Get Smart

“Wow, you’re so smart! You’re always so good in school, getting straight As and being at the top of the class. My mom always wanted someone like you…. I wish I had your brains.”



What just happened here?

In our society, we have a very specific definition of “smart”. While Merrian-Webster defines the adjective to be “Mentally alert; Bright; Knowledgeable”, it seems to me that us common folks usually measure smarts in other ways. For the most part, if you are a smart kid in school, it means that you range in the top 15% of your class; that you typically get As and Bs on all of your tests; that you maintain a perfect GPA, that you always do your homework; that, in short, you are a model student.

But is that really what smarts are?

From what I can see, while “smartness” is usually attributed to high grades in school, there are many more fascinating adjectives to describe people who excel in other subjects. For example, you could be street-savvy, musically talented, cool, laid-back, handy/versatile, creative, crafty, fanatic, dilligent, all these things. But if you ask them if they would consider themselves “smart”, they would nonetheless deny it, and mutter something about their not-so-superb grades in school.

My friends, this is a problem.

Why do we attribute smartness as only something arbitrarily defined within schools?

Let us roll back the wheel of time.

Whoops, wrong time wheel/cube. BTW, that guy is hilariously horrible. 0/10, stay away for your sanity. And your eyeballs.

In 605 CE, the Chinese empire was large and proud, powered by one of the most efficient test-taking machines in the world, both then and now. The Imperial Examination was the test that allowed people to be , or a government official, one of the best jobs of the day. From that era, the birth of standardized test taking began, as a way to differentiate the scholars from the ordinary townsfolk, and to systematically rate each person’s intelligence.

Skip forward several centuries, and you’ll find the influence of World War I and II on testing. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale allows for the army to easily categorize who would be eligible for what job, with the more adept taking on roles of engineers while those with what they might consider more “brawn than brains” to be the regular infantry.

With the dawn of the 1950s, factory jobs were falling out of fashion in America not because of their difficulty or hazards, but because of the simple problem that they got to be too expensive. While in the past, anyone could have been a factory worker for pennies per hours, due to improved unionization movements, the cost of labor was increasing to an unsubstainable point and soon, people were being replaced by machines or overseas employees. Soon, the work force of America was needing to change.

So we come to today, where the only thing that we know about testing is about its usefullness to rank people by their smarts. In fact, that is exactly what a standardized test is designed to do. For those who have studied statistics, they would be very familiar with this normal curve, whcih allows statiscions to analyze what proportion of the population an individual lie. For the normal curve to work, they would need most people to score on an average score, with fewer people scoring very high or very low. Thus when a test has been “standardized”, it means that on average, 50% of students would do better than the other 50%. It allows us to easily rank every single person.

Now, let’s take a look at the evolution of education in America, over the past 2 centuries.

Even though the first colleges in New England date back to earlier than the foundation of this nation, education for teenagers did not really take off until around the 1830s, as before that, unless if you were very rich and could afford your own tutor, children would be working. Not until the birth of more severe child labor laws and the push for Public Education by one mister Horace Mann, did we really see primary education take place.

But if you really think about that era, why would people require advanced education? So far as they were concerned, a basic education of grammar and english, with a sprinkle of maths, would probably be enough to get them through the decent factory jobs. There was no need for a high level of education; therefore, those higher levels were only accessible by the rich and ambitious. Perhaps that is why in America until the 1960s, the high school graduation rate was only around 45% and, even more abysmally, the college graduation rate was only 11%!

But starting in the 1940s, that began to change.

Unionization in America was taking off, and for some time, being a factory worker was the best. The auto workers of Detroit had dependable wages set by unions and decent benefits to boot. But as the cost of labor slowly increased, making it more comfortable for the workers, the factories began searching for different ways to make those goods. The rise of cheap labor in other countries, or perhaps the mechanization of work, likely led to larger layoffs within the workforce. Suddenly, a mere middle school degree wouldn’t get you very far in life.

So we begin to see where our modern era comes from. The people who did better in school generally led to a higher paying job, or perhaps a better position in life. Although not true always, this could have led to the common stereotypes of being smart.

So where are we today? In order to get a good job, college degrees are a must, but colleges won’t accept just anyone. There are matters of prestige at stake, so how do they decide who to admit? Standardized testing.

In short, testing’s basic and perhaps most crucial function to date is still within telling who is better than who, or who seems to be more deserving than who else. It is to rank students, to separate the top from the bottom, to provide a clear line of distinction.

