Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018

Learned or Smart

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July 11, 2017


In trying to encourage students we sometimes hold up as iconic those who are smart and successful. And we should. My motto is that we must always celebrate success. But when encouraging, it’s often more important to encourage the process rather than only the outcome.

Often those in possession of deep knowledge, or a well developed skill, look as though they were just born that way. Looking like a genius is part of the art. A skilled dancer or mathematician should look as though they accomplished with ease what was a complex series of skills practiced over and over and over again. For entertainment, brilliance puts on a great show. For teaching, the brilliance show alone does not always help.

One struggling reader, perhaps echoing the perspective of many struggling readers, once identified good readers as having some kind of a ‘special reading gene.’ He went on to note that to be a good reader you either had this gene or you did not: he was quite certain he did not.

Now I would be remiss if I did not note that there are some readers simply born to it, who internalize skills with greater ease. The rest of us get the slow, repetitive, sometimes demoralizingly lengthy process of learning a collection of literacy skills that eventually produces reading fluency.

Merely pointing out to a struggling reader how well her classmate is reading does not help. However sharing how that classmate practiced recognizing site words in order to improve just might.

The same is true with us, as teachers, especially as examples.

Once, while encouraging my students to dive into the depths of a novel, I was told that of course I could see all that underlying stuff. ‘It’s easy for you. You’re smart!’

While full disclosure of personal insecurity dictates I must sadly admit that I wanted then (and still want to) jump on every opportunity to be considered smart, I was also aware that my being ‘smart’ was not a very effective teaching tool. Instead I made a sincere effort to capture that teachable moment by showing that my supposed brilliance was derived not from my abundant intellectual gifts but rather an ordinary interest in literature and a desire to reread the book repeatedly and study critical texts to both deepen my personal understanding of that book and find interesting ways to teach it.

In other words, folks, I wanted to teach this truth: that what appeared as smart was actually just learned. Recognizing process and rewarding progress, no matter how microscopic, is amazingly critical, especially when engaging still evolving students. The message has to be uniquely about process because in the end process is all they or we can control.

Make sure your students and children know that smart without learning is not really all that smart. It’s learning that makes smart smart, and learned is what all of us can be.

Steve Heisler is the author of The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills. Steve is a speaker and professional development consultant with a focus on teaching and instructional development, building student success skills and parenting. He is an experienced teacher and school administrator having worked K-12 in schools in New York City and New Jersey. His blog and contact information are available at

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