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Smart vs "book smart"

 
pollinator
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Paul's thread on common sense reminded me of a discussion I have had a number of times, with a number of people.  I'm wondering what other people's thoughts are.  

My contention is that there is no such thing as "book smart".  As soon as I say that, people immediately tell me about some friend they have that knows EVERYTHING except enough to come in out of the rain, or something to that effect.  As an aside, I think being out in the rain can be awesome, but I digress...  My own definition of "smart" is the ability to figure things out.  I believe what people call "book smart" is just a good memory.  The "book smart" term seems to come about because everyone has a friend that got straight A's in school, but still wipes his hands on the sofa after he changed the oil in his car.  In all the cases I know of someone being "book smart", they simply have a great memory.  It's pretty simple to get through school with really excellent grades if you can just remember what the teacher and your books say.  The ability to figure things out on the other hand, seems to be a fascinating mix of innate ability, lots of experience in figuring things out, a natural curiosity about life, and, I'm certain, other things I haven't thought of.

I would like to hear other people's thoughts about this, if anyone feels so inclined.
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:
I would like to hear other people's thoughts about this, if anyone feels so inclined.



I'll offer my thoughts. I also think that book smart is a good ability to remember the context of lectures and books, and even memorizing things verbatim. I think smart means having an ability to problem solve, and this could be from simple things such as "why isn't the air conditioner working? Oh the circuit breaker tripped!" to "why's my car overheating? Oh the water pump has failed. I'll replace it myself!" to mathematicians that have giant equations the size of an entire blackboard using numbers and letters. I think smart can vary tremendously, but I think it involves critical thinking and problem solving.
 
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I don't have a word for another option, so I'll use Real Life Smart...
I think Real Life Smart is both book smart, with lots of data to work with, plus the ability to use that data for problem solving. All the problem solving skills in the world are useless without enough data to make it useful. But data without skills is where you get the term "book smart" I think...
 
gardener
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I think you need to keep meeting more people, Trace. :)

Most of my siblings got straight As in school AND have been successful in life. Very good at research and book learning but handy around the house, fix their cars, cook, etc.  Just smart, capable period. And from what I've experienced on this site, I believe there are lots of people in that category here too.
 
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One thing I have learned is that broad-brush generalizations tend to leave out a lot of people. I know people who didn't make it past the third grade who are smart as whips, and others who are not. Same for educated folks- I went to a BookSmart FancyPants school and obtained a FancyPants degree, alongside some people who were not capable of finding their way out of a paper bag, and others are literally running the country right now (and also using their fancypants degrees to run farms, run dairies, run orchards, etc). I like to think that there are all sorts, and that we are better for knowing them. Just my 2 cents.
 
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I will certainly agree that a good memory is all that is needed to get through basic schooling with high grades, I should know I did it. I sometimes really annoyed my teachers because even when I clearly wasn't paying attention I could parrot back the last thing they said. I can kind of hit rewind in my brain and replay whatever just happened even if I wasn't listening at the time. Really annoys a teacher to have the daydreamer answer the "what did I just say" question. I also have a good ability to read very fast and remember what I read or at least that I read something about it and where to find it again, that is a huge help in exams since they give a-lot of time for the reading of the questions/articles.
However that memory also helps when fixing things, I can scan articles on fixing the car (not youtube videos generally just irritate me) then go outside look at the car and recall the images in the articles to compare with whatever the reality is. It also helps when you find a problem say an odd noise at a particular time, and I can generally dimly remember reading something somewhere about it. once you know the information exists finding it is easy. Memory is no use without curiosity though, I can only remember what I read/see so while I can tell you tons about certain subjects I can't even make a guess on others.
I don't think I am particularly good with coming up with novel solutions to problems, but altering something I have seen or done before to fit a new situation, that I am pretty good at.
 
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I call "book smart" what it is DOMESTICATION we domesticate eachother in school. Those that do well are "book smart" and those that don't are trouble. Some are just not smart but some are just too smart for the schools own good. The too smart ones are real trouble that our society wants to turn into "book smart" people or teach them they aren't smart enough. More often than not they believe what they are told and think they aren't smart when they are very smart.
 
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I think there's something very different between memorizing things and understanding them. Sure, some people can memorize things and get through school, but it gets increasingly more and more difficult to do well in higher levels of education by just memorizing. You are required to take information and create new knowledge. This goes beyond memorizing.

In fact, if all you're doing is memorizing, you're not really learning, because you don't understand. And, you likely will not do well in school--especially at higher levels.

School was not something that I excelled at naturally. I put in hours and hours of work struggling with concepts to understand them. My brother could generally grasp things much faster, because that's how his brain worked. He didn't need to do a bunch of homework to grasp something. I did. But, the hours and hours I put in meant I did get good grades.