So with this definition, it seems clear as to why people have these conceptions of smartness. That whoever is doing better in school is on path to a better life, to a better paying job, even if it means sacrificing love and joy in the presence. Smartness has become a term for us to measure the future.

So what is the problem with this? It isn’t true.

Not the truth. Couldn't be farther.

Not the truth. Couldn’t be farther.

Even though there was a period where test scores could be directly related to future success, in today’s environment, that statement doesn’t hold as much water. People are finding different ways to become just as, or even more, successful, yet we still cling onto the idea of smarts. And even more appalling is the way that we are setting the standards of smarts.


For most of us, school is a fundamental part of life. We have grown up within the institution, and despite what we may do outside of school, we still acknowledge that we must return to it, September to June, five days a week. It is just a large portion of our time, if not our life, that we cannot escape from.

So if we assume that people have an inherent need to do well wherever they are, could we not say that because smartness is the only way to measure success, we have a slight fixation on it? Sure, you might claim that people would just ignore that within schools, but due to the sheer amount of time we spend within those walls of learning, it is hard to utterly ignore.

Therefore, because of a desire for success combined with how the only metric for that success lies in testing, we are approaching school from the wrong direction. Instead of learning to accomplish a task, we are learning to unlock an achievement, to prove to somebody that we are better than others. We want to show that we have gained mastery over which others have not. And even though that kind of attitude might be fine, as it provides the incentive to do great things, having a culture catered towards that need is not.

So what should student’s motivation look like? Let’s take a look at this oft overused metaphor: Building a house.

Are we forcing students to build backwards houses?

In order to build a good house, the first think you must do is lay a well-set foundation, deep within the ground. Without this basic structure, no matter how beautiful the second or third stories are, it would still crumble at a moment’s notice. Without a foundation in knowledge, people wouldn’t be able to keep on working. That kind of structure is not something that you have to completely understand, but it is a basic prerequisite for all paths of life.

The next step in building a house is not to show them examples or dictate what to do, but to help the students learn how to build. While many people may have great ideas, it is a sad reality that those ideas get locked in their minds, never to see the light of the world. By teaching how to build a house, equipping the students with the knowledge of how to make their dreams a reality, we would allow them to give birth to a whole host of structures.

If you consider what happens when this is not achieved, it really is quite scary. Those who have the ideas but not the skills are bound to create houses that, while beautiful in idea, would not hold up to a heavy rain or snow because they have just never known about those kinds of conditions.

Finally, we should provide those students with the materials to do what they would like. Make it so that it is not a challenge just to make a brick for the house, so that they could focus on their own dreams and designs. With that, the birth of a splendid house is formed.

Of course, in the first step I am talking about primary education, the ability to speak and write proper language, and the ability to do basic math. No matter who you are, basic literacy is a must in our world. It doesn’t matter what kind of goal you have in life, without these basic tools, almost everything is futile. That is why I believe that basic education is so crucial to every single person. If you start out slow, you just won’t be equipped to even discover what really interests you later on.

The “learning how to build” is analogous to “learning how to learn”. We must equip our students with the study skills to learn. How to properly do research and how to learn in a meaningful way is crucial to future learning, even if all you want to do is learn how to art. Even then, basic skills of diligence and practice are important. So how should we approach this challenge? In one part, continuing to build on the foundation of language and math comes to mind, but allowing students to begin choosing where they want to pursue is another alternative.

In the final step, I mean that we should give everybody the opportunity to learn what they want. Providing classes on a wide range of topics will be much more fruitful and beneficial than forcing every student to sit through classes of algebra II or United States History. Allowing those to be recommended courses, and compelling people to continue taking just something, would come as a great benefit.

The problem is that today, we are merely providing blueprints and telling people to go and follow. We are creating a legion of Levittowns, and even though they are functional, the problem is that people don’t like building them. They are being equipped with the skills, but do not have enough passion to continue working. Their dreams are long lost, locked away in a time far away.

And even more worrisome is that if we do allow people to deviate from the basic structure, we only have one objective for them. It is as if all buildings were only ranked on how high they ended up being. Even though it is a challenge to achieve great heights, it is certainly not the only challenge in building. What about the design, the style of a house? How about how energy efficient it is? What if a person was just really really skilled at making long, labyrinth-like winding houses, but was sorely looked down upon because he would only make it one story high? Eventually, those people who have dared to be creative will give up on learning the traditional way and move to “greener fields”, where they might encounter much harsher and darker times.

