A few months ago, in practice for his first standardized testing (my three younger sons are homeschooled), Simon, my 9 year old (then in his last few months of fourth grade) took the New York State Regents 5th grade science exam from the previous year. He aced it. Actually, as long as Simon was taking it, his brothers wanted in too. Isaiah, his 7 year old brother (in second grade at the time) also aced it, missing only one question. Asher, my five year old youngest, in kindergarten, needed a little help sounding out the words, but when he was helped over the hard bits, also passed the exam. He didn’t quite ace it, but still scored above 80%.
My son was a little annoyed that his five year old brother did so well on the exam, and, I think mostly to get said brother’s goat, embarked on a discussion of how the exam was clearly for dummies, and that you’d have to be REALLY stupid not to pass it.
It struck me at that moment that while my son had passed one test with flying colors, in his rant, he was failing another one – the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes. Granted, 9 year olds aren’t famous for their instinctive ability to do so, but it was definitely time for something new to think about.
I asked him to think about why he might be so good at science. He thought it was because he was smart and reads a lot, both of which are certainly true. Still, we considered that perhaps there are other reasons as well. We asked whether every child was the son of an astrophysicist and a science writer, in a house where science is part of nearly every dinner table conversation?
Simon was a precocious reader, and reading fluently by 3 1/2, and given a choice would read 6 hours a day (we try to gently discourage him), including many science books well above the heads of most kids his age. He has always loved to go to work with Dad and sit in on Dad’s classes – when he was 5, he attended “The History of Space Exploration” as part of his birthday present, and was allowed to answer questions (usually not permitted) until my husband had to ask him (to the loud laughter of the class) to give the college students a chance to get one right now and again. He’s a bright, precocious kid who takes his abilities for granted, as though they are natural. And some of them certainly are. Others aren’t.
What might it be like if his parents had different priorities? What if the dinner table conversation was about something else? History or poetry or grandma’s recipes, woodworking, baseball stats, music or finance? Would that necessarily mean that the kids who knew a lot about those things and not so much about science were stupid? What if the conversations were in another language, and he had to spend time translating into english to be able to answer them because he was not yet fully fluent in those languages. What if his parents worked long hours, and there wasn’t any dinner table conversation? What if the only time he ran into the subject was in class – and his teacher wasn’t that good?
What might it be like to grow up in house not overflowing with thousands of books for kids and adults, but without a single book, to not encounter books at all until he went to kindergarten? Would he still be a good reader, even though he’s naturally talented in that direction? What if the only place to find a science book was at the library, and he didn’t even know that that was the kind of book he might like?
What would it be like to have parents who, instead of having multiple advanced degrees had never graduated high school? What about parents who had done poorly in math and science in school, but were good at other things?
Would he want to be considered a dummy if he had to take an exam about baseball history or how houses are constructed, and he didn’t do well? Simon’s not the most coordinated kid – I asked him whether he want to be evaluated by his fine motor coordination to decide if he was smart or not?
Now my son had a point – the expectations for a 10 year old’s science knowledge in New York are not impressive. Several of the questions on the exam were misleading, in a language that could imply multiple possible answers. We know that you can hold 10 year olds in other nations to higher standards than this, and none of this is to imply that wouldn’t be a very good thing.
At the same time, as important as we believe Simon’s science education is, I would not choose to permit him to believe that knowing more about something is necessarily an accurate measure of intelligence. We know, for example, the degrees to which cultural bias taints most examinations – a friend of mine’s 10 year old was recently supposed to know that a picture of a rooster should go with the word “vane” as in “weathervane.” Her urban son has probably never seen one, much less heard it named. It is the convention of our thinking that his unfamiliarity with a physical convention of a very different place makes him less intelligent than someone who would recognize the connection – but in fact, it is more accurately an acknowledgement of the kinds of places we assume smart kids come from.
Indeed, Simon ran into such an example when he was younger. Taking a picture-word test when he was 4, he did extraordinarily well. The examiner came out to talk to me and said that he’d gone all the way up to third grade level, missing only one word. She showed me the one he’d missed – a picture of an ironing board. My sheepish comment was “ummm…that’s because I don’t think he’s ever seen one.” I do own one, but I’m not much of an ironer.
The Amish children in the next town each stop school in 8th grade. Whatever you think of this, it certainly does not make them unintelligent – the ones we know are prolific readers from the local library and interested in a wide range of subjects, and nearly as knowledgeable about stargazing as my husband from watching the stars in their dark, rural backyards. Each of them has a physical intelligence that my children don’t necessarily have – at only a year older than Simon, Amos, the son of an acquaintance of ours, built an elaborate tree-house on a complex design that Eric and I could never have matched. The plan he showed us for it was fully as impressive as any drafted house plan, the structure quite amazing.
That doesn’t mean I would want my son to cease his education at the 8th grade to build full time – but neither do I want my son to believe that certain kinds of knowledge or access to formal education are the same thing as intelligence, or to sit in judgement of those who don’t know what he does and call them stupid. And unfortunately, I know enough adults who do believe that those who know some things are smarter than those who know others that I recognize this as a real danger.
I’m proud of the fact that when Isaiah asked his father if he could buy an “H20″ gun, Simon joked “I want an H2S04 gun” – and all my kids laughed and got the joke. I’m also proud of the fact that my son apologized for using the words “stupid” and “dummies” and got the point – that different people know different things, have different strengths, and that it is often not intelligence but exposure to different kinds of knowledge that are being examined. It is one thing to know that everyone should have a wide ranging and in-depth knowledge of a number of subjects, and another thing to achieve it equitably – most of us have areas in which we are “dummies.”
We are living in a world that is paying a high price for inadequate education in the sciences – a world where so many people cannot evaluate the evidence for climate change and resource depletion that people who lie professionally can out-argue the scientists. This is a scandal, and it shouldn’t be, and there’s no question that better science education is necessary.
We also live in a world stratified heavily by race, class, gender and access to power, and it is equally true that we need a better ethical education, one that undermines the naturalizing of fallacious reasoning that categorizes “smart” and “dumb” by “familiarity with material made vastly more accessible to the priveleged.” We just as badly need an education that ceases to devalue manual and domestic skills as fit only for the kids who “have no choice” but to learn to build and farm and cook. I’ve often told the story of how I asked my high school guidance counselor whether I could attend the local agricultural high school, and with horror he responded “No, Sharon, that’s for kids who aren’t going to a good college, not kids like you.” Farming is hands-on-science, and it has proved to demand more intellectually of me than any other work I’ve ever done – the idea that good building, good mechanics, good farming, good cooking, etc.. are unskilled is ridiculous and should be abandoned wholly.
I told him I thought that New York State should require higher standards of science education – and that I’d also like to see them test that students can build a simple structure, cook a palatable meal from scratch ingredients, patch a pair of ripped jeans and nurture a plant through its entire lifestyle. We talked about why certain times and cultures value certain kinds of knowledge, and also about the degree to which the circumstances into which we are born shape our access to knowledge.
Simon was still annoyed that his little brother passed the test, but that I can live with. Later on he asked me if I’d be proud of him if he won the Nobel Prize (he did not specify in what subject ;-)). I noted that I would be, but that I would also be proud of him if he was a good man, and a kind one who did the right thing. Then he laughed and asked if I’d be proud of him if he won an IgNobel, and headed out to play. Fortunately, no answer on my part was really required.