In our last post about our research project in primary schools, Dan and I talked about the way education is largely justified to kids in terms of its economic value, and the dangers – as well as philosophical inconsistencies – of that paradigm.


This time, we’re going to talk about the dangers of one-dimensional notions of intelligence (which were prominent in most of our interviews with kids) as well as about the point of teaching in a world with the internet.


              We need a broader understanding of intelligence.

When we asked kids what being academically clever meant, their responses rarely pointed to creative problem-solving or critical thinking; rather, they largely attributed ‘cleverness’ to skills like speed, memory-power, and factual knowledge.


Ken Robinson points out that reconfiguring our understanding of intelligence doesn’t mean finding an equally narrow definition to replace the ‘speed and memory’ assumption – rather, it means recognising the breadth of the concept. That means that attributes like speed or fact-retention do matter, but they’re not the whole story; someone who doesn’t excel at those things can still be intelligent – they may just tick a different set of boxes from the multitude.


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   But aren’t schools just a mirror of society?


As with so many of the issues which study of education brings to the fore, all this is not the fault of school system alone. Bernstein’s comment about school being unable to compensate for society is so over-cited (and appropriated for all kinds of questionable policy agendas) that I hesitate to even mention it, but we have to recognise that we live in a world in which the TV programme ‘Child Genius’ is dominated by tasks like memorising the British motorway system; in other words, there are wider societal assumptions at play which contribute to our understanding of concepts like intelligence.


Nonetheless, schools are both an echo chamber for and an active creator of our society’s values; it may be a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but we have to break the cycle somewhere. School philosophy has a critical role to play in broadening our understanding of the value of different kinds of intelligence.

An economic justification, because we always need one of those, apparently


In case you’re reading this and you aren’t actually convinced (or someone you know isn’t convinced) that we should equally value creativity, independent thinking, or originality in the classroom as much as speed and memory-power, then here’s a justification in economic terms.


The creative industries were the fastest growing industry sector in 2014 (worth £8m an hour to the UK economy). We live in a world in which a computer can calculate vast sums in seconds, and most raw facts are available in the 0.50 seconds it takes Google to find them. It no longer makes sense to field the argument that our society ‘needs’ memory-whizzes and super-fast-mental-maths capabilities over and above critical, creative, lateral thinkers.

By Freya Aquarone and Dan Selwyn

Google takes around half a second to find facts about badgers.


The value of teaching in a school system not oriented around facts.


Of course, true understanding is not the same as memorisation. Despite all the information on the internet, and the incredible amount people do learn from peer-to-peer learning in the virtual realm, great teaching is irreplaceable. But that’s because it does what the internet or the people communicating by it cannot so easily do: develop a meaningful connection with another human being and, in doing so, inspire them to engage deeply, playfully, sincerely with the world around them.


I heard a kid on the bus yesterday saying to another, ‘sometimes I think teachers don’t know anything, because it’s all just in the book in front of them – what’s the point?’. The fact that they said this shows how poorly their school – and the wider system which largely determines its actions – is doing in educating its kids.


Most teachers will agree, I’m sure, that teaching is not about the mechanical transfer of raw knowledge (though not all agree, such as one of primary school teachers who had us rote learning paragraphs about Henry VIII off the board. Shudder.) Such a process is especially redundant in a world in which we do not need to rely on the all-knowing teacher or their encyclopedia to know the capitals of countries or the way to calculate radius.


Rather, it’s about transferring knowledge in such a way that the kids in our care grow up increasingly interested in the world, and with an increasing number of tools at their disposal for putting that interest into practice.

It’s a well-worn phrase that kids are not born lacking curiosity (for an original take, see this song about school from the musical Matilda, based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name). An interest in the world is not something we need to inculcate in kids – like some kind of mass vaccination scheme. It’s something we need to protect and fuel. And, bringing us back to the point from this slight deviation, doing that means making sure that the kids who don’t get a thrill from developing an encyclopedic memory don’t end up like that kid on the bus: thinking the only point of being there is learn to do what the internet could do for them.

Matilda, from the original Roald Dahl book, drawn by Quentin Blake.

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              Why the best teachers in the world cannot solve this problem alone.


It’s important to say at this stage: we met and spoke to so many teachers in mainstream schools doing astonishing and inspiring work – trying their damned best to foster curiosity, imagination and a love of exploration in their kids. They are the secret reason why Britain’s schools – in spite of the top-down restrictions – have so many wonderful sides to them, and why so many kids do make it through the system without too many scratch-marks.


But practitioners face an uphill struggle in achieving deep philosophical and practical change when the system they have to teach to speaks otherwise; you can tell a kid that artistic talent matters just as much as geometry, that their love of making working model cars is an awesome talent and one to be proud of, but when schools are assessed on GCSE results including English and maths, and when SATs are oriented around a narrow set of academic skills, the day to day reality for that child – not to mention the school’s allocation of time and resources – will implicitly tell them a different story.

PS – just to counter some of the cold economics above…


…there is also intelligence that is hard to convert to units of financial worth, but which I think most of us intuitively recognise as valuable in a very different way. This was summed up in the most refreshing deviation from the standard one dimensional definition of intelligence that we heard, when a child in a Steiner school eloquently explained to us how someone can be ‘clever at maths’ as well as ‘clever at trees’, the latter involving knowing how to climb a tree without damaging or falling out of it.

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