Spotlight On: Can You Make Yourself Smarter?

3 December 2018

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 30 November 2018.

Imagine that two people are asked to read the following extract (from a real journal):

This study analyses an episode of a televised political talk show for evidence that speakers hyperarticulate concepts about which they express stances, a use of hyperarticulation that interacts with the discourse function of signaling new information. Using content analysis, utterances were coded on two dimensions: Evaluation (presence or absence of stance-expression) and Novelty (new or given information)… These findings provide acoustic correlates to stance-expression, which can be applied in future work on the identification of specific types of stance.

One of them reads it quickly and confidently grasps the meaning. The other reads and re-reads it several times, and although she understands most of the words, she doesn’t get it. She can’t answer questions about it or explain it in her own words.

Which one is smarter?

Most of us would, I suspect, resemble the second reader. We know most of the words (‘stance’, ‘articulation’, ‘discourse’, ‘utterance’) but they’re being used in an unfamiliar, technical way. We might appear to have the vocabulary but to understand this passage we actually need prior knowledge of linguistics. Does that make us stupid? No. But it does mean that we can’t learn much from this text.

This illustrates the vital role of background knowledge in learning. In order to be able to read and digest new material, we have to understand around 95% of the vocabulary and concepts used within it – clearly not the case here for most of us. Notice, too, that reading this passage with access to Google doesn’t help. There’s just too much unfamiliar content to be able to piece the meaning together, and by the time you look up the five or six things, you’ve forgotten the first few and are back where you started. (So much for Google being the answer to education.)

For this example, I deliberately chose a relatively obscure field to make the point with as many readers as possible. (No doubt there is someone out there who is feeling smug because they know exactly what this passage is about!) But the point is applicable to any field: international relations, physics, history of art, medical science, econometrics and so on. Where a person has superiority in a single, narrow field, we tend to believe that they are not necessarily smarter than others, just more expert. But if someone knows a great deal across a wide range of areas so that in virtually every field they show superior comprehension and critical analysis, we usually start to say that they are more intelligent than average.

This raises the question of what intelligence is. Innate intelligence certainly varies amongst people, but having a high level of background knowledge can have a similar effect to having high innate intelligence. Someone who already knows a lot will pick things up faster, efficiently integrate new information into an existing conceptual schema and be able to bring critical faculties to bear more powerfully on new problems.

Applying this to learning at school, we see that a student who has wide general knowledge will find everything easier. Everything. Whether she is in Kindergarten or Year 12, a student will be asked to read (or watch or listen to) material on virtually any topic. A Year 3 girl who knows something about how plants grow, or what the air we breathe is made of, will find it easier to understand new concepts in Science or Geography. Or it might pop up in a Maths problem or a novel for English. A Year 11 girl who knows something about Communism and McCarthyism will engage more deeply and quickly with her study of The Crucible in Drama. That knowledge might also come in handy in the study of English or History or Art or French literature.

At every stage, the student who combines wide general knowledge with extensive vocabulary will have the best chance of getting to grips with new material, correctly interpreting a question, making sophisticated inferences and identifying the structure of a problem. (This is just in the academic sphere: we haven’t even considered the benefits of understanding the world around her. And if you want to look at how lack of wide reading reduces capability, this recent New Zealand exam kerfuffle provides a tragi-comic example.)

Not only that, it’s a self-reinforcing process. The more she reads and understands, the more she will read and understand. Sadly, the reverse is also true. The less she reads, the less she will understand – and it will only get worse as time goes on. This is known in the academic literature as the Matthew effect (and those who know their Bible stories will know why – Mt 25:29).

All of which is to say: do everything you can these holidays to increase your daughter’s vocabulary and general knowledge, especially by reading. If you have a seriously reluctant reader, then anything at all which pulls her in is a great start; on the other hand, if a Year 9 girl has simply re-read Harry Potter for the last six years, she is stagnating. She needs to be stretched (enjoyably!). Most of our girls are not reluctant readers but it is not uncommon for reading to be displaced by other, more passive forms of entertainment; and many girls need some help to find a book which stretches them in terms of vocabulary and sophistication while captivating their imagination.

The holidays are a great opportunity. Whether your daughter is five or eighteen, get her reading! Whether she needs assistance getting started again, or she needs real extension, our librarians are delighted to make suggestions. Junior School girls might also enjoy Mosman Library’s Treasure Trove Summer Reading Program.

To all of these suggestions, I will add one personal recommendation: Ernst Gombrich’s classic, A Little History of the World. Aimed at the younger reader it provides a remarkably engaging tale of the sweep of human history. Some girls might be ready to read it independently, and others might do better with an adult reading aloud half a chapter at a time. Although I read it as an adult, I still learnt a huge amount as it placed key people, events and ideas in a coherent narrative and timeline. It has something to offer all ages (including Senior School girls), but would be accessible to curious minds from around Year 3 upwards.

Ms Elizabeth Stone