Now, of course, if you look at my science and math, I scored lower. I poured in tons of hours in those, but my brain simply did not have the necessary mental "file cabinets" to grasp that knowledge, and my teachers were not the best at teaching the reasons for things. By the power of pouring hours into memorizing, I managed to get through those subjects with Bs and A-. I would not, however, consider myself "book smart." In fact, it wasn't until I'd managed to make it to trigonometry that I finally understood basic algebra, and it was when it finally figured it out by myself!

Education is kind of my passion. I think what happens when someone is "book smart" is that they were not required to practice and teach what they know, and apply it to new circumstances. That's a higher level of learning. And, what can often happen--as happened with me--is that someone learns a specific way of thinking and applying knowledge and interacting with people in school.....and this way is drastically different than how one interacts and applies knowledge outside of school. This can be quite a shock for some people. And, it's a really good reason for knowledge to be based in reality.

When I teach my kids, I try to ground it in reality. They see me using math and writing in real life circumstances, rather than just writing it out and having abstracted questions. The "word problems" we have are how many potatoes can we put in a row is stuff like "if they're 1 foot apart and the row is 13 feet long?"

Here he is, learning about measuring and numbers by planting potatoes in real life. Making the pattern was his own idea!


People often complain about "New Math," but what new math really teaches is the WHY. I once student taught in a class of 5th graders. They were able to add multiple 3 digit numbers IN THEIR HEAD, and they did so quickly. These children grasped the concept, rather than just memorizing that they needed to "carry the one."

All this is to say that there are multiple levels of learning. This pyramid is great at explaining that:



The "book smart" people you might be thinking of, could be stuck on the first level. There are many people who live their daily lives without higher education that live on this level as well. They memorize what they should do at their jobs and just follow the rules.

And, there's people who are not yet mentally able to bridge the gaps between two drastically different types of learning and disciplines. I got my degree in "Interdisciplinary Arts and Science"--basically, it was about making connections between different subjects to create knowledge. But, even though I was able to draw connections between the sciences, that did not quite prepare me for drawing those connections to my own daily life. Those connections are something we need to help kids learn at an early stage of life.

Another great way of thinking about learning is the file cabinet system.

Our childhood experiences and learning create our file cabinet of knowledge. We have drawers for all sorts of knowledge--a drawer that have medical knowledge, and in there there might be a folder full of information about your lungs.  There might be a drawer full of ideas about how people act, like "all men are good drivers and women can't drive." Through life, we get new information. It's easy to file it away. You see a woman driving poorly, and it goes in that file. You see a man driving well, and it goes in there. And sometimes out brain does stupid things like totally ignoring things that don't fit in our file folders. We see a woman drive really well and our brain just ignores it. Eventually, we might see this enough that we make a file folder for "women in sports cars can drive well." And then, maybe eventually we'll have what is called a "paradigm shift"--we'll finally rearrange and rename our file folders. This is HARD for people. And it's part of the reason the increasing polarization between people is so bad, because more and more we just see things that fit in our mental file folders and we never have to rearrange our file folders.

Another complicated thing happens. As we learn things, we give them search terms. Like knowledge about lungs might go in one folder, but have ties to other things like "avoid walking close to someone smoking" and "hold your breath through a tunnel for fun, but don't do it too long." But, if we never built a file cabinet for something--like knowledge about Africa, or about anatomy and physiology, or how to interact with people you work with, you don't have anything to cross reference that knowledge to. I have the hardest time holding on to knowledge about anatomy and physiology, because it wasn't taught to me when I was young. The same applies to Africa--we pretty much learned about Europe and North America when we were kids, so it's hard for me to file and hold onto information about those subjects.

So what you have with someone who isn't applying knowledge they've learned to other circumstances, is that they never really got those file cabinets and card catalogs made to cross reference and store and apply all that knowledge. This can happen with ALL SORTS OF KNOWLEDGE, from connecting between different academic subjects, to connecting those subjects to real life, or connecting different real-life things to each other. Someone might think they should always be nice. They have that in a file cabinet....but they don't know that they're not connecting that to not taking all the TP in the store.

But, that doesn't make them doomed. We can all build new file cabinets and rename drawers and totally rearrange our mental file cabinets. There's hope for everyone, and everyone has more they can learn
 
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We grew up with book smart and common sense. Dad's phrase to teach common sense was "If you're gonna be stupid you better be tough". Tended to make us think things through. I did get a few spankings while I was still bleeding and produced a lot of laughter. On the other hand, I've never broken a bone.

