I have a list of topics for future columns that keeps getting longer and longer due to suggestions mostly from teachers, but also from administrators, custodians, food service workers, bus drivers, and even parents. Almost all seem to focus on parent behaviors — but not this month. I’m going to give parents a rest and talk about something parents have little control over, intelligence. I’m also going to give parents a tip on one thing they can give their children that is more important than intelligence, a strong work ethic.
It is one of the great conundrum of democracy and education that all children are not equal when it comes to intelligence. There was a very good summary article in Scientific American, (“The General Intelligence Factor,” November 1998), if you want to read the results from real research. Even in that article the author apologized for what she had to say as if it were unethical to say that higher intelligence allows a person to learn, solve problems and master complexity more easily.
Teachers and even parents have a tendency to think intelligence is destiny. It is not. Intelligence is an advantage that can be wasted. Who are the worst at guessing a child’s intelligence? Hope this doesn’t shock you, but grandparents, parents and teachers are the worst. So what are these people who spend the most time with children they love actually measuring?
They are measuring being successful. Being successful, or as it is sometimes called a teacher pleaser, is a matter of work ethic, proper comportment, paying attention in class, turning things in on time and giving your best effort all the time. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Giving your child a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility can make the most of the hand that biology has dealt.
In a small district where I was superintendent and principal many years ago, there were two teachers at each grade level. Dividing up each cohort between the two teachers for the coming school year was virtually a yearlong guerrilla war. For example, fifth grade teachers would scout fourth grade students early in the year and start lobbying some parents to “request me.”
So I made each grade level fill out a card (yes, pink for girls and blue for boys — these were internal documents that helped me to balance class gender, so get over it) that rated students on a three-point scale in math, reading, writing, behavior, completing homework, positive parental support for the student, intelligence (back before the California banned IQ testing except in a few narrow areas) and about 10 other categories.
My plan was that if teacher A was requested by a parent (we had another form the parent completed for that) to be in her room, then teacher B could pick a similar student profile from the pile. In this way classes would be evenly split with high, medium and low performing students.
In implementing this procedure I noticed something. The teacher drawing from the pile would glance at the card, not reading it. There was a ton of information on the card so what were they looking for? I guessed intelligence. Nope. They only looked at it for the categories “if the child completed his homework” and “had parents that supported and helped their child in a positive manner.” Upon inquiry I was told, “Who wants a pain in the butt genius that never completes his work and has a parent always talking about how smart but bored their kid is but the kid never accomplishes anything?”
Intelligence is a “So what?” factor. By that I mean you and the school have virtually no control over what biology has already decided. However, we do have some control over how to raise the child to work with the hand they were dealt. A child who is in class every day, trying hard, completing homework and is supported by parents dedicated to getting every last ounce out of their child’s abilities is a treasure. Studies generally find that to graduate from college a student needs an average IQ of about 115 (an average IQ is 100). An IQ score of 115 is well above average and might partially explain why only about 25 percent of high school graduates complete college. However, it doesn’t explain why some students with a testable IQ of 89 complete college. I know many wonderful kids like that. They didn’t get straight As in college but they were in class every day, well organized, never late with an assignment and had a strong work ethic — oh yeah, and a supportive family.
The essence of good parenting is getting the most out of your child’s abilities and interests in a manner that is positive and looks for success in life. Unless you want your adult children living with you, attend to holding your child responsible for their work ethic. Future employers don’t want to know how bright your child is. They want to know if the job they are paying for is going to get done.