Against Lightbulbs: A Modest Proposal about ‘Intelligence’

by Chris Horner

In my years in education I have regularly come across what I call the lightbulb fallacy: the view that people have degrees of brightness and that it is the job of education to measure the wattage of learners in order to find the best social sockets to plug them into. It is a noxious idea. The notion that intelligence is a measurable ‘something’ that is possessed by people in varying degrees is one of the ways in which we end up with an education system that fails the majority of those it is supposed to be helping. It damages not just those in schools and colleges but people in general, and it is based on a fallacy about what it is to learn and understand.

One can see a number of reasons why adopting a notion like this would seem useful for an education system like ours: if people have amounts of intelligence that can be identified and measured, then people can be classified and fitted into the place in education, and later in the economy, that will suit their degree of ‘brightness’. But the problem is that people aren’t like lightbulbs with differing degrees of wattage, and this essentialising approach, that imputes a fundamental, intrinsic trait to an individual, leaves most people experiencing education as a demotivating process in which they learn to experience themselves as failures. Examinations put the seal on this by placing students in an ascending hierarchy of brightness. The effect of this on many, if not most, learners is unhelpful, to put it mildly. As an educator I have had to deal with numerous situations in which students have in effect used this as an alibi for giving up, since if those other students are brighter than oneself, why bother? Of course, not every learner reacts to lower marks in that way – but most get the message, in the end, that they cannot get far up the ladder of educational achievement, and that success is the preserve of a small number of the very bright.

One response, which is a valid one as far as it goes, is to point out that success is far more associated with good organisation, practice, effort and punctuality than a mysterious luminance factor. And this, if one can motivate a learner in that way, can help. We have all heard of the idea that practice leads to expertise or mastery, and there is some truth in that. This is the ‘dynamo’ model of success via effort, one version of which is the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ idea as the road to expertise. But there are problems with that, too. The first is the obvious point that we are not all equally good at everything, and that no amount of practice will alter that in many cases – I could practice the piano everyday my entire life but I doubt if I’d achieve the command of the instrument of a Martha Argerich. That’s not an argument against making an effort, of course, if playing brings me joy: I might improve my ability, although she has more talent than me. Talent, here, seems to show up as an x factor, like brightness. And then there are brain surgeons and astronauts. We want only the very best ones to get the responsibility for the complex and important work they do. So perhaps the testing for brightness is the correct model after all? I think not.

People, clearly, aren’t all good at everything. But what does that tell us? What it doesn’t tell us is about a mysterious x we can call intelligence. Explaining that a person did something you judge as intelligent because they have intelligence is circular. To imagine that intelligence is a possession one has inside is to reify it, turning a social relation into something concrete, literally a thing. But ‘intelligence’ is a way of being with others in a context, and different contexts will bring forth different behaviours. It is also dynamic: we find that what we can do fluctuates according to challenge, need and motivation. So it would be better to regard people as having a range of potentials that need different contexts and social situations to be activated. We should be agnostic about exactly what in the complex skein of causes brings about the talent of Martha Argerich, and clear that we will enable more people to fulfil their potential if we give them the opportunity to find out for themselves. The role of education ought to be to help people explore as many different contexts in which their imaginations, creativity and thoughtfulness can be stimulated and encouraged, as an environment is where a person can find out what they can do with what they are confronted with. So instead of a single vertical measure of degrees of brightness or talent we need something akin to a horizontal rhizome pattern which allows multiple routes to the realisation of potentials. 

This will not, of course, lead to all people being found to be good at everything. What it could do is help discover the multiple ways in which we can be differently excellent. The right context could enable more people of the order of an Argerich or a Stephen Hawking to discover the thing that they can do supremely well. And then there are the many who will not become celebrated in those ways but who have something they can do that will both bring personal fulfilment and benefit the rest of us through the contribution they can make to society. But they need the chance to do this, and it is made much less likely in a wasteful system that drives the idea into the majority that they have failed in education. The opposite is true: education fails most people. Large numbers leave school and college convinced of their mediocrity, rather than aware of the things they can do supremely well. As for the brain surgeon or astronaut: there is a case for sorting them in order to find and promote the very best ones, but not before they and the rest of us have had a chance at an education that really allows all of us to find out what we can do, what we want to do. Education ought to be about exploration, discovery and serious play. Not testing for wattage.

This would mean the end of the grading-and-classfying approach we have now. It would spell the end of education as a series of hurdles designed to bring down as many runners as possible before they get to the prizes. Clearly, it’s not an accident that the education system works the way it does, for it succeeds in preparing and slotting people into an unequal and alienating economic system. What I am arguing for would mean radical change in society and the economy. But what is education for? It surely isn’t just about getting a job, vital though that is. It ought to be for the sake of human flourishing – the good life well lived. Taking that idea seriously would mean changing the way we teach and learn, changing the school and college system. It might also lead us to question whether the economy exists for the good of the people in it, or whether we must go on being classified for the sake of the economy.