Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Day 13: If Students Were Olympians

Listening to Olympic athletes describe their failures compels me to confront my goals and expectations for my students. Many of the athletes I have heard in post-game interviews are quite frank about their failures. However, it is not their frankness itself which impresses me. What impresses me is their ability to breakdown their process: to the steps they took or didn't take, the moves they made or didn't made, and how the combined effect of those steps and missteps, moves and mistakes resulted in their "failure." For these athletes, failure is not absence (or presence) of one thing or another, but is, more often than not, a failure to execute specific actions. Rarely have I heard "I don't have the talent." You hear, instead, "I didn't do what I needed to do."

As I have already opined, there are many aspects of athletics I would import to the classroom. However, in many regards I am talking about what the space of athletics affords that the classroom may not.

I think students often suffer under the assumption that intelligence is a possession rather than an activity (although we do suffer under the notion of talent in athletics as well). And while there are certain baseline cognitive requirements for intelligence, cognition is highly plastic and largely cultivated through practice (I here draw on the work of Andy Clark). As many educators would attest to (I hope), student failure is often not because they lack something. Failure results from not executing specific actions in time. A failure to study in advance of the exam. A failure to develop study habits to effectively utilize study time. A failure to prepare a proper area in which to study. These are all activities that "result" in what we objectify as "intelligence." And as much as teachers focus on activity and the steps students much take, our societal assumptions about "intelligence" often make this an uphill battle.


  1. I'd be a little careful about this analogy--don't run with it too hard in your mind. I mean, I can see comparing "student success" to success in Olympic sports, but you made a leap to intelligence that seems unnecessary and fraught with problems. In 2010, with the wild financial circumstances in our country, with the surplus of people holding B.A.s looking to get jobs, the intelligent thing may be to refuse the standards demanded by college. It reminds me of a little ditty I teach from Ben Franklin every semester, "Remarks concerning the Savages." In it, Franklin tells the story of an Indian chief who says "thanks but no thanks" to an offer by some Pennsylvania whiteys to "educate" six young Indians at U Penn:

    "But who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this Kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it: Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counselors; they were totally good for nothing."

    That may seem like too predictably po-mo of a move, but it seems relevant. It's easy to forget that "college" represents a set of values--and that some of our worst students may be some of our most intelligent.

    So in summary: student success may be the cumulation of a sequence of right & prescribed actions; but intelligence may almost be defined by being not that.

    Anyway, I'd love to just hear one of my students admit candidly, "I don't have the talent to do this." Ha!

  2. Certainly it is problematic to equate intelligence with success at the university level. Your point is well taken. I think the thanks but thanks response would be apt. However, I would still argue that intelligence is, as you paraphrase me, "the [ac]cumulation of a sequence of right & prescribed actions." I would argue, however, that this is true outside of how the university describes intelligence. As an educator (which we both are), I have to believe intelligence is something that can be worked on. And, as someone who reads a fair amount of cognitive science, I believe that there is much evidence to support my position.

    As educators, you and I, we must finally ask ourselves if education the extraction of diamonds from the rough (which seems to be your position - correct me if I am wrong) or the activity of compression that results in the cultivation of diamonds (which would be my position, I guess)?

  3. I don't disagree that intelligence can be cultivated... in fact, I agree strongly! I just want to make sure we're understanding each other in our definition of that term. And, well, here we are again--me playing Derrida.

    Interesting metaphor. I can't tell if that's my position or not. I think... so.