What is intelligence? Can we measure it? Do some have more of it than others?

I have just started to reread Stephen Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” If you have not read it—it is a must read, especially for anyone who calls themselves an educator.

intelligence test

He starts with two main points—or fallacies. One is the fallacy that intelligence is a thing at all. Rather, it is a construct, an idea. Intelligence is actually no more or less than we define it as.  The other fallacy he points out is ranking—as though there is some linear range, like height or weight on which to line up intelligence.

Our ideas of intelligence are socially and culturally created as well as historically situated, as Vyogtsky pointed out almost a century ago. Intelligence is only what we define it as. Our ideas of what it is are firmly entrenched in our belief systems, in our cultural paradigms. And also due to this any test of intelligence is to some degree a tautology. How do we prove someone is intelligent? Their score on the IQ test. How do we know that the IQ test is valid? We designed it so that those we “knew” were most intelligent got the highest scores and those we “knew” were less intelligence got the low scores. This is as true today of IQ tests as it was of the previous methods of measuring intelligence (craniology for instance). New versions of intelligence tests and even other forms of standardized testing are assessed on whether the same group that did well on the previous version do well on the new versions, and the same for those who did poorly—the curve needs to stay the same. If a different group does better on new test items (which are beta-tested first) those items are discarded as invalid (unless of course the test designers decide they want a different group to do better or worse).

The uni-dimensiality of intelligence has currently fallen into controversy, but it is as unprovable as intelligence itself—it is nether true nor untrue—since “intelligence” is what we define it as, we can choose to define it either way, and to categorize the different dimensions as we find useful.

The same is true of another assumption of intelligence—that it falls along a “normal curve.” This is a logical assumption based on other natural traits, such as height and weight. But we should not lose fact that it is another unprovable assumption, not a fact (and actually presupposes there is a thing called intelligence to measure and put on such a curve).

Because intelligence is a cultural construct, any test of it will be therefore biased toward those who share the knowledge, assumptions, world views and paradigms of the dominant culture. This again is unavoidable. A test has to have content, and any content exists in some context.

Because of these attributes of intelligence, I find the use of any measurement of intelligence highly suspect. When used to sort people in any official way, it is dangerous to a democratic society.

Sharing Economy

The term the sharing economy is thrown around a lot these days with new forms of online interactions. I would like to discuss here what it is and what it is not. The idea of a sharing economy is really very old. In fact, until the advent of capitalism, most people worked on some form of a sharing economy—I share with you what I have and you share what you have.

Sharing-Economy-Cover1-620x350However, these days all sorts of unregulated business, especially these that use the internet, are being referred to as the “sharing economy.” There are such things as Air B&B where people rent out their homes or rooms in their home. Another popular one is Uber and the like where people act as private taxi drivers using their own cars.

The rationale for calling this “sharing” economy is that these are things people have anyway and now they are “sharing” them with others.

However, the idea is really not “sharing” in the traditional sense of the word of what is mine is yours, but rather of making extra income. I do not see the primary motivation of these new businesses (which is what they are) as oh, i have something extra that I can let others have or use, but rather, a need for money. Such  businesses charge real money, and often use the advantage of not being regulated to undercut established businesses or offer a service where traditional business does not exist or do not find profitable. This is what in the rest of the world has always referred to as the “grey” market.

I actually see the growth of this economy not as a paradigm shift away from competitive capitalism, but more as the underbelly of that system, born in this country particularly out of a weak economy where many families can no longer support themselves due to the shrinking of decent paying jobs in the regular economy. Such grey markets have always been a large part of the economy of third world countries. I may have extra time without regular employment, yet I own a car, so I become an Uber driver. My kids have moved out and I have extra room, and am struggling on my fixed retirement, or low wage job—so I rent out my extra rooms.

However, this can actually lead to a downward spiral of income and job security. Regulated taxi drivers and their companies have large overhead and rules to meet. Their jobs are reduced when people can pay half the price to an Uber driver. The same with hotels and inns. Uber drivers and Air B&B types have no job security, no pensions, etc.—as it is based on the idea of it being “extra” income. And in the Air B&B market, some commercial companies are now buying properties in urban markets to run unregulated hotels, undercutting traditional hotels. They do not have to meet all sorts of regulations (as of yet) and do not have unionized protected employees.

I have a different idea of what a sharing economy really means. An authentic sharing economy is about bypassing the monetary economy. I have something that others can use, so I share it with others; others have something I can use, they share it with me. Examples of this from the relatively recent past might be a “roof raising,” when farmers and homesteaders built their own homes. While most of the house a man cold build himself, when it cam to putting up the roof, help was needed. The neighbors would come out and lend a hand. They knew when they needed something similar their neighbors would be there for them as well. No payment was given or expected.

