Intelligence—It’s Not What You Think

(2006, age 59; essay written in 2015)

LAIT test results

When I was a teacher, my students thought I was a genius. I am not. My most accurately measured IQ test reports an IQ of 139 (99.995 percentile). Not a genius. But what does that number measure, anyway? It measures the ability to solve all sorts of abstract problems, whether they involve language, math, or visual patterns. There’s so much that it doesn’t measure. Before I wrote this essay, I never talked about IQ for that reason and because I’ve seen IQ scores used for inappropriate purposes over the years.

When I was growing up, the IQ test was popular to set expectations. I was expected to do well in school because, as my mother too-often reminded me, I was smart. You can imagine her disappointment when I brought home my First Grade report card showing mostly “B” grades. A “B” grade was and always would be unacceptable. I don’t remember how I felt at the time, but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t proud of me. It wasn’t nearly good enough.

Praxis test results

There was one test that I am proud of, and it’s not the IQ test. It was the math teachers’ Praxis exam: a math-specific exam given to assess a math teacher’s content knowledge. On the day I took it, along with math teachers across the nation, I scored higher than 99.16% of the other teachers. (σ=81.6, μ=615, z=2.39) I attribute that to the way I think about math and the way it all fits together beautifully in my mind. For many, the test was a nightmare. For me, I found the questions clever and even delightful. I left wishing I could have a copy of the exam so I could challenge my students with some of the clever questions.

As I said, those students thought I was a genius. There is a website called Rate My Teachers where students can leave anonymous comments about their classroom teachers. Here are a few student comments from that site:

  1. An amazing teacher, and a total genius. He really cares about teaching. Why else would he go back to school for 6 years just to be a teacher? He’s really incredible.

  2. Frank, you’re one of my favorite teachers. Your classes are extremely hard and you’re really smart, it’s just sometimes hard to understand your teaching.

  3. Definitely a cool guy, but his classes are really hard. He’s a genius, but sometimes he doesn’t know how to teach us his knowledge.

  4. Come back Mr. Frank we miss you! You’re amazing and your class, even though it was super hard, was one of my favorites in high school. You’re a genius and we love you!

I’ll tell you what stood out to me about those comments. In the first comment, the student observed that I really cared about teaching. The point is, students don’t care what you know until they know that you care. I got that part right. But in other comments, students lamented that I wasn’t able to convey the information they needed effectively. “Doesn’t know how to teach us” and “hard to understand your teaching”—to those students, wherever you are now, I apologize. Knowing the material—being smart—isn’t enough. A teacher has to be able to explain a topic, often in several different ways if needed. Whatever it takes. At the end of the course, it’s all about what they know, not what the teacher knows.

And though I’m not a genius, I have known a few. A few I met in my first career as a computer scientist. In my second career as a high-school teacher, I was lucky enough to teach “the brightest of the bright” students in my classes at Ponderosa High School. That’s where I met a very smart young lady: Nicole.

Most students did well even in my most difficult classes. In particular, when I was teaching math classes and computer science clases in high school, I was allowed to set my own curriculum. That doesn’t happen these days, when teaching to a standardized test is the norm. In pre-calculus, I needed to prepare them for the next calculus course, but with these students, who were two or three years advanced already, I had plenty of their mental bandwidth to work with. I took them in many directions, including teaching topics that aren’t part of any normal high-school curriculum. Topology, for example. Or I would challenge them to prove interesting relationships, such as how e = -1. I also had a unit on “The Mathematics of Time Travel.”

For Nicole, all of this was easy. Too easy. She told me she appreciated that I wasn’t just teaching math from the book: lecture, practice, assign homework, turn it in, test. But I knew I wasn’t really challening her. So I set out to add an activity to the class. Each week I would pose a question to the class taken from the Omni Magazine’s “Worlds Hardest IQ Test.” I, of course, posed questions that I knew the answers to so I could know if the students got them right. None were a problem for Nicole. Then I hit on an idea. I would ask the class questions I did not know the answer to and then ask Nicole to explain the correct answer to me. She never let me down.

That test is normed for an IQ of 150 and Nicole was having no difficulty with any of it. I had found a true genius, one of only a few I would ever know. We became friends. Nicole and I would talk, sometimes, about “being smart.” We both knew that intelligence had a bright and a dark side. She told me once she wanted to hide her intelligence “under a basket.” I can understand why, and though I won’t pretend to speak for her, I can reflect on the down-side of intelligence as I see it.

A big problem with being smart is that you don’t learn how to persevere when something is hard to understand. Because nothing is hard to understand. Lucky for me when I was preparing to become a math teacher, I finally took a math course (abstract algebra) that, for me, was difficult. I went to the teacher and said “I don’t get this. I’ve never had trouble with math before now.” Knowing I was preparing to be a teacher, he said “Roger, I’m teaching you the most important lesson you can learn.” I replied, “What?! Field theory?” “No,” he said. “I’m teaching you what it feels like to be a student who doesn’t understand.” It was a rare and valuable lesson. Much later, when I would give my best explanation for a topic that a student still didn’t understand, I would think back to how I felt that time that I didn’t “get it” myself.

Another drawback to being labelled as “smart” is that expectations are high. Very high. This was a problem for me growing up. Mother would say “You are smarter than your brother. How come he’s such a good student? Any you just tinker with wires!” When expectations are high, sometimes you don’t want to even try because what if you fail? It’s not enough to just do a good job at something; you are expected to do something amazing.

I’ve also found that more often than I expected, being smart hinders friendships. Others feel you think you are “so smart” and that when you have something to say, it’s often taken as “showing off.” It’s very hard to find peers who can accept you as you are. This includes an often “dry” sense of humor. Intelligent people can find humor and incongruity in subtle places where others often miss it. Sometimes this means you have to laugh alone, or not at all, to be safe.

But for me, what stands out is that smart people often have no choice but to think rather than feel. And to keep thinking when you really wish you wouldn’t. You know what you don’t know and that won’t leave you alone. How nice it would be to walk down a country lane and just listen to a bird song without thinking about how the bird makes the song or what if it means anything or what piece of classical music might have borrowed the melody or…. You get the idea.

Many people think being smart is only a good thing. But Nicole and I both know there is a complicated, darker side to it. So to many people we would caution that intelligence, or being “smart,” is not what you think.