Columns, Imagine That

Teaching to the quest, not the test

Laura Mann

In The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, author Daniel Pink offers advice for young people who are considering careers for the future. One of his most important pieces of advice is “persistence trumps talent.”

This reminds me of the old adage, which has been attributed to both Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, that says, “Genius is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration.” Both are slogan worthy and very tee-shirt ready and, while we have written on this before, it bears repeating in light of a new study that puts some serious scientific backing behind our previous statements.

Published by the Child Development Journal, the study, conducted in Germany, analyzed the math abilities of a group of about 3,000 students over the course of five years. It found that study habits and motivation were a far better determinant of a child’s math skills than the child’s intelligence. In other words, an average learner with good study habits is probably going to be better at math than a really smart student who slacks off.

Over the past few years, the trend of debunking IQ testing as the standard measure of intelligence has really taken off. Psychologists and scientists have published scores of articles that support the notion that kids with high IQ scores are simply really good at taking tests, and that IQ tests are woefully inadequate at determining performance across disciplines. This begs the question: If IQ tests can’t predict intelligence or success at certain disciplines (other than test-taking), is there anything that can predict these things?

Better than being smart

The German study, conducted at the University of Munich and the University of Bielefeld, began by testing students’ intelligence, motivation, and study habits. Data was collected annually over a five-year period. When the data first started coming in, the high-IQ students were better at math than the average students. However, as the study progressed, a curious thing started to happen. The students with good study habits saw their math skills grow and develop, while the ones without good study skills, regardless of IQ, had little growth. They just didn’t learn at the same high rate as their motivated peers.

The motivated, studious kids had a few things in common that helped them learn. The first was intrinsic motivation, the internal desire to learn.

If a student thought she had the ability to work through a difficult problem, chances increased that she’d find success.

The second was that they felt competent. If a student thought she had the ability to work through a difficult problem, chances increased that she’d find success. This feeling of competence was based in fact, not the result of a constant flow of false praise.

The third, and perhaps most important, was the study skills part. Kids who succeeded had the ability to summarize their work, make connections between their work and things they had learned in other disciplines, and explain the process that they used to get their answers. These are all critical thinking skills; the successful kids weren’t just absorbing information, they were actively processing it.

This is also known as “mastery.” The students who avoided rote learning — i.e., learning through memorization and repetition — outperformed their peers. They could “think on their feet.” They knew more than the answer to a problem.

Educators have long bemoaned the “teaching for tests” method of educating kids. Having kids memorize answers so they’ll do well on standardized tests is a disservice to our children.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, authors of Sparks of Genius: 13 Thinking Tools of Highly Creative People, write on their blog: “[I]f states really want schools to teach creativity, they will need to rethink their priorities. Testing will only lead to teaching to the test, when what is really necessary is to teach for the quest.”

In other words, the ability to work through the problem is far more important than getting the right answer.

Imagine that!

Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (, a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2013, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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