people are smart not just because they are prepared and allow ideas to incubate. They are smart because they actually have that moment of illumination. They are smart because they put things together in a way others did not immediately see, but once seen was quite obvious.
There are two keys to creating these moments of synthesis: one is being sufficiently prepared and rested to put things together, and the second is discerning that it really works. We teach synthesis, and we teach discernment and critical thinking. We must make students unafraid to try new combinations and reward originality. The whole point of literary analysis in English and expository writing in history is to practice these skills. That is what problem solving is all about in math. We should do more to bring these skills into real life situations, which brings us back to student-driven projects that engage their passions and interests.

Just because I think something is a smart idea, does not make it so. Just because other people think it is smart, does not make it so. It has to stand the test of time, and it has to be timely and for its time. Smart people verify the efficacy of an idea before they move forward with it. I could announce right now that the school was going to end teaching of distinct disciplines and develop a completely project-based STEAM approach to teaching JK-12. I might be right about that being the future, but my future would probably be unemployed, as I don’t think the community is ready for that. (Let the record show, however, that I would never make that particular suggestion on its merits, as I do not believe it would stand the test of time.) Fads come and go. They seem so smart when they are first broached, but soon we see that they missed a key step. Discerning people may have seen the flaw from the beginning. 
We teach discernment across the curriculum. In history, English and science, we ask students to question assumptions. Smart people, though, do not suffer from “paralysis by analysis.” Being timely means that the neither idea nor the action is too late. A smart idea whose time is past is just as lost as one that is wrong.  We have to teach students to trust their judgment and give them opportunities to build things that are very good without always asking for perfection.
Smart people have good strategic sense. Smart people are able to make multi-step associations that are not obvious. Smart design brings together seemingly disparate elements into a synergy that when achieved seems completely natural. Smart is not lucky because it does not just happen once. People who are smart make smart decisions or do smart things repeatedly. Smart decisions stand the test of time. Smart decisions and ideas happen in a timely way.
Do we teach kids to be smart in American schools? Yes. Some of the time. Can we teach them to be smart all of the time?  I think we can if we challenge our assumptions about how we organize learning so that it is consistent with how they will be using their “smarts” in life going forward.