Another example is farming cooperatives, where no one farmer could afford the some of the expensive machinery and they would pool resources and share them. Or even help plow each others field, or help at harvest time.

More recent forms of the sharing economy might be barter networks. While most of these do include some sort of exchange of an alternative “currency” (often in terms of hours of service rendered), they attempt to equalize the inequalities or the worth of some people’s time over others inherent in our current capitalist system. In some an hour is an hour, no matter what service is rendered. In others, their might be some leeway for differentials. Some even have no such accounting.

A real sharing economy is about thinking not how can I make the most money, but about how can I use my resources and skills in a way that contribute to others, giving back to my community. Capitalism is based on a competitive model, how can I get the most for myself and beat my competition. The sharing economy is based on a cooperative model, how can I help others.

Financial Crises and Austerity

Have you noticed that while it is the rich and powerful that create nation-wide and even worldwide financial crises through their greed and desire for quick profits at whatever cost, it is the working class and poor that are expected to pay for the mess they create?

In the U.S., where austerity measures have been mild by comparison to much of the world (and therefore the recovery actually stronger), even here it is the pensions of working people that are being attacked, as well as services to the most needy and vulnerable that are cut. Infrastructure that the common people rely on) are let to go to ruin–public roads in poor shape, pubic school budgets cut into the bone, public transportation cut, etcetera.

In Greece we see now that they are being forced to those same “solutions” only in even more extreme than we have–pensions cut, jobs lost, other social services cut. Public property sold of to private interests.

Not only do the rich not pay for the disaster brought on by their greed, we find that in the long run (or really not that long) they use these disaster for further profit. The banks are bigger and richer than ever. In Greece, for instance, private interests use this to take over what belongs to the public.

Austerity does not work, as it actually takes money from those who would spend it, and puts it in the hands of those who already have more than they know what to do with–except buy themselves more toys and consolidate more wealth and power.

Until the assumptions of global Capitalism are questioned, examined and overturned, such injustices will continue.

Gifted and Talented

In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the Special Education population. But another end of it are those we call “gifted.” I often hear from teachers I work with that the gifted students are shortchanged in our educational system, though like other “special needs” students Federal law states that schools are required to attend to the special needs of these students as well.

According to the Federal definition “The term ‘gifted and talented,” when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”[1]


The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the main advocacy group for gifted education, makes very explicit their belief in the genetic nature of giftedness and their belief it the accuracy of Intelligence Tests. They are also clear that they see this population as underserved by schools, stating, “America [is unable] to properly meet the needs of its most able students.”

My problems with the gifted education label are several fold. One is that it assumes a “fixed” belief in intelligence. These students are, by this term “gifted” in the sense that they are born superior intellectually in some ways—these gifts and talents are in some way innate. I find this problematic from both a scientific standpoint and from a moral standpoint. The idea that some people are born smarter is not an established fact, despite the claims of the NAGC, though it is a very popular concept and one that most of us intuitively believe. The fact is that whether some are born with more or less potential, we do know as a fact that our experiences –our education—has a huge impact on our intelligence, and that it can change at any age. In other words, I believe virtually all students can be gifted and talented if given the opportunity, and more importantly, there is no way to sort ahead of time those who can be and those who cannot. We can only measure what someone can do and has learned so far, and so we have no accurate way test for potential However, our assumptions that we do can become self-fulfilling prophesies in both directions.

Just as with learning disabilities, the label is highly subjective. As can be seen, the definition is quite vague. The “objective” part comes from scores on standardized achievement tests and IQ tests, both of which I find highly suspect.[2] Intelligence tests, and standardized tests cannot and do not measure some real object, but a construct, and idea. They are designed by people who had and have a predetermined notion of who should do well and who should not. If the results do not give the expected results it is the test that ends up being changed. The definition is also highly subjective in terms of how one decides a particular student “gives evidence of high ability” in the non “academic”  areas—who gets to decide if one is artistically gifted, etc.

While we find students from low-income backgrounds and minorities overrepresented in the learning disabled category, we find them underrepresented in the gifted and talented category. This is likely due to two factors—one is the high correlation with scholastic and testing success and socio-economic status. The other is the ability of higher SES families to advocate for getting their children the advantages of the gifted and talented label.

Another major problem I have with the label is similar to my issue of the label learning disabled—labeling students and the message it sends. Do I really want to send the message that some students are “better” and more valuable than others? Separating out kids as smarter and dumber I think is not good for a democratic mentality. This elitist mentality is very clear if you read any of the literature put out by organization supporting the idea of giftedness.

