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Minicon brunch and Intelligence panel and onwards - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Minicon brunch and Intelligence panel and onwards [Apr. 11th, 2012|01:11 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Right then, so, Minicon.

I had a good time, and there were good people, and good things happened, yay Minicon, I will go back next year. This is a surprise? This is not a surprise. Next year I get a dinosaur sticker. So at this point, not going back would be a surprise.

A thing of potential utility for Minicon-goers who want a nearbyish brunch: Parma 8200 does a $25/person "family-style" set menu, which would be vastly unsatisfying for the vegetarian audience, but they did a lovely job with all but one of the things they served us (the fresh fruit was merely mediocre), and it was all handled in a timely fashion, and people who are wanting to make reservations for a brunch and yet are not sure that $50/person at the Sofitel is quite the thing for them might want to consider this. They brought us cinnamon muffins, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs with herbs and mascarpone, frittata with fresh ricotta and vegetables, penne with Bolognese ragu, ham, house salad, smashed potatoes with arugula and onions, lovely smoked bacon, English muffins, and cannoli. You could get more of any of it included in the price, but really unless you didn't like something, you would have to have failed to eat for the entire weekend or be in training for a marathon or some other reason to have a really really large appetite to have needed more of any of it. It was quite generous. Kids $8, and they had a smoothly run kids' area for making the whole experience happy.

I was on two panels, as I said I would be. The SF and Mystery crossover panel bopped along pretty happily--our general position was that we were for it. The What is Intelligence panel was a little rockier. Frankly I think that if you are going to show up half an hour late and then answer most of the questions that are in the panel description with, "I dunno, I got nothing," you might as well stay home, and hearing reports that you have engaged in the same behavior for the rest of the con is not impressive in the least. Thankfully that was just one panelist, and of course not the guest of honor, who was gracious in every instance I observed or heard of.

As for the rest of the panel, Ted Chiang said in the closing statements he wished we'd gotten to the question of whether greater intelligence necessarily means greater morality. On further elaboration he seemed to indicate that what he meant was greater moral responsibility, which is good, because as moderator I hadn't brought up the panel description question of whether greater intelligence necessarily means greater morality up on the panel because, um, I thought it was a stupid question. (No. There. Next question. I mean, seriously, we all know smart people who are completely reprehensible, right? If not, I can introduce you. And we all know people who are a bit dim and extremely good people? Yes? Because if not, again with the introductions. Okay, good.)

And to me, the question of whether increased power in whatever direction--intelligence, charisma, wealth, political power, whatever--confers greater moral responsibility is also fairly trivial: sure, of course it does. "Do your best" means do your best, with the full force of your resources, not the full force of someone who has far fewer resources than you do--whatever those resources are, whether they're intellect or physical strength or what. But this is not something we are, as a species or as a set of societies, very good at enforcing. We have tried various methods. None of them are highly effective. Sometimes being smart means being able to see implications of something that looks really good on a simplistic level, and other times it means the ability to get ourselves into really really complicated problems even at the non-enhanced levels of intelligence.

One of the things we touched on incredibly briefly since this only came up in closing remarks is that Ted said that we expect less of children and the mentally handicapped because they're less intelligent, and that got my back up. And we talked about it after the panel a bit, and I don't have any idea whether Ted would phrase this differently after that conversation or whether he understands my position but would keep his own, so just keep this in mind as my thoughts sparked by that conversation, not as a Statement On Ted Chiang's Thoughts Of Whatever. Anyway. Among other things, all the panelists had solemnly agreed that intelligence was a multi-dimensional thing, not just one linear measure--and then promptly had difficulty behaving as though it were true. And I think one of the ways in which this difficulty behaving as though it's true that intelligence is multi-dimensional comes out is in dealing with children. (Another is probably in dealing with mentally handicapped or developmentally delayed people. My experience here is extremely limited, so I will leave this part to people who know more than I do except to say that I really don't think we understand what is going on in the human brain very well at all in the hypothetical general case, much less when we have someone with a condition like Down's Syndrome, and that people with Down's vary, like people without Down's vary, dammit; they are people, some more musical than others, some better at language, etc.)

