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Is 'Smartest Kid' Really the Smartest?

The recent television show featuring bright preteens has academics debating how to define and measure intelligence. The answers have implications for standardized testing.

May 17, 2000|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

What did the Romans call France?

John Hawksley, a 12-year-old who likes computers and tennis, was stumped. But Michael Jezierny, an 11-year-old who wants to design aircraft, didn't hesitate.

"Gaul," he said. And, with that, he laid claim to the title of "Smartest Kid in America" on a network television show featuring super bright kids going brain-to-brain. He also won a $300,000 trust fund.

But what does it really mean to be smart? Is it the ability to recall facts, such as the name of the ocean liner sunk by the Germans in 1915 (the Lusitania) or the name of the country that declared independence from Pakistan in 1971 (Bangladesh)? To spell correctly? To crunch numbers in your head? All under intense competitive pressure?

Or is it something else entirely?

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that "Smartest Kid" is a marketing ploy designed to capitalize on the current quiz show craze that was touched off by "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But its bold claim of identifying the "smartest kid" in America puts the Fox television show in the middle of a hot debate over the nature of intelligence.

While acknowledging the hype inherent in the show, which aired May 9, USC neuroscientist Irving Biederman said its method of measuring intelligence is scientifically defensible.

"Just to fire general questions of information at people and see who can respond quickly and accurately will very quickly separate bright people from non-bright people," said Biederman.

The brain, he said, operates like the old Pac-Man video game. "You can think of the mind as a Pac-Man eating away at the world, and what it's eating is information," Biederman said. "If you're not very bright, you take very small, slow bites. If you're bright, you take in enormous chunks and you eat fast."

Moreover, he said, the information that's retained is--almost exclusively--information that's understood. And smarter people understand more of what they encounter.

Those in his camp abbreviate intelligence as a "G," for general intelligence. On the other side are those researchers who think of intelligence as multidimensional, meaning that all people have a unique combination of discrete mental strengths and weaknesses.

Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrician based in Chapel Hill, N.C., and known for his work with children with learning difficulties, is in the latter camp. He says a show such as "Smartest Kid" equates being intelligent with having a good memory.

"It's possible to remember things without understanding them and it's also possible to understand things without remembering them," he said. "I would place more emphasis on how well kids understand than how much they remember."

Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist who first posited the idea of "multiple intelligences," in an e-mail rejected the whole premise of the show.

"To base this on Trivial Pursuit kinds of questions--rather than on, say, understanding of a scientific theory, or the ability to reason about current events, or on a sense of inventiveness or creativity, or on the ability to carry out a historical analysis--is deeply disrespectful to anyone who values the life of the mind."

Many of the Preteens Are in College

The debate aside, the show's contestants are obviously bright. Many of the 50 preteens chosen for the show are already in college, having aced entrance exams that require a broad vocabulary, the ability to understand reading passages and a sophisticated knowledge of algebra and geometry.

Lesley Jezierny, a computational lexicographer, and her husband, Michael, a software engineer, live in Boca Raton, Fla., with their son Michael and two younger children. She said they read to their son when he was a toddler and, though they talked about the sounds of letters, they did not deliberately try to teach him to read.

At the age of 2, he was recognizing the names of stores on delivery trucks and signs; at 3, he began reading on his own, starting with "Thomas the Tank Engine."

He reads constantly--everything from cereal boxes to encyclopedias--and recently finished "Lord of the Rings," the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Although he took the ACT college entrance exam and scored in the top 2% of the nation, Michael still attends classes for gifted students at a public middle school and does not intend to leap directly to college.

Asked if she considered her son to be the smartest in America, Lesley Jezierny chuckled. "I'm very aware of the fact that the TV show tested a certain kind of thinking ability, and Michael's particular strength is in absorbing facts and remembering where he got those facts," she said.

So, not only did he remember the term for a type of cell division, he knew he had run across it in a science textbook while looking for something else, he told her. He recalled picking up another answer from a movie he had seen several years earlier at an IMAX theater.

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