Tony Gurr

Back to School – Can we make our LEARNers “smarter”?

In Our Schools, The Paradigm Debate on 11/09/2011 at 11:52 am

Perhaps the better question is: 

  • Can we REALLY help ourselves get “smarter” – first? 

After all – most us teachers are “oldies” – and we all know that “oldies” can’t do much allthingslearning!



Let me tell you a story!


I mentioned my “son”, Dexter, in my post the other day – he’s around 12 months old, now. A wonderful, little ball of joy – cute as hell, fun to play with but not the most cerebral of companions.

Yes, my “son” is a bit dumb!

Or not…


We take good care of him – he knows. We love him to bits – he returns this. We teach him stuff – he learns well. Almost everything – except not to jump over our friends when they come to visit “him” (he actually believes that all our house guests come for him – and the Dog Whisperer told us this so it “must be true”).

At around the age of six months – he started to come on in leaps and bounds – he suddenly became so much more emotionally and socially intelligent. It was clear that he had started to miss his mummy and daddy when they were not around and clearly wanted to spend as much time as possible with them (we’re pretty OK parents).

One night we tried to put him to bed. This usually involves rubbing his tummy on his favourite fluffy carpet, settling him down and saying “nite, nite Dex, sleep well – see you tomorrow”. That night it did not work!

That night he clearly had not had enough time with mummy and daddy – he refused to walk into the kitchen and continued to jump around in the hallway. He simply refused to go to bed – remember, my wife and I have not looked after a “toddler” for 19-20 years so we were a bit flummoxed!

We tried to entice him into the kitchen – even used his favourite doggy treats (never says “no” to one of these). After 5 minutes of this, he got “bored” of our feeble attempts at Jedi mind-tricks and strolled to the entrance of our bedroom door – and waited for us to “join” him (with the cutest look on his face)!

The rest is history – he now “sleeps” with us!


Now, if an American Cocker can come so far in a few months – try telling me that every single human being on the planet (who are all “engineered” for learning) cannot do the same!

For years, we were told that “intelligence” was fixed – and because the guys that were saying this were so much smarter than us, we believed them. Then we discovered the “brain” – literally! We created some new “toys” that allowed us to really look into that wonderful lump of grey matter that decides how much learning is “doable”. Thank God for neuro-scientists – they have finally brought us out of the “learning Dark Age”!

OK, we are not all the way there – and I am not sure if I really want hundreds of tiny Stuart Littles running around – but they have truly opened our eyes.


The supporters of “neural intelligence theory” pulled off one of the biggest cons of the 20th Century. These cognitive psychologists actually tricked us into thinking that IQ tests were “good” – even worse, that these “scientific tools” were the most reliable way to “weigh and measure” our kids!

Companies made millions selling these tools to us, consultants and educational advisors found innovative ways to bring them into almost every facet of human activity – they all contributed to the creation of the “examocracies” we have in place around the world.

The examocracies we did not vote for – but determine who “wins” and who “fails” into today’s world.

OK, I know that many of you will come back and tell me, “Tony, but so many educational and organisational psychologists have proved that IQ scores are really good predictors of tertiary-level achievement and job performance”.

True. And we also know that the predictive power of IQ is higher for “complex” activities than for “simple” ones. 

But, what about if we question the types of achievement we expect at universities and the types of performance we are expected to show in our jobs – and how happy we are with these things. 


Howard Gardner, whether you agree with everything he says of not (or more importantly what others say he says), has been telling us for years that “real intelligence” is not monolithic, it is not fixed, and it certainly is not only “neural”. 

Intelligence is fluid, malleable and expansive – like life! 

Human beings have a wonderful capacity to adapt to new and complex situations and we have the potential to create new ways of thinking – when we are “allowed” and “encouraged” to… 

And, we have different types of “smarts”. 


David Perkins, a senior researcher at Harvard, also introduced us to concepts behind “experiential” and “reflective” intelligence – and was one of the first to let us in on a pretty important “dirty little secret”: people can learn to think and act much more intelligently.

He tells us:

“Experiential intelligence particularly supports day-to-day expert thinking in a domain. Experiential intelligence also particularly supports coping with recurrent everyday situations. Reflective intelligence particularly supports coping with novelty. Reflective intelligence also particularly supports thinking contrary to certain natural trends.” 

Sounds a lot like the life we all have today! And, also shows the need for greater levels of “creativity” in all we do.


In an earlier guest-blogger postIan Jukes, talked about how “school smarts” were getting in the way of “street smarts” – I would wager that conventional “teaching smarts” have a lot to do with the lack of “learning smarts” we are seeing in our schools, colleges and universities. IMHO… 

Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton have taken a closer (and recent) look at how these ideas are impacting education. For them, how people (especially teachers and educators) think about learning depends on how they conceptualise “intelligence”.

We all know that our own “teaching” reflects our own underlying assumptions about what kinds of “smarts” are worth having – and whether we pigeon-hole students in terms of what we think are their “fixed abilities” or whether we truly see our role as a “talent development expert” for every single student.


I believe that every single teacher needs to ask themselves the question I posed in this posting – discover what they really believe about “intelligence” and then do something about it. Schools, colleges and universities need to also look at the implications of such new understandings on how they want “to do business”.

There are some that may say that there is more than a grain of truth in the “learnable intelligence debate” (and there is still a raging debate) – but point out that “age” is the killer as we all become “less adaptable” as we get older. 

I disagree – my wife took me on when I was a foolish young teacher with no future. I’m glad she did – she took me on for my “potential” (actually, I think most women do this when they get married – they are all “natural” talent development experts).

She would probably say I am a lot smarter than I was 25 years ago – I’m guessing she would say I am also smarter than I was last year. It is not only Dexter that has benefitted from contact with my wife. 

So, and coming back to our original question:

  • Can we make our LEARNERS “smarter”?

Of course, we can!

But, first we have to “believe” it…


For those of interested in “bedtime reading”, take a look at my “library”Tony’s LEARNABLE INTELLIGENCE Library

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