Archive for April, 2010

Why are frank, open and honest discussions about intellectual giftedness just not acceptable?

I have just fielded yet another crass comment dissing extremely bright people who have fallen through the educational and vocational gaps, instead of being out there saving the world.

Typically, these comments either (a) try and nullify the person’s abilities, e.g. “IQ is over-rated”, (b) try to play up the importance of some other characteristic, e.g. personality or leadership skills, or (c) attack the person directly, e.g. “If he/she didn’t find a way to make billions, then he/she couldn’t have been really that intelligent”. In the latest attack I mentioned above, the person was referring to Chris Langan.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his Sherlock Holmes story Valley of Fear, “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

Because average people have never personally experienced the situation of being radically different from the vast majority of people they will ever meet, then the issues faced by those who are so different simply don’t compute. Ordinary folks can’t grasp why someone with so much supposed potential doesn’t fit within the regular educational or vocational framework. This is not because we failed to communicate the concept in the Queen’s English, it’s because the recipient just couldn’t relate. Hence the saying, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.”

If I had said that someone was being given a bad time by other people because he/she consistently beat them at athletics, then I’m sure nearly everyone would agree that such behaviour could best be described as being a bad sport. Athletics, however, is something tangible that people can see and conceptualise. As an activity, it is regarded positively in our society, and it is socially acceptable to be good at sports. People will readily grant that they can’t run like Linford Christie or bend it like Beckham without being at all grudging or upset that Christie or Beckham can, but mention extreme intellectual capacity to the same folks, and watch out. There is something about mention of the subject that seems to bring out the worst in people.

The person who is on a comparable level cognitively to a top professional athlete has nowhere near the same level of acceptability in our society as does the athlete. This is especially true when such cognitive capacity has not necessarily translated into the type of success that the average person conceives that it “should” have done.

That of course begs the question: how do you know what a person on that high level thinks or dreams about, or considers as success?

Besides presuming to judge what the super-bright should be doing with their lives, there is a more insidious side revealed by those comments.

For instance, the bright person ponders, “I wonder why this is so?” about some life situation. That gets translated into, “You’re just making excuses”.

Or the bright person makes a simple statement of fact regarding his/her abilities, and that gets translated into arrogance, boastfulness, cockiness (shall I continue through the alphabet here?).

Or perhaps a simple statement of fact that the education system is not set up for someone who learns many times faster, earlier and in more depth than the typical student gets met with a barrage of bitter, sneering slap-downs and insults.

Just as the Politically Correct lobby shut down any discussion on political topics they would rather we didn’t talk about with namecalling (“You’re a bigot”), in the same way, high IQ people are not supposed to be frank or open about what we are, or discuss how we feel, or talk about how the world perceives and relates to us.

Let’s see who is the first person to completely miss the point of this article.

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“Don’t let your early setbacks serve as an excuse not to fulfil your dreams,” was the advice I read recently.

Which platitude got me thinking about similar “advice” dished out by self-help books and websites in general. The overall thrust of the message seems to be that if you attribute some non-optimum situation to ANYONE or ANYTHING but YOURSELF, then it’s just “an excuse”, and you should just get over yourself and get on with it.

Well, excuse me, but most self-help authors and the people who write on these websites don’t know diddly squat about the reader and his/her circumstances, so how does this preachy and righteous attitude help us any? “Before you judge me, try walking a mile in my shoes.”

On a forum that I frequent regularly, I met an older gentleman who had quite a story to tell. Abused as a child, he had been trying to fix his life ever since. The abuse had had a terrible effect on his education and career, and later in life he had taken an Open University degree in psychology, trying to solve his own issues and try to understand what makes people behave this way.

But, according to the ” just an excuse” crowd, it was down to him whether he lost or kept his self-esteem, whether he consequently did well at school and went on to get a career of his choice, or managed to keep a relationship and perhaps start a family of his own.

“Oh, we don’t mean situations like THAT!” I hear the “just an excusers” cry. Well, what situations exactly DO they mean? Do they even know where to draw the line?

The way I see it, if something happened when you were too young to know it was wrong, and your life’s choices became slightly, moderately or severely restricted as a result, then it is not an excuse, it is a reason.

If you are struggling under a physical or mental condition that similarly limits your life choices, that is not an excuse, it is a reason.

If other people have been plain, downright destructive or obstructive and prevented you from reaching your full potential, then that is not down to you, it is down to them, as the party carrying out the destructive or obstructive act.

If the environment in which a person lives is so harsh that he/she is barely subsisting, then the “just an excusers” are hardly justified in saying it’s their own fault that they don’t have a high standard of living. I’m sure thousands of starving kids in Africa would agree with me.

Responsibility starts in present time. If I have been obstructed in life, then taking responsibility for the situation does NOT mean that I go around blaming myself for what happened then. Taking responsibility can only start from NOW, in doing something in the present that hopefully will improve things for the future.

A logical, defensible reason as to why things aren’t more favourable is not an excuse, and never will be, and no amount of “positive thinking”, “manifesting”, or whatever will ever wish it right. Yes, some people do make excuses, but realism is realism, and I’d thank the “just an excuse” folks to learn the difference between the two.

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A while ago I had the pleasure of serving as a volunteer instructor with a kids’ music group that was just starting up. My young charges were mainly aged between 7-10 years of age, with one teenage beginner. As an experienced percussionist, I’d been asked to teach glockenspiel/xylophone to these kids.

