Bright’ Like Me?

What if we were to take seriously the idea that people can become smart?

By Kristen Olson Lanier

“Bright” is a pitiably vacuous and small word. Yet it resounds in our education circles with the greatest of import and timbre.

“Bright,” or its more bare-faced sister word “smart,” is used so commonly and so unthinkingly to describe a child or a group of children that it has become an invisible part of our schools’ architecture of concepts and assumptions. How commonly do we hear the term “bright” in our school lives? Three, four, ten times a day?

The very notion of describing some children as bright suggests the existence of a vast number of non-bright children. And, in my experience, the non-bright people are usually some undifferentiated, unspecified group of “Others” – those who don’t “get it,” those who won’t be nominated for the gifted program, those who will fill the remedial tracks, those who will drop out, and those who, too often, are students of color.

A child who reads early in kindergarten is often described as bright. A four-year-old who can place dinosaurs correctly in the Triassic period may be described as gifted. A senior admitted by early decision to Stanford University is considered obviously smart.

But what, exactly, do we mean? Is the child who does not read until the third grade therefore “not smart”? Is the four-year-old who cannot accurately sort between the Triassic and the Jurassic “not gifted”? Is the senior turned down by Stanford “not intelligent”?

When we casually describe some children as bright, we act as if we know what we were talking about. We act as if we are referring to some universally understood concept of demonstrable ability that exists separate from environment, opportunity to learn, and social class. We act as if human intelligence is a relatively simple, straightforward phenomenon, fixed and innate, largely a product of genetics and perhaps a wee bit of environment, measurable as a quotient which is somehow set at a relatively early age and which remains stable throughout life.

Many researchers have spent their professional lives challenging various aspects of these commonly held but out-dated ideas about intelligence, academic performance, and effort. Their research seems to confirm what real living outside of school suggests: that human beings show extraordinary ability to learn new things in new ways throughout life when they are convinced that there is something vitally worth getting, and when they are unafraid of making mistakes on the way to mastery.

Yet we are left with the ugly persistence of the word bright.

I felt this particularly during a recent school visit when I observed a meeting in which children were being selected for a district-wide gifted program. The school was located in an affluent, well-educated, and profoundly aspiring suburb of a major city, and sorting “exemplary” students from the merely “commendable” was no easy task. The educators at the meeting, however, shouldered their burden with stalwart energy, revealing considerable confidence in their ability to make life-shaping distinctions about the intellectual lives of eight-year-olds.

The kids who enter this gifted program tend to go on to be academic stars throughout their middle and high school careers, the program director told me, utterly without irony.

But what if, I kept thinking. What if many of the assumptions about aptitude in that room were simply superficial and wrong? What if our ability to identify “giftedness” or “brightness” in eight-year-olds is shadowy at best? What if gifted programs themselves are only a way to justify providing more resources and better teachers to students who, in all likelihood, already have considerable other advantages? What if we were to see our job as educators as developing such smartness – rather than developing ever-more-sensitive filters that bar most children from such challenges? What if we were to take seriously the idea that people can become smart.

Kirsten Olson Lanier is the mother of four children and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.