When I first joined Teach For America, we spent a lot of time learning about the different skills and mindsets we would need to help our students develop in order to improve their academic achievement. One mindset we wanted to help them develop was the whole notion of “work hard, get smart”– in other words, you can grow your intelligence through hard work. This notion is also referred to as malleable intelligence, as opposed to fixed intelligence where a person is either born smart or not. It is critical that I get my students to believe in this idea of malleable intelligence because it shifts their mindset away from “I’ve always gotten an F” to “I can work hard to improve my grades.” Malleable intelligence helps empower children to take control of their education and helps build their self-esteem after many previous experiences with failure in school. It removes the element of excuse; furthermore, it allows my students better see their potential when many people in their lives have seldom experienced the payoffs of hard work. When role models and hard work seem to be lacking, malleable intelligence can be an excellent tool for teachers.
I have been thinking a lot about malleable intelligence since I attended a unique professional development opportunity a week ago. I was invited to sit in on a creativity lecture at the National Association for Gifted Children conference held in downtown Saint Louis. The two speakers at this lecture were none other than Howard Gardner, the man who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, and Dean Keith Simonton, another researcher and scholar within the field of intelligence and creativity. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence is based on the belief that people have different intelligences that affect the way they learn and perceive the world. For example, someone with a verbal-linguistic intelligence have strong skills in using words and language. A person with a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is able to learn better using movement and manipulatives.
During their talk, Gardner and Simonton discussed their research of “eminent creators,” otherwise known as incredibly creative individuals who made outstanding contributions to their field. All these creative people, like Freud, Einstein, Stravinsky, Picasso, and Gandhi, lived at about the same time and had enough biographical information available for both Gardner and Simonton to draw conclusions about their creative lives. Among the important similarities that Gardner and Simonton discovered were that eminent creators often experienced multiple failures in their lives and that they also had mentors and role models as young people. I was intrigued by the fact that some of history’s most creative and influential people were highly unsuccessful at first, yet persisted—undoubtedly without some help from their mentors and role models.
As I reflected on how Gardner’s and Simonton’s work affects my teaching, I realize how important it is to foster creativity in my own students. Each of my students has a unique set of intelligences that allows them to perform more successfully at some tasks than others. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to tap into their strengths and encourage them to work hard at developing their skills in order to enhance their academic performance. By building upon my students’ strengths, I can help them maintain focus on their long-term goals despite setbacks. Furthermore, much like the failures experienced by eminent creators in Gardner’s and Simonton’s research, my students can use their own intelligences and creativity to overcome obstacles. This persistence can be made easier if I can connect my students to mentors and role models within our community. Such connections are easily formed within my school between students and teachers, coaches, and administrators; however, I truly think that it is important for our students to have mentors within our greater communities to help guide them in pursuing their goals and enhancing their ability to work hard and get smarter, both creatively and intellectually.
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