“Are Schools Smart Enough to Know How Smart Students Are?”

written by: Dr. Tony McCaffrey
In “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” Frans de Waal discusses how the study of animal cognition is recently breaking free of lumping diverse animals into one category and judging them on one dimension of intelligence. Before this recent shift, researchers would often give the same puzzles to diverse species without any accommodations. For example, chimps easily use long sticks to reach up for elevated food, but elephants do not. Are chimps therefore smarter than elephants? Not if you notice that an elephant does not pick up sticks with the tip of its trunk because the stick would block its nasal passage. Replace the stick with a sturdy box and the elephant will kick the box into position so it can stand on it to retrieve the food.

Similarly, macaques can solve a particular string puzzle, but gibbons cannot. The temptation is to conclude that macaques are smarter than gibbons until you realize that gibbons, without fully opposable thumbs, do not have the dexterity to pick up a string from the ground. Hang the string in midair and gibbons easily grab it to solve the problem.

Instead of asking which animals are smarter than others are, de Waal asks whether human researchers are smart enough to evaluate how smart different animals are. In other words, are humans smart enough to properly investigate animal intelligence?

The same can be asked of many of our schools. Are school administrators and teachers smart enough to evaluate how smart each of our diverse students is? With standardized tests and narrow appraisals of success still in vogue, are school officials really that far ahead of animal cognition researchers when it comes to handling the immense cognitive diversity within the human species?

It seems to me that we are just at the beginning of understanding human cognitive diversity and what it could mean for the future of humankind. Currently, there is what is called a Neurodiversity Movement, an emerging field that focuses on all the varied ways to be human based on differences in the neurological system. This relatively new field needs measurement tools to detect the panoply of possible human gifts. The wide horizon of human cognitive abilities far outreaches the grasp of the current array of tests that check youth for what are considered school-appropriate skills. So much human potential is wasted because a youth’s true gifts are not discovered soon enough in order to be properly nurtured. This world desperately needs diverse thinkers to help us solve our profound challenges to remake our world in a way that is environmentally friendly—among other things. Further, many schools urgently need these neurodiversity measurements, so they can discover their students’ gifts sooner—for all of our sakes.

My doctorate is in cognitive psychology and my research focuses on creative problem solving. In this, my first year at Eagle Hill School, I gave my students a puzzle at the beginning of almost every class. I am continually amazed at their creative answers. For example, how would you dry your sneakers in a clothes dryer all by themselves without them making a great deal of noise? Although multiple solutions are possible, one of the most clever is to shut the door on the shoelaces so the sneakers hang down inside the dryer against the middle of the door and touch nothing else while the dryer drum spins around them.

Puzzles like these are usually accompanied by an aha moment, or so my doctoral training would have me believe. An aha moment occurs when the solver notices something that is initially overlooked that then triggers the sudden onset of a solution. However, a sizable number of EHS students consistently solve these puzzles with seemingly no aha moment. The solution comes naturally to them with no sudden insight. It is not their third idea after failing a couple times. It is their first idea with no pause before it arrives. Amazing! I have to rethink my training, which I gladly will do. Amidst my students’ intense struggles to learn standard school material, I have seen these “pockets of brilliance,” as one parent eloquently stated. The challenge of schools is to nurture that brilliant spark until it becomes a confident flame, to Think Different as Apple Computer might say. Before you nurture it, however, you have to be able to detect it.

Inspired by these puzzle experiences and building upon Eagle Hill School’s high sensitivity to learning diversity, I am off to create some of these early detection tools for the Neurodiversity Movement. The tools will be in the form of puzzles that will detect an extensive variety of human cognitive abilities. I will need a great deal of help creating these wide-ranging puzzles, so I am teaching a class at Eagle Hill called Puzzle-ology in order that my students can help me create these new puzzles for revealing significant but hidden human capabilities.

In a future blog, I will report on some of the puzzles developed by me and my students, as well as the gifts they have helped us uncover.

What is Learning Diversity About?

Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.

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