Just as importantly, I also dispute that “gifted” children need a different kind of education than other students. Virtually every suggestion I hear for “gifted” children I think is good for all children, and in fact maybe even more so for those who are having schooling difficulties.

The argument for gifted students is that they are not challenged in regular classrooms, and do not have opportunities to pursue their gifts and talents. Given the current state of most public schools—especially one’s serving low-income schools, I could argue that almost all students need services not provided by the schools to develop their “intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity.” The idea that only certain, gifted, children should have their leadership abilities fostered sounds dangerous to a society that is trying to be democratic. And in a civilized society, development of creativity and the arts should be for all.

The types of strategies generally supported for gifted students are more open-ended tasks, projects, problem solving, etc. These are all strategies supported by progressive educators for all students. Gifted advocates argue that the general curriculum holds back and bores their students. Well, teacher-centered, textbook, rote learning approaches bore most kids.

Rather than create special opportunities for some students to receive enriched educational opportunities, I would extend such opportunities to all students. Many successful progressive schools, often working with very disadvantaged students, work from that premise with outstanding results. (See my list of innovative schools for examples. Central Park East was also one of the first schools to implement full inclusion for students with disabilities back in the early 1970s.)

[1] No Child Left Behind Act, P.L. 107-110 (Title IX, Part A, Definition 22) (2002); 20 USC 7801(22) (2004)

[2] Read Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000 and on IQ tests, Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Loving Learning: Book Review

Loving Learning:
How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools


by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison

Tom Little, in collaboration with Katherine Ellison, has written a very nice book about Progressive Education. To start with, it is just easily readable. Not only is it readable but it is quite enjoyable as well. While authorship is given to Tom Little (co-founder of Park Day School) and Katherine Ellison (journalist), it is written in the first person from Tom’s perspective. At 200 pages of text (plus some useful appendices), it can be read leisurely in just few days.

Tom helped start and then direct a small independent progressive elementary school in Oakland California. At the end of his career he decided to tour the United States visiting other schools that identified as being progressive or that he thought met the definition of progressive. This book is the outcome of that tour. Sadly, Tom died of cancer shortly before the publication of this book.

The book starts out giving Tom’s history of becoming a teacher and founder of Park Day School. He weaves into this a brief history of progressive education since the late 1800s of John Dewey and Francis Parker. In giving us this history, he also gives us a definition of progressive education.

In an early chapter he give us six core strategies which he distills as “passed down form Dewey, Parker, and the other pioneers, and still in robust practice at progressive schools today” (p.52). In sum these are: Emotions as well as intellect; Student interest as a guide; ban of standardized testing and ranking; real-world endeavors; integration of curriculum and disciplines; and active civil participation for social justice. He illustrates these ideas through the rest of book.

However, mostly what this book does is describe what progressive education looks like, using anecdotes from Park Day School as well as many of the other progressive schools Tom visited. He uses these stories to illustrate the points about what progressive education is and can be, and why it is so vital to both a solid education and to a democratic society. In this way it reminds me of the style of two of my very favorite books in education, Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. All of these books are told in conversational tone, using the authors’ own experiences to illustrate important big lessons about what education can and should look like.

If you want an easy and enjoyable read on the power and practice of progressive education, then you must pick up Loving Learning.

Learning Disabilities

The topic of learning disabilities is highly controversial. What are they? How do we know? Are such labels useful? How to “treat” them?

On the down side of the learning disability label is just that—that it is a label. The problem with labeling is that it creates an identity. When students are given the label of learning disabled it can mean they then think of themselves as disabled, and create a self-fulfilling prophesy of helplessness. It also shapes how others see them—as damaged.

diability cartoon

On the other hand, I know many adults that tell me that having been identified as having a specific learning disability helped them understand that maybe they were not “stupid” for having so much trouble in school, and that in some cases it allowed them to get help to manage that difficulty. One suggestion in the literature on disabilities is to name the behavior or issue rather than the person, as in a student with a learning disability, rather than a learning disabled student, having dyslexia rather than dyslexic. This may mitigate the harmful aspects of labeling.