So I turned up on the first night, excitedly holding instruction manuals and a lesson plan I’d prepared.

These kids all seemed pretty bright, so to my surprise, after explaining and demonstrating the first exercise in the beginners’ handbook, no one could do it.

I learned on the spot that most children that age have absolutely no sense of rhythm, and will simply rush to play the exercise as quickly as possible. It became clear that I was going to have to develop lesson steps even simpler than the ones written by the author of the instruction book, and find something on the level that these children needed to start.

I learned that when you’re writing a generic text for a wide audience (as the author of the book had), you have no first-hand observation of what the student is capable of doing. In such a scenario, all you can do as a writer is include some even more basic exercises as the first chapter. I may do so at some point in the future, based on my experiences of teaching music.

If as a teacher you simply keep beating to death the exercise(s) that the students are not yet capable of completing, you risk losing them as students, as they will take a loss on it and not come back to continue. To keep explaining and re-explaining what they’re doing wrong and why is unhelpful, as the exercise is clearly too difficult. If you have to keep correcting multitudes of different mistakes, the students won’t learn from any of it because there are just too many things to take on board. Cut back and make it easier to build up their skill by challenging them appropriately.

“It’s like a beginner trying to run a marathon,” I told one instructor on a course I took where all the difficult training exercises were at the beginning.  “You have to train a marathon to run a marathon,” was the unsympathetic reply. Yes, but athletes don’t train a marathon on their first trip out.

The main lesson I as a teacher took away is that teaching successfully is a continual process of estimating where the student is at and cutting back to earlier exercises and more basic skills as needed. If the children can’t cope with the lessons, it’s the fault of the lesson design that’s attempting to push them too far ahead of where their skill is, not the kids’ fault because they keep doing it wrong. Even the best teacher can’t teach a small child to play a lengthy piece straight through flawlessly on their first lesson on the instrument.

Constant practice on material that’s too hard may work to build up skill and stamina in some circumstances, but definitely not with complete beginners. Students make more progress when they are pushed appropriately, but not so far that they cannot play the material. As a teacher you have to be flexible and tailor the lesson.

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I can see why many very bright people withdraw almost solely into the realms of thought, and it would be over-simplistic to assume that these people are just being glib.

Their thought processes can and do move so much faster than the body is able to, that trying to make their hands etc. keep up with their minds becomes a frustrating proposition.

I speak from my experience of learning the piano. This instrument requires a much greater degree of dexterity and co-ordination than other instruments I have taken up in the past. It takes a great deal of repetitions of an exercise, scale or piece before the muscle memory starts to “take”.

If the person, in their head, is already composing complex musical pieces that it could be a couple of years before they will have the physical skill to play, frustration inevitably starts to set in. It’s easier to resort to the home studio or notation software to realise those creations, instead of suffering through another hour of Mary Had A Little Lamb.

If the person’s comprehension doesn’t race ahead of their fingers, then I guess there isn’t a problem.

But what are you supposed to do when yours does?

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Recently, I’ve been doing a bit of informal investigation into people’s attitudes towards those possessing exceptional cognitive faculties.

To start with, I chose a public message board with many thousands of members, whom I know represent a very great cross-section of life. I constructed a survey which was only one question long. I deliberately left the question very open, as I didn’t want to give anyone the idea that I wanted or expected a particular type of response. I just wanted to know what people would answer.

The question was: “What do you think of people with exceptional intellectual ability?”

The responses loosely fell into the following categories:

1. Nitpicking the grammatical construction of the question, e.g. “Towards” is not a proper word (Not too sure where they bought their dictionary from), and arguing about grammatical constructs and written English in general.

2. Intellectual smarts are not important; personality traits such as empathy, kindness, generosity etc. are more valuable. Great intelligence does not make a person superior. It all depends whether you’re a “good” person (whatever the respondents assume that to mean).

3. People are suspicious and distrusting of those with smarts. Cliches were mentioned such as “Too clever by half”, and “Nobody likes a smartass”.

4. Lamenting standards of teaching in schools, comments on how school is mainly a socialization exercise, and commenting on how more value is placed on test results than real learning and exploration of subjects.

5. Discussions regarding equity in education.

6. Comments about intelligent people behaving in an elitist fashion.

7. People with high IQs have no common sense/can’t button their own shirt.

8. It’s one thing to be smart, but what’s the point if the person hasn’t found a cure for cancer/solved third world debt/performed miracles/become massively rich/[fill in your own response].

Now, any one of those could be an interesting topic of discussion in itself, but one theme that seemed to run throughout the whole exercise was how unimportant respondents seemed to view intellectual smarts, and how it seemed totally okay to dismiss a person’s intelligence because other things, in their opinion, mattered more.

Regarding point number 8, there seems to be an expectation on the part of the public that the exceptionally bright person should put the world to rights in some way. Well, here’s the rub: many, if not most of us, would like to, but the world just isn’t set up that way. We are vastly out-numbered, and there are too many economic and political interests vested in keeping things just the way they are. It isn’t smarts that are going to solve that problem, it would take something else entirely.

And talking of vested interests, there is of course the interest of Joe Average in keeping “Smart Alec” at bay. If you want examples of exactly what I mean, just read the bitter and sneering comments accompanying any of the You Tube videos about Chris Langan.

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