“Everyone is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.” This Albert Einstein quotation came to mind several times over the course of last week. These profound words sum up an interesting idea — intelligence is relative. There isn’t a singular correct measure we can use to judge how smart someone is, and people often are “geniuses” in different areas. This begs the questions: How can one single standard judge the relative value of all different types of talent? Can we really say one type of “smart” is above, or better, than another?

This past week, I was on an Alternative Spring Break trip in New York City, volunteering at various non-profit organizations. I spent a great deal of time working at the Boys and Girls Club, helping 2nd and 3rd graders with gym and homework.

These kids come from low-income backgrounds, from the inner city with inadequate resources and low academic achievement. They come from the type of background characteristically portrayed as most likely to lack good quality public education.

And yet, from my week working with these kids, I can definitely say they weren’t by any means stupid. Yes, some of them were easily distracted, but what 8 year old isn’t? The main problem wasn’t that these kids didn’t care about school or that they didn’t want to learn. Often times, they didn’t understand the way things were being explained or couldn’t follow the reasoning behind what they were asked.

Looking over some of their problems and examples, this was no surprise. The way that simple math concepts — such as addition and subtraction — were explained was confusing, even to me. The lessons complicated basic addition — adding a series of steps and rules that resulted in a very long and unnecessarily complicated process.

For example, let’s look at an addition problem: 47 +14. Instead of just lining up the two numbers and adding the ones and then the tens, as we normally do, the kids were told to first add 3 to 47 and subtract that 3 from 14. Then they would have to add 50 and 11, coming up with 61. The idea here is that it is easier to add with numbers that end in zero. Yes, this is a handy shortcut, but the problem was there were no basic addition concepts to add the shortcut to.

One of the girls I worked with struggled quite a bit with this long, drawn-out process. When we lined the two numbers up and added normally, she did it excellently — getting almost every answer correct. But the pages in the workbook that required us to use this method were a different story. She had trouble keeping track of all the steps — sometimes rounding one number to the nearest zero but forgetting to adjust the other — she would confuse the order, or she just couldn’t understand what she was being asked to do.

For kids who are just learning concepts, teaching in a complicated manner only adds to the confusion. Moreover, the real goal isn’t to teach kids the shortcut, but instead to make sure kids can add in the first place. So, if a child is able to easily add the long way and understand what is going on, why force them to learn a complicated shortcut that will only throw them off?

The students are then tested not on the basis of how well they know the concepts, but on whether or not they can use these various complicated methods. If you asked the girl I worked with to add, she would do great. But on tests and homework asking her specifically to employ the shortcut she wouldn’t do well. There are times when it’s good to know different ways to do something, but in this case, whether or not she knows the shortcut doesn’t really matter. It’s not adding much to her knowledge of the subject, but she’ll be punished for not knowing how to do it.

Which brings me to Einstein’s quote. A lot of what is defined as smart or not has little to do with actual intelligence and more to do with how well someone is able to answer questions in the way that the test-givers want. This isn’t necessarily measuring true ability, but simply how well students can jump through the hoops they are told to. And here is where these low-income kids will struggle most, as they don’t always have someone telling them which loop to jump through next.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @harshanahata.

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