But anyway, back to kids, since I know more kids. Modeling children as less intelligent than adults is--no. Just plain no. Intelligence is lots of things. One of the things we tend to use as shorthand is speed of learning, and you do not want to get into that kind of race with a 4-year-old, because I don't care how smart you think you are, you will lose. The only way you win a speed of learning race with a 4-year-old is by starting much, much closer to the finish line. This is like saying, "I ran a 500 yards and the 4-year-old ran a marathon. I finished thirty seconds ahead. Clearly I am smarter than the 4-year-old." Kids are currently in the process of learning every single thing about the world that they will ever know, all at once. The reason little kids say such crazy things is that they are learning too many things for adults to keep track of, and we take it all for granted, and we can't keep track of which bits they have and don't have yet. And if you look at a 4-year-old and go, "All right, she can barely read Skippyjon Jones, I will approximate her intelligence as that of a 40-year-old who can also barely read Skippyjon Jones," you will be severely underestimating her and making things unpleasant for the both of you.

This is something our culture does all the time, and it's not free of consequences. Teaching someone who is as smart as you but doesn't happen to know the subject comes with very different subconscious assumptions than teaching someone who just isn't as smart as you. And then we assume that either people who want to teach the very young must be rather dim because they want to spend time around such stupid little people (uh, wrong!) or that it's okay to let the rather dim do it because it can't do any harm to squash the questions of little kids because they're dumb questions anyway (wrong again, argh!), and...oh, the swirling maelstrom of social suckitude that comes from assuming that less experienced and less knowledgeable maps to less intelligent. It's yet another example where "brain working differently" and "brain working wrong" are not the same.

When I'm teaching somebody something--and despite not doing it formally for 13 years now, I'm teaching somebody something a lot--one of my principles is to assume that they will be able to understand stuff if we both work at it and do it right. Period. So they don't speak the same language as me; maybe there are cognates, maybe we will use pictures or gestures or whatever. So maybe it'll take awhile. So maybe they will get bored and wander off or ask different questions. But it's not on me to indicate to them that they won't be able to understand. "This is too hard for you," and, "You are not smart enough for this," are not productive things for me to tell other people, no matter how old they are. ("You will have no interesting insights or questions for me" is another one I try to avoid.) And when they're implicit in the dealings of people with an entire other category of people, that gets to be toxic and unpleasant.

We already have too much of it built in. We already have different kinds of children's museums than when I was a kid--children's museums that assume that kids are dumb, that kids can't figure out not to do things, not to eat the paint, not to throw stuff at their sister's head, whatever. We've done studies that show how much worse girls and black kids do on math tests if you tell them, "Hey, GIRLS AND BLACK KIDS SUCK AT THIS STUFF, now go do your math test!" If you treat people like they are incapable, they will oblige you. Now think about what we get if you do that with a group that touches every single member of the species for part of their lives. If instead of, "This might take some time and hard work," we tell kids, "You're not smart enough," we help them live down to expectations. That's not what we want. That's not going to help anybody's hopes of enhancing intelligence--not in any of its multi-faceted directions.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2012-04-11 06:45 pm (UTC)
By definition intelligence is supposed to be a constant, not changing throughout life. Theoretically, you should be able to measure it at any change not not see a chance. Ted Chiang ought to darn well know that, so I'm not sure what he was smoking.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2012-04-11 07:33 pm (UTC)
I think that definition may need some revision, then: measured IQ may do that, but speed of learning varies, as Mris notes, and the conclusion of "if I do this, something horrible will happen, so I shouldn't do it" seems obvious to us but apparently takes time to learn. Memory and language-learning ability tend to decline with age, even assuming no organic brain damage (and we're still learning about things like the cumulative effects of mild concussions).

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From: markiv1111
2012-04-11 07:29 pm (UTC)
Amazing post. Thank you.

