I was recently asked if I was as clever as my son when I was his age. I stood there, stirring spoon in hand raised in mid-stir, and stared, lost for words. How does one begin to answer this question?

I finally answered that I don’t think my general knowledge was as broad as my kids’ at the same age. This is a paltry answer, but “yes” or “no” would have been no answer at all.

Our obsession with intelligence, its measurement and the subsequent conclusions we draw about human beings baffles me.

Intelligence is not fixed – how can it be? Our brains are not steel boxes that are rigid and unchanging over time, excepting for the occasional dent. They are living organs, they grow, they change, they develop and are in a constant state of flux. Even if you have what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, and you believe that intelligence is innate, that we are born clever or otherwise, you must surely acknowledge that our mental agility and ability, our cognitive functions and our ability to perform on an intelligence test will vary with how much sleep we have had, with our stress levels, and with many other factors, not least of which is our willingness to participate in an intelligence test in the first place. An IQ score doesn’t allow for how bored we were doing it, or how distracted, or whether the tester gave us time to process and formulate our answers.

And yet, intelligence is not a fixed thing. It is not a number that remains the same throughout our lives, our childhood or adulthood, throughout a year, a month, a week, or even a day. We improve our “intelligence” through practice and through hard work. We all have innate skills and talents that we find easier than other things, but we must still hone them through practice or they remain mediocre, and languish unfulfilled. I find writing a pleasure and (when my muse has not fled for the hills) pieces can develop almost effortlessly at times, but I have practised (a lot) and continue to do so. If I don’t use these skills for a while, I become rusty, I must wipe the dust off my keyboard and write a string of clunky pieces before the words once again begin to flow. And even then, some days everything I write is uninspired, but at 11 pm when I am about to go to bed, phrases start pouring into my head and sleep is postponed as I furiously write it all down. I have a beautiful friend who is a dancer and who works in a very similar way.

An IQ test measures how efficient we are at that point in time, that morning or afternoon, at doing… IQ tests. It does not measure our artistic abilities, our ability to put words on a page in a pleasing arrangement, our athleticism, our observation skills, our flexibility, our communication skills, our ability to take others’ perspectives, our patience, our sense of humour, our passion for transportation systems, our listening skills or our emotional intelligence. It certainly does not measure our compassion or our ability to love and to empathise, which are surely the most important traits a human being can possess.

We make judgements about people based on a number, and we ask them to take that number forward into their lives, which can be profoundly affected by a measure that is fluid at best, and deeply flawed at worst. We decide who can go to school where, based on a number. We decide whether people are “gifted”, a term I am deeply opposed to – we are all gifted in some way, and we need to find ways to take our gifts and run with them. For this, as children, we rely on the adults in our lives to see our gifts, to nurture them and to tell us it okay to be different and to be gifted in our own unique way. We should not have our gifts dismissed just because they do not help us score well on an “intelligence” test that provides a very narrow definition of intelligence.

Many of us let our IQ define us, our children, our friends. People are labelled as “gifted”, “twice exceptional” or “intellectually disabled” and the temptation is to stop looking past that label to the unique, amazing person beneath. We are all exceptional. We affect our own and other’s view of ourselves, of our children. We often limit our options because we let a number define us. Worse still, we limit our children’s options because we let others define them by a number. You can only be called “clever”, “intellectually disabled” or something else so many times before it will affect your self image and how you view yourself. None of these labels are helpful. They put limits on us, and foist roles on us that exclude other avenues that could, and should, be explored. They tell us that intelligence is a fixed character trait, when nothing could be further from the truth.

And they tell us that what is prized the most is our ability to score well on a test that cannot capture the essence of what it is to be human.

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