So there you have it: One of the most fundamental problems in being smart is that our educational system is built to benefit those who are doing well within it. And even though many have talents outside that small limited space, they are not being fully recognized for what they do, leading people to only becoming robots within the system.

Here is a graduation speech that went viral, as well as an excellent illustration of it by Gavin at, click on the image to go to the full site. Go ahead and ponder on that for a while; I’ll wait for you.


Done? Gone through the whole valedictorian speech through the link? Great.

So at some point, we have to ask the question: What turns you on? C’mon, get your minds out of the gutter. I mean, what makes you excited? What makes you passionate to learn and burning the midnight oil to read about? What kind of activities could you just get absorbed into and that when you start, time just freezes around you?

And perhaps as an extension: why doesn’t that activity make you feel smart?

If it already does, then great. Issue solved. But lots of times, students are only able to get involved when the topic is being tinkered with outside of the strict regiment of school. Even though business is a great topic to learn about, I have heard about friends who do well at competitions and in practice, but just do not enjoy sitting down to learn. If their skills are greater than those who are methodically taking tests, should they not feel smarter?

So why is it that we allow for only learning to be considered smart?


There is another argument, that we should banish this kind of ranking altogether. That okay, maybe there are issues in this system, but suck it up, those people who are outside of the system don’t really care about you and your silly ideas altogether.

Yes, I admit that there are plenty of us who point-blank refuse to get involved in the system. Those rebels who seem to float above it all. But perhaps the problem is, even though they are satisfied where they are, when they try to apply their talents to society, society seems to reject them for what they appear to be. Yes, smartness is built on the acceptance of others, but our society demands some kind of standard. What we can do is to change that standard to be more encompassing for all kinds of talents.

But of course, this will also include adjusting for those who are following the system, for that is no easy task either. Those people who push themselves to the limit to learn should continue to be challenged, but with one major distinction. From my perspective, these people are often used as no more than a resource to ask webassign/homework questions via facebook or email. Instead, this talented and determined population should face more challenges and be equally respected for what they do.


Of course, there will be flaws. In order to achieve our dreams, sometimes we must sacrifice. If we wish to one day walk upon Mars, we must devote just as much energy to learning differential equations as we do towards astronomy. There will be challenges, but if we can persuade ourselves that these challenges will serve to make us better, I would hope that we would adopt them more easily.

There was a lot more that I was going to write about Gifted Education, but I think that this post has been rambly enough that I’ll be cutting it here. [I mean really. This is almost twice as long as my Extended Essay.)


So, something that I usually don’t do, but thanks and acknowledgements! And a disclaimer:

First of all: disclaimer. As of publication point, these thoughts are not perfectly polished, and a large part comes from semi-mad ramblings. What my real goal right now is to get people to think about the issue, not to propose a fail-proof plan for the problems. I want to see more discussion for that which we have come to accept for granted, and whether if my writing elicits a positive or negative response, it stands that I have made you think. And that is all I wanted to do.

Second of all, thank you to Kunal R. for planting this idea in my head, as well as “OneIBStudent” for making me so angry in Facebook discussions as to actually write this. Kudos to Gavin Aung Than for his amazing artwork and Erica Goldson for the original speech. And finally, thanks to all of you for actually reading this stuff. I honestly was not expecting any kind of response to this, as my blog was originally intended to be a quiet place to record thoughts. But seeing responses, on facebook and from friends, has really made me more interested in expressing these ideas. Knowing that you actually are being read really does make a difference to the writer, haha.

So, I’ll be signing off for now, but I hope that everyone will continue to hold these thoughts in their head. Happy learning!

Notable Links to click:

I got a 520 on Math on the SAT! Great post by a friend and very talented writer, Adora Svitak, who pretty much summarizes all 3000 words of blargh above in a neat concise way. Huge kudos to her, and go check it out!

Fixing the World by Fixing Education: A short, 4-step outline article about how modern education has changed and how we can change with it.

Turnthewheel: Oddly enough, this is not a single article, but instead, a blog. And even more oddly, this is actually the blog of one of my teachers… whom I have never met … who lives 800 some miles away from me. She is my Udacity Statistics teacher, and writes as well as she teaches. Will be crawling through more in the upcoming days!


Part of a series on Education

Previous: Score Shaming

Next: Gift. Ed.

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