N.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2012-04-11 07:30 pm (UTC)
With you 100% on the kids, but then I was a lapsed elementary ed major and I Feel Strongly about this. (The fact that I was surrounded by an educational bureaucracy that did NOT Feel Strongly about this is one of the reasons I am a LAPSED elementary ed major. I find that I can make more personal difference via guerilla tactics, the world currently being what it is.)

Many times adults think small children have an intelligence problem, or a learning problem, when what the child actually has is a communicating-with-adults problem. Which is certainly frustrating for the adult, but (at least at that point) not particularly vital for the child. It's not the kid's highest priority, y'know? They're too busy cramming information into every socket as fast as they can. My take on kids, which is probably not approved of, but fortunately I am not a parent, is to make sure they don't actually hurt themselves and that they get some minimal amount of nutrition into their bodies, and other than that I try to stay out of their way so they can get on with the important business of trying to soak up the world like a sponge until they pass out.

Incidentally, my crotchety take these days is that museums are increasingly assuming not just that kids are dumb, but that adults are dumb. In fact in some cases it may be worse with the adults. The Boston MFA has a really fabulous summer art program for kids where they just kind of wind the kids up and let them go. They show them some art, they give them some materials, and they advise if asked but they don't steer. I make a point when I visit to go into the basement where they show the kids' work, and it's very clear what is and isn't being absorbed. Meanwhile, their new contemporary wing two stories up is just a hair shy of insulting, based on the assumption that modern and post-modern art is "hard" and that therefore the gallery-goers must be led slowly by the hand and gently spoonfed ideas. It's a nice gallery and a good revision of the space, but the thick fog of condescension as soon as you walk in the door makes it a little hard to breathe in there.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-04-11 08:14 pm (UTC)
Incidentally, my crotchety take these days is that museums are increasingly assuming not just that kids are dumb, but that adults are dumb.

Hmm, this may be a major part of it. Or worse, that adults are evil. I mean, I get why they wanted to see markgritter and me with our pre-approved niece-type people to know that we were there with small children in order to give us the admission stickers that said Yes You Brought Kids To Play With and not Warning Do Not Let This Creepy Grown-Up Touch Your Kids. But still, what a sad world. And some of the stuff that frustrated me seemed to be based on the assumption that the adults getting to watch their kids do Fun Thing X was more important than the kids doing Fun Thing X.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2012-04-11 08:05 pm (UTC)
Hey! I was one of those kids who would do very well at the start of a class, get Horribly Bored, do something non-boring of my own devising, catch up by doing half-assed work at the last minute, and end up with much worse grades than people thought I should get (passing, but hardly extraordinary) to the Puzzlement of All. I think I sat next to you!
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2012-04-11 10:03 pm (UTC)
YES, YES, YES. SO MUCH THIS. I teach kids for a living! I can back this up with every ounce of me.

The thing kids don't have is experience, because they only just got here and everything is new. They don't have the year you spent memorizing your multiplication tables so that they would be with you forever. They don't have your high school science class where you learned how cumbustion works and after that car engines made more sense. They don't have all your general living experience either, enough to know that if you do X with some tool, Y happens, or have had enough anectodal evidence to assume that when people do A, it probably means B, and so on. If you gave them time to fit in all this stuff like you've had, congratulations, you'd have a person who knows these things too. And that's not about intelligence.