One of my problems specifically with the term learning disabilities is the lack of a good measure and lack of strong evidence that it is actually a physical problem. To test for blindness we have a eye test, and there is no controversy over the basic validity and reliability of such tests. However, there is a strong lack of consistency about who gets labeled with learning disabilities versus who is just considered a “slow learner.” To get the label of learning disabled one criterion is a discrepancy between achievement and potential. However, since I find tests for either highly problematic in terms of validity and reliability, I do not trust the results of either. (I am unsure how one measures “potential”). Another criterion is whether a person seems to learn fine in one area, but not in another. But we all have different strengths and weaknesses. And in fact, it has been shown that students who in one school system get labeled one way, would be labeled differently in another school. In research I did a while back, the chance of low achieving students being labeled as learning disabled was almost completely arbitrary—in other words if they were assessed by different people, they were just as likely to be labeled learning disabled as not, with almost no consistency among assessors.

Some researchers point to differences in brain scans of those considered “normal” learners in the specific area of the brain that is related to ability as demonstrating the validity of such labels. However correlation does not mean causation. An alternate hypothesis is that the brain difference and the learning problem are both caused by poor teaching/learning. In other words, if you learned it the wrong way, it might end up looking different in your brain when no prior difference may have existed. I was recently reading how the brain of someone called “dyslexic” looks similar to someone who just has not learned how to read, rather than as damaged in some way.

Some have talked about a sign of a learning disability as when students have trouble hanging on to or retrieving information or facts even after multiple exposures. However, another hypothesis is lack of conceptual understanding. If you do not understand a subject well conceptually, than retrieving information is harder. I find that a more plausible explanation than a theorized brain abnormality.

The sheer number of children we now label as disabled is troubling in itself. Most sources put estimates of the number of students with learning disabilities at about 10% (and given the disagreement about who should be labeled as such, there is a wide range in estimates of how many “really” have learning disabilities). If that many children are seen as not “normal” learners, then maybe there is something wrong with our definition of “normal.”

Another issue is that much (though not all) of what we call learning disabilities only show up as problems in school contexts—so maybe the problem is with the school context or expectations. We are all different, but schools favor some learning styles and behaviors and ignore or even discourage others. In part, I am arguing that learning disabilities are at least in part culturally constructed.

Rather than label some children as learning disabled and others as normal, I would rather see schools where teachers (and everyone really) pays attention to individual differences and creates an environment that makes room for all of these differences then provides the supports needed for all to flourish. These are called full inclusion schools or classrooms, and there are many successful examples of them out there. The teacher as lecturer and textbook based model will not work well for that to happen, and probably more training and supports are needed than we currently provide to most schools. However, since the schools that I know that have full inclusion, do it on basically the same budgets as other schools, it is less a question of total resources than how they are allocated.

A difficulty of my approach is how do you allocate resources fairly. The labels help us legally justify giving expensive equipment or more one on one time to certain students, and these can be expensive. Of course, even with the laws and labels, what I have seen and heard is that those who are more advantaged are better able to use the system and laws to get whatever resources they think their child should have, and those who are less savvy and from more disadvantaged groups, are less able to successfully advocate for those same things, or just unaware of what their child might be entitled to.

My approach is based on trust—trust that those in charge will allocate the resources fairly. Without such labels and laws some argue that schools will be reluctant (or unable) to give expensive resources to students with those needs. Or that others will argue, why should that kid get all that extra stuff, without the weight of law behind it. These are valid points without easy answers. And even full inclusion schools use the labels to provide the resources.

Progressive Education

My blogs here focus on my ideas about curriculum, teaching practices and educational policy, often critiquing what is currently practiced. What this essay will focus on is defining my philosophy of Progressive Education. And as a student and teacher of educational psychology, I feel I can safely say that the practices of Progressive Education match more closely what we know about how the brain works and how people learn in natural settings than what is practiced in the large majority of schools today. As importantly, Progressive Education matches more closely with the ideals and philosophy of a democratic society.

johndeweyquotes31Progressive teaching has deep roots in American education, from the Transcendentalist movement  of the early 1800s to John Dewey and Francis Parker in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and on to modern educators such as Herbert Kohl, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier to name just a few. For me, and those listed above, Progressive Education includes both the purpose and the methods of teaching and learning, In term of purpose, progressive education is about preparing students to be members a pluralistic democratic society. In terms of practice, progressive education is about student-centered and constructivist-based curriculum. (Though some use the term progressive education to describe practice that really is more focused on one or the other of those aspects.)

Historically, the idea of student-centered curriculum goes back at least to the 1700s with the ideas of Rousseau and Friedrich Fröbel (the inventor of Kindergarten). There were many experiments with child-centered education in the U.S. going back at least to the early 1800s. John Dewey introduced the ideas of progressive education more widely in the early 1900s.

In the 1930s, there was a famous study which promoted the use of progressive pedagogy in high schools, known as the Eight Year Study, to look at the effects of such student-centered practices in a large number of high schools using such practices (and the study showed it to be quite effective).

