Education vs Intelligence

It’s no secret that kids from low income household and or a migration background are underrepresented amongst those deemed “gifted and talented”. So how come? Are they just not as intelligent as their middle-class peers? If you ask me, the difference isn’t “intelligence”, it’s education and people are notoriously bad at differenciating between the two.

Let me start with a caveat: I don’t actually believe in a general construct “intelligence” that can be reliably meassured in a test and then expressed in a number that then tells you something important about a person. I’ll use a more colloquial definition. Intelligence as the ability to solve the tasks we set them. And of course our students are different in their abilities to do so. Some of them will study long and hard before an exam while for others it’s enough to pay attention in class.* Yet we attribute “intelligence” to students in many other ways that are usually not an innate ability, but plain and simple education.

My kids regularly astonish teachers and other adults alike, they are often labelled “very intelligent”. Now, I’m as proud of them as any other parent and they are quick in picking up things, but most things I hear them being praised for isn’t being quick, but having an education.

If there’s one thing we have in abundance at home it’s education. It’s something we value. There are more books here than there’s space for them. We have a big vocabulary, we use big words so our kids pick them up as well. We encourage them to ask questions and in the digital age most answers are just a few clicks away. My first grade school report said something like “has an elevated vocabulary”. My kid’s said almost the same thing.

Being middle class allows us to give them many other things. We could take them on a trip to Berlin and take them to the Museum für Naturkunde (natural history museum) where a friend gave us a “private tour” with lots of interesting tidbits and access to the non-public areas. We could take them to Barcelona and show them Park Güell and the Aquarium. In short, we are poster children for Bourdieu’s theories of cultural reproduction and habitus. The education we give them is a form of capital that can open doors for them, that may allow them to be recognised as “gifted”. All because they can remember what they did on their holiday.

The thing is, the low income kid who can tell you all about their favourite sports team or who can sing all the texts from Disney’s Violetta isn’t showing less of an intellectual achievement than the one using words like “architecture”. The first or second generation migrant kid who can easily switch between two languages and who probably even mediates between parents and teachers is exhibiting a skill that very advanced language learners are finding hard to master. It’s just that their achievements get less recognition, their ability to memorize texts and dates and names is seen as evidence for their low intelligence because of the content they memorized.

Another factor is that a lot of this “innate” intelligence actually isn’t. Our brains need to be used, they need input, they need to be challenged. The things I mentioned above didn’t only give the kids some simple facts most kids their age don’t know, it also gave them the opportunity to see new things and make diverse experiences. It’s no wonder that summer learning loss hits poor students the hardest. Since I like garden metaphors for teaching: you cannot say anything about the quality of the seeds if you only ever water one of the plants.

So what’s my take home message?

Let’s stop praising kids for being “intelligent” or “smart”. We’re really bad at diagnosing “intelligence”, which is a fuzzy concept to begin with and we’re not doing our allegedly “smart” students a favour either because they might then falsely attribute a failure as a lack of ability and not a lack of studying. Let’s praise kids for the work they do and the things they achieve. And if they can tell you who scored each goal during the last world cup recognise this for what it is: a serious achievement.


*The author of this text can attest to the fact that it’s not necessarily an advantage if you have to suddenly pick up study skills and habits your peers learned way back in middle school.

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Giliell is still a student and has been since shortly after the dinosaurs died out. She's also a parent of one pre school kid and one primary school kid. On top of that she teaches language classes.
Feminist, crafter and Social Justice Rogue. Lover of cupcakes and all things baked.

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