Also, the debate over "you worked really hard" versus "you're so smart" in messages to kids is one I have very, very strong feelings about, in the same direction as you, but that probably doesn't surprise you.
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2012-04-11 10:15 pm (UTC)
PS: Would you like a Canadian 25-cent coin with a dinosaur printed on it? When you turn off the light, the dinosaur's skeleton appears in glow-in-the-dark.
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[User Picture]From: supergee
2012-04-11 10:33 pm (UTC)
Is this another piece of ancient wisdom that's been lost? When I was a child, it was assumed that we children were *ignorant* (which, like virginity, is how we all start out and not a cause for shame). Some are smart and some are stupid, and you find out which when you teach them, but "children are stupid" is a crude category mistake.
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From: sheff_dogs
2012-04-11 10:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes! One of the worst troubles I got into at school was after our form teacher intervened in a discussion between a group of friends with the statement "All teachers are more intelligent than their students!". I refuted this statement with the very obvious argument that if this were the case then the intelligence of the human race must be declining from generation to generation, but apparently I didn't know what I was talking about. Went all the way up to the head teacher and my parents were involved. Mistake on the school part as my parents supported me, but that the stupitity of the statement was not admitted by the other teachers involved, because a 15 year old was not allowed to tell a teacher they were wrong made me lose all respect for them.
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[User Picture]From: finnyb
2012-04-12 03:31 am (UTC)
Reminds me of the time I had to bring three dictionaries to class to prove to my TAG English teacher, in high school, that "A pregnant silence filled the room" and " 'What in the world?' Sam ejaculated" could be proper sentences. (I'd just been reading a lot of Anne of Green Gables, where such phrases were common.)

Teacher still called my parents and got the principal involved. I lost all respect for her, and the principal, at that point.
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From: vcmw
2012-04-11 11:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you so much!
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[User Picture]From: gaaldine
2012-04-12 12:29 am (UTC)
Hmmm . . . I think I have this conversation (or a variant) nearly daily with my students.
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2012-04-12 04:06 am (UTC)
Thank you for this post. I am very sorry I missed the panels.

P.
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[User Picture]From: rmnilsson
2012-04-12 03:09 pm (UTC)
From the cognitive psychologist in the peanut gallery... We know general intelligence exists, mathematically speaking. But we're not sure exactly what it is, and it's darned tricky to study.

What we've got is a correlation. People who are good at cognitive task X tend to be good at task Y. People who are good at X and Y tend to be good at Z. There are certainly facets, but different models differ on what the facets are. Mathematically, facets mean that the more similar X and Y are, the stronger the correlation between them, performance-wise. But even after you account for those facets, there's still this chunk of correlation unaccounted for. That's general intelligence.

Intelligence is not unchanging across a person's lifetime, as far as we can measure it. It doesn't seem directly teachable, though, and there isn't a single domain that can be used to boost it (Latin, classical music, computer science, formal logic). But exposing people to a lot of different domains seems to help, whether by boosting some general cognitive ability or by increasing the likelihood that a new task you're attempting will overlap with a skill you've already learned.

When it comes to kids, there is not just a lack of knowledge there. People are more stimulus driven as children than they will be as adults and have less ability to control their own thoughts. I agree that that doesn't mean children are less intelligent, but it probably does imply less moral responsibility, because it's more difficult to think through consequences with a child's brain.

Teaching children is hard. Creating curricula is hard. I spent a bunch of time in Ed Psych as a grad student, and just came away thinking that it was a messy, messy business. If you can't create a curriculum that's going to work for every student, and you can't afford to implement two curricula, do you screw the smart kids or screw the kids who need help? If you screw the smart kids, they will, by definition, be better able to adapt and deal with it than the less smart kids. So that's what you do, the lesser of two evils.

I say this as someone who spent a lot of time being bored in school. My parents expected me to behave in class and get good grades, and just deal with the boredom with a quiet but rich inner life. And that's what I did. I turned out OK, and if the teachers had taught to the level required to keep me challenged, some of those other kids wouldn't have learned to read.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-04-12 04:14 pm (UTC)
Intelligence is not unchanging across a person's lifetime, as far as we can measure it.

This is good to hear from the horse's mouth. When Cath said above that it should remain constant, it didn't sound right to me, but she does a lot of biochem research, so I didn't want to directly contradict.

I think that only being able to afford one curriculum is a serious problem in the first place. I think whenever you're saying, "Who should we throw under the bus?", whether it's smarter vs. slower kids or visual vs. auditory learners or whatever, you need to examine priorities as a culture. And yes, sometimes we're going to have hard choices to make; life is like that. But sometimes I think we need to shift those hard choices to say, "No, we're going to teach both of these kids; what else are we going to not do, because both of these kids need teaching."

(But right, we don't tend to give kids the launch codes, not because they're less intelligent, but for other reasons.)
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