Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Countering "Dumb"

In 2012, I was given a rare opportunity to teach Developmental Biology at one of the regional schools. The course was offered to me at the last minute, with many logistical issues: incorrectly listed in the course catalog, offered in a lab room instead of a traditional classroom, meaning even water wasn't allowed, and start time at 8:30 am, which was hard for many commuter students. It was a challenge to fill the minimum seating requirements so that it could actually be run. But a massive benefit of all that issues was it allowed for me to incorporate a flipped classroom model, making it more discovery-based and having students actually read primary literature.

I walked away from this course with a few different things. The first being that if you actually give students the tools to dissect primary scientific literature, teaching them how to understand what they are looking at and determine what the questions are, they can have some profound insights. 

But the second, and arguably most important, thing was how these students blossomed under the flipped classroom. Many of these students were first-generation, some were older and most had gone the community college route before transferring to this institution. Though they were science majors, many of them confessed that they had always felt dumb on some level because either they hadn't gone the traditional route, some concepts didn't take root as quickly, or they didn't have the aspirations of those they thought would go on to do amazing things. Yet the students demonstrated they were far from dumb. The issue they faced was one of accessibility, allowing them the tools needed to overcome different challenges and hurdles to understanding the material. 

What should have been a disaster of a course given the initial set up turned into one of the highest-rated courses that quarter (much to the shock of the administration). The lessons I learned have been carried forward. An added perk was I had so much fun, which laid the groundwork for breaking the mold that effective learning only happens when it's painful and repetitive.

Conversations about intelligence are something I face on a daily basis. From meetings with colleagues to discussions with my learners to interactions with Maddy and Teddy as well their classmates and their classmates' parents, the conversations may seem benign but there's always an underlying level of anxiety about how you measure up compared to those around you.

This has come to a head recently with reopening and discussions about how to incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic to future trainings. There are many who clearly are uncomfortable with the evidence that shows how we traditionally teach and train at the post-secondary and industry level is not effective (and actually an insane drain on the system). While there is push to reform the K-12 system (thoughts on that another time), the reality is that higher education needs a complete overhaul to even meet its mission. 

Yet, the pushback is profound, as those in positions of privilege argue to the pain about how all of this is untrue and unfair. The fear of being exposed for being outdated is having an impact on even being able to move forward. Needless to say, I'm currently being attacked and demeaned for building something that works. 

One of the most mind-boggling assumptions/excuses I encounter is the idea that intelligence is fixed: you succeed in life because you are both smart and used your intelligence to worked hard to get where you are. While working at an Ivy League institution, this mindset was pushed, with classes covering the genetics of intelligence to bolster this idea that the students were special due to something that was a birthright. The problem with this messaging is that it is well known that intelligence is complex. It's insanely difficult to measure intelligence, with a lot of backlash about IQ testing and what it actually measures. Additionally, there are increasing bodies of evidence that success in life actually requires a well-roundedness not only in traditional measures of intelligence but also emotional intelligence. And finally, we now have evidence that becoming financially successful has no link with intelligence, meaning those who come from families with financial security initially acquired that security via luck and then used their privilege to try to ensure subsequent generations would also be stable, even though often this is unsuccessful. (Hence the Chinese proverb "wealth only last three generations.")

This past year of lockdown combined with the Black Lives Matter movement and all the suppression that is currently happening has spotlighted that "dumb" is something that's not inherited or fixed. Many educators and thought leaders are exploring Growth Mindset, revealing that almost everyone has the ability to master different difficult concepts. It's just a matter of changing the approaches and even the language that's used to encourage and praise, building a toolkit for learners to be successful. But I also argue that an additional component is access, looking at the environment and allowing equal access to resources instead of restricting them to a select few.

All of this brings me to my current conundrum, as this messaging scares those in positions of power. I spend a lot of time fighting with people who are now facing their privilege, fighting to silence it, all the while failing to deliver because they won’t humble themselves to adapt. This mindset is currently source of so much stress in my life and the insanity I’m witnessing, combined with being threatened by those who have previously been unaware of how systems have benefitted them, makes me want to quit. And yet, one thing that has become apparent is that as much as those who previously benefitted would like to return to the previous normal, the world is greatly changed. 

So, despite the fact I'm spitting mad and fear losing my job, I continue to push for change: Challenging this idea that "dumb" and "poor" are not moral failings, but that "rich" and "privileged" maybe are.


  1. Oh, Cristy. So much to unpack here! Your last sentence is profound...I hope your voice becomes a beacon for a new way of learning/educating/teaching/framing.

  2. That last sentence, yes! "Smart" and "success" are relative terms. Older Nephew (a December baby, the youngest in his class) had trouble with school and was actually placed in a special education classroom. "Smart" in the conventional academic sense, he is not. But he was always a very talented artist (as is his wife) and now a skilled welder... and moreover, he has a huge heart and what I would call a very high level of emotional intelligence. Different people learn in different ways... not everyone is cut out for the Ivy League... and there's more than one way to be successful!


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