Can we learn to be intelligent?

Esko Kilpi (@EskoKilpi)

August 23, 2015

From medium.com

Studies predict that nearly half of all jobs and over 70% of low-skill jobs could be susceptible to computerization over the next two decades. Our chances of creating work for human beings in this new, demanding environment will be very limited if old and unjustified assumptions about what people can or canít do are not examined. If we continue to assume that some people are born intelligent, while most are not, and continue to see intelligence as a fixed, personal possession, the options for large-scale systemic changes will be few.

If, on the other hand, we were to visit recent findings of neuroscience, relational psychology and computational social science, we would see intelligence as something more fluid. Then a whole different set of opportunities would become visible. Perhaps a bigger problem than low-skilled people would be the low-skilled occupations we have created.

There is a misunderstanding of the relationship between "nature" and "nurture" as causes of our intelligence. In most cases, genes do not establish limits that determine the space for personal growth. Recent scientific findings show that everyday life plays a role in defining how and when the genes themselves are expressed in us. Genes, the nature, take their cues from nurture. Environmental influences can be less reversible than genetic ones.

There is another argument than the science of genes about whether intelligence is fixed or can be expandable. Many people tend to think that they live their life with a fixed-capacity. Some people think differently. They have a growth mindset, as Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls it. They think that minds are like bodies: people come in different shapes and sizes, but everyone can benefit from exercise.

Individuals who believe that they can grow, tend to enjoy challenges. They like pushing themselves because they think that struggling leads to something good. People who think that their minds are fixed often see challenges as a threat to their imagined level of ability. They donít like having to try new things, or making mistakes, because they interpret that as evidence of inadequacy.

These mindsets come from the way people around us respond to our successes and failures. Belief systems are contagious. If, over an extended period of time, people are treated as if they are intelligent, they actually become more so. The opposite can also be true.

Success in life has been seen governed by two concepts: skills and effort; how bright you are and how hard you work. Recently, researchers have claimed that there is a third and decisive concept. It is the practice of lifelong curiosity: "knowing what to do when you donít know what to do" as Piaget put it.

The collective intelligence of our societies depends on the tools that augment human intelligence. We should welcome the fact that people today are smarter in large measure because they have invented and use smarter tools. Making tools is what human beings have always done. The interactions between tools and human minds are so complex that it is very hard to try to draw a line between humans and technology. Neither is it a zero-sum game where the human brain is losing to technological intelligence, but as technology changes, people and what people do, are necessarily changed.

To benefit from technology, we need resourcefulness. It means to be constantly looking for new tools with which to augment our intelligence. It also means new services: if you have a smartphone in your pocket, you should have an easy access to education in your pocket. Smarter and smarter tools surround us, but if we donít want to learn the new practices and take up the new roles that the new technologies make possible, they might as well not be there. It is sometimes not easy, because the challenge with new technologies is, what is called "functional fixedness", our inability to see more than the most obvious use cases.

There is more to being intelligent than using the latest technologies; how we interact with others is a crucial element of how smart we are in practice. Intelligence is social and arises in communities and communication. The world has never been a more networked place, and yet schools and workplaces still focus on individuals. That needs to change.

Human behavior is learned in relations. Our brains are wired to notice and imitate others. Computational social science has proved that behavior can be caught like a disease merely by being exposed to other people. Perhaps you can catch intelligence from others the same way? Learning and also non-learning can be found in communication. It is not that people are intelligent and then socially aware. Social intelligence is not a separate type of intelligence. All intelligence emerges from the efforts of the community.

Work starts from problems and learning starts from questions. Work is creating value and learning is creating knowledge. Both work and learning require the same things: interaction and engagement.

Scientists have discovered that learning is learnable. With the help of modern tools, we can create ways for very large numbers of people to become learners. But learning itself has changed, it is not first acquiring skills and then utilizing those skills at work. Post-industrial work is learning. It is figuring out how to solve a particular problem and then scaling up the solution in a reflective and iterative way - both with technology and with other people.