The Real Role of Intelligence

According to a survey in 2010 conducted by Change the Equation, three out of ten Americans consider themselves bad at math. Over half of the 18 to 34-year-old bracket find themselves regularly saying they can’t do math. Many of my friends, in fact, constantly complain that they struggle much more than others in math, saying, “I’m simply not smart enough” or “Why can’t I be as smart as him?” This notion of “smartness” has constantly circulated in MVHS and trapped us in a dangerous mindset that ultimately justifies giving up.


Fixed vs Growth Mindsets

Research conducted by Patricia Linehan from Purdue University has identified our attitudes into two mindsets. In one mindset called “incremental orientation,” also known as growth mindset, we believe that we can continually improve our ability by practicing and studying. If we fail a math test, for example, we might think, “I just need to study more to improve my score next time.”

However, there’s a dangerous trap many MVHS students fall into, called “entity orientation” or fixed mindset, in which we believe we’re all born with a finite amount of talent in all areas that remains stagnant — basically, we can’t get any better no matter how hard we try. This belief can be heard in the the phrase, “I’m not good at math and so I never will be” or “I’m just not smart enough.” And it’s especially dangerous in the compliments, “You’re so smart!” or “He does well on math tests because he’s smart.”

Why are these seemingly positive comments so dangerous? By categorizing people as smart or not, we subconsciously limit our potential with the belief that since we don’t perform well on a specific area, it simply wasn’t meant to be. Rather than blame our failure on a lack of practice and understanding, we think it’s just an indication of our inherent poor ability in that subject, and instead of working harder, we simply give up.


The Real Role of Intelligence

In reality, intelligence does play a role in our ability in subjects, but it’s much smaller than we think. Junior Claire Ko explains why she believes intelligence does not play a role in performing well in certain subjects.

“In some subjects, they have more practice and hold more importance on that subject,” Ko said. “If you like a subject, you’d probably excel in it too…I don’t feel like I naturally excel in a subject, it’s just because I work hard.”

Junior Debbie Ho further supports this statement.

“Claire’s a self-made women,” Ho said.

But is this theory really true? Researchers at the University of Munich and the University of Bielefeld tested this hypothesis with a similar question: How much of a role do genetic traits play in students’ achievement? They observed the progress in the mathematical abilities of 3520 students from fifth to tenth grade and also asked the students to answer questions about their study habits and interest in math in an attempt to glean how much non-genetic factors affected their scores.

The results demonstrated a very clear trend. In the early grades, a high-IQ student generally produced a high math score. However, in later grades, a different noticeable trend was visible and a rough categorization of the students into two groups could be made based on their scores and attitude towards math, shown in the figure below.

Graph of students’ math progress from fifth to tenth grade based on their PALMA score. Child Development/Murayama
Graph of students’ math progress from fifth to tenth grade based on their PALMA score. (Child Development/Murayama)


On one end of the spectrum were students with fixed mindsets, shown as low-growth students in the graph. They relied mostly on memorization, showed more of a concern for good grades than a genuine interest in math, and didn’t attempt to make deeper connections with other areas of math. In the long-term, regardless of IQ, these students didn’t show much improvement over time, although they may have retained competency and good grades in math.

On the other hand, students who were categorized with a growth mindset (the high-growth on the graph) said they wanted to get better at math simply because they were interested in and enjoyed the subject, and ended up with significant improvement. So the overall conclusion: it’s not how “smart” students are but how motivated they are and how they study that determines their growth in math achievement.

Pre-Calculus Honors teacher Sushma Bana shares similar sentiments to the conclusion of this experiment.

“Since you have that interest [in a subject], you’re spending more time and because of that you become better at it; it’s an upward spiral; one thing feeds off another,” Bana said. “The things you struggle with have the opposite effect because you don’t like doing them, you’re not as focused, you’re just trying to get them done.”


The Solution

So rather than think of that poor test score as a result of genetic unluckiness, it’s more productive to think of it as a skill that could be improved. Also, focusing on subjects you genuinely enjoy rather than cramming your schedules with AP and Honors classes would be useful as well, as there is definitely a correlation between enjoyment of a subject and your ability in it. Bana explains that what makes a student successful in math class is a combination of factors, including enjoyment.

“It’s kind of a mixture of aptitude and attitude and environment [that make a math student successful],” Bana said. “Some people enjoy math more, some people don’t, some people have [talent] but they don’t use their potential because they’re not enjoying it as much.”

Bana also hints that a true solution may require a dramatic change in the school system, as the current school system only allows specific types of people to flourish in this environment, while forcing others to conform to this system and preventing the realization of their true potential.

“Kids who know how to set up an equation and memorize will [succeed in math class]…but that doesn’t mean they really excel at math. They figure out a way to go through the tests and get a good grade but their logic may not be that strong,” Bana said. “[On the other hand, some kids have] the logical thinking but they’re not able to transfer that into their grades, because our system is geared towards a particular type of learner.”

So, what’s really at fault: our attitudes or our environment? All of these factors play a role, but the real change must start with ourselves. Keep the words of Eva Krapohl, a doctorate student in psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London, in mind: “Heritability describes what is; it does not predict what could be.” So although we may not be equally competent in different subjects to begin with, it’s ultimately our motivation, study habits and environment that shape us. Rather than being shaped at our birth, we continually make ourselves into what we strive to be.