In terms of modern psychology, in the 1960s, the work of psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky on learning theory became popularized. Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasized that children—people—actively construct their ideas and sense of the world from their interaction with the environment, and that they do not just passively receive information and knowledge. Based on their theories, the term constructivist caught on in many circles to describe such practices that put students at the center of instruction as active participants in the learning process, practices that take advantage of what we had discovered about how the brain learns. The ideas of these theorists made their ways into the field of education, and had an effect on teaching practices that were more in line with the philosophies of progressive education.

The terms progressive and constructivist have in common a belief that students belong at the center of the learning process, that they need to be in charge of their own learning, that learning should take place in the context of meaningful and authentic tasks, and that learning is social and interactive.

There is a strong body of research from the field of psychology to support many of the theoretical foundations of the types of teaching practices that progressive schools adhere to. Having students actively engaged, focusing on the intrinsic motivation students bring to learning, having curriculum that is relevant and meaningful individually and culturally, and having students learn through social interaction are all based on solid empirical and basic research in psychology and social psychology, and even recent research of the brain.

There is a smaller body of longitudinal empirical research examining progressive and child-centered schooling, showing it to be effective. These include the Eight-Year Study done in the 1930s, as well as more recent studies of progressive schools, such as one on the well-known Central Park East Schools of New York City. A couple of recent studies of preschool practices, comparing developmental child-centered approaches against academic skills-based approaches, have shown better academic and social outcomes in later elementary grades for those in the child-centered developmental programs. These studies focused mostly on defining progressive or constructivist teaching in terms of the pedagogical side.

The other side of progressive education is the democratic purpose. Traditionally schools have been designed on a hierarchical, rather than egalitarian model. One of the tenets of constructivist thought is that we learn from our environment, what some have called situational learning. We absorb the habits and practices of our culture as Vygotsky might say. Hence, students will internalize the habits and practices of school, even as they study democracy in their textbooks. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

Democracy requires thoughtful, critical, independent thinkers. Citizens trained in schools only to carry out assigned tasks and regurgitate memorized bits of knowledge are not those needed to drive a democracy. A thriving democracy ought to inspire all its citizens to be civicly active, to educate themselves on society’s issues, and to regularly participate in critical discussion of the daily affairs of society. What is more, to tackle the problems and challenges of an ever changing society requires creative thinkers who do not just know past knowledge.

An alternative paradigm to the hierarchical, and authoritarian structure found in most schools is to have schools include the entire staff, along with the students and their families in making the important decisions. In such a school students experience democracy personally, and grow up immersed in a democratic rather than autocratic environment.

Just as the leader in such a school includes the participation of the staff in the school’s operation, in a democratic school the teacher includes the students’ active engagement in the decision making of the classroom. In progressive democratic classrooms, the students are involved in the planning of the classroom design, in the enactment of classroom norms, and in the management of classroom conflicts. Democratic classrooms include student voice, classroom meetings, and student-selected projects. While the teacher still retains authority in the classroom, students are given choice and opportunity over setting classroom rules and selecting project topics. By involving the students in the running of the classroom, the teacher allows students to take ownership of their learning, as well as modeling democratic culture.

The curriculum in the democratic classroom within the democratic school necessarily is democratic in both theory and practice. Democracy implies community. Community implies working together. Therefore, the democratic curriculum will involve collaborative learning where all students participate in the pursuit of a shared purpose.

Democracy, in part, includes a degree of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Thus, students will choose many of their educational pursuits in the democratic curriculum. Student-selected projects will be important in the democratic curriculum. Projects will be of both the individual and group design, sometimes allowing for individual pursuits, and other times deferring to group collaboration.

Democracy also means having to confront controversial topics. Most schools avoid, or sometimes even prohibit, the discussion of controversial topics. Being able to discuss controversial topics is difficult. Most of what we see currently in the media is either one-sided presentations, or shouting matches. Public schools are the one place we have as a society to prepare people to actually civilly discuss their differences of viewpoints and differences.

In summary, Progressive Education, at least for me, includes student-centered curriculum that actively engages students in authentic projects and problems. It includes a democratic process of decision-making and inclusion. It includes the preparing students to confront differences with understanding and civil discourse.

Here are a few organizations that support progressive education:
The Progressive Education Network
The Coalition of Essential Schools
Association for Constructivist Teaching

To read more deeply on the meaning and History of Progressive Education:

  • Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York: Knopf
  • Little, T., & Ellison, K. (2015). Loving learning: How progressive education can save America’s schools. New York: Norton.