Dad was that guy in town who could fix anything, usually without buying parts. He never explained how things worked. Our job was to pay attention and figure it out. Mom, on the other hand, was a stickler for instructions. As a result, all of us, brother and sisters alike, can cook, preserve food, clean anything, garden, rebuild an engine, etc. I do try to share the technique of figuring things out.

Quick story...When I was in 5th grade, I wanted a brass bed. Dad brought home an old iron bedstead and said if I liked it, I could sand it down and we could paint it brass. It wouldn't be as shiny, but... I sanded on that thing every evening after supper for about 3 weeks. I was on what I figured would be the last day before we could paint. I went to the workbench to get some sandpaper and Dad had set out the electric sander. I hadn't even thought about it. Guess I'm pretty tough.  :)
 
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I think I agree with Trace’s original post, but maybe for different reasons.  Please let me explain.  

I, too am one of those persons who has been labeled as book smart, meaning I did well in school and generally know a lot of random facts (studying history does this).

However, I think that each time I was labeled as book smart, the term itself was actually something defensive and insulting.  The person calling me book smart was decidedly (by their own admission) NOT book smart.  It was defensive in that while I was labeled “book smart”, my knowledge and intelligence was not applicable to anything practical.  Moreover, the label of “book smart” was implied to be limiting while the person using (and accusing) the term was trying to elevate their own intelligence.

In this vein I do not like the phrase “book smart” as it actually implies a lack of intelligence, at least of a practical sort.  I think this is what Trace was stating in his opening post.

Just my thoughts and personal experiences, but perhaps something along these lines is what Trace meant in his opening comments.

Eric
 
Trace Oswald
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Eric Hanson wrote:I think I agree with Trace’s original post, but maybe for different reasons.  Please let me explain.  

I, too am one of those persons who has been labeled as book smart, meaning I did well in school and generally know a lot of random facts (studying history does this).

However, I think that each time I was labeled as book smart, the term itself was actually something defensive and insulting.  The person calling me book smart was decidedly (by their own admission) NOT book smart.  It was defensive in that while I was labeled “book smart”, my knowledge and intelligence was not applicable to anything practical.  Moreover, the label of “book smart” was implied to be limiting while the person using (and accusing) the term was trying to elevate their own intelligence.

In this vein I do not like the phrase “book smart” as it actually implies a lack of intelligence, at least of a practical sort.  I think this is what Trace was stating in his opening post.

Just my thoughts and personal experiences, but perhaps something along these lines is what Trace meant in his opening comments.

Eric



Yes Eric, that's exactly what I was getting at.  
 
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I guess I would agree with most of the responses to this thread.  "Book smart" always sounds like an insult when I hear it.  I also have known a lot of people who went to Ivy League or similar colleges, but know how to use tools and can figure out blue collar, simple, but creative solutions to problems. I never hear anyone calling them book smart.  People are often surprised when they find out they went to a prestigious college, because they don't advertise it.  

I have also met people who got straight A's but never questioned what the teacher was doing. They just figured out exactly what the teacher wanted you to do.  Then did exactly that.  Most of them never really were able to apply the ideas or creatively innovate in life.  That's who I think of when people say book smart.  

For most of my friends, the highest compliment you could ever give someone was to call what they did "blue collar".  That meant you figured out how to do it without spending money, by reusing something, in a fun and creative way. Usually it involved tools of some kind and resourcefulness.   You didn't have to pay the corporation the top price that they wanted,  because you figured out a way around that.  Instead of slaving away to feed the corporation, you figured out a way to save yourself time and money and be sustainable, probably.   This is what a lot of people on permies do, I think.  It's probably about half way between redneck and hippie.

Most scientists have realized that the genetic "smartness" that people often emphasized when I was a kid doesn't bear up under research, and is often racist or classist.  I think being open to understand new ways of being smart is the model that both most represents the research in this area and makes for a happy, positive life.  Humility turns out to be the "smartest" option.

John S
PDX OR
 
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I tend to think of it along the lines of knowledge versus wisdom. Collecting a lot of information and being able to spout it at will doesn't mean one knows how to apply it to a real life situation. Or maybe it could be thought of as theory versus experience. Many of us know any number of ideas (theories) that sound good but don't actually work in real world situations. When I'm researching a topic I like to understand the how and why, but I also want to know if the presenter actually has any experience in it. I want to know if it's still working 6 months from now; 2 years from now, etc. That's the main reason I've learned to call new projects on our homestead "experiments."
 
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Catch phrases of all kinds concern me. This is not to say I see them as automatically bad, but I do see a yellow flag. The phrase "Book Smart" may mean someone merely has a good memory without the ability to comprehend. Unfortunately, it may also mean I am jealous of that individuaI and am trying to discount their accomplishments.

To flip this, I have the same view of what I classify as "gurus" (yes, this is my labeling).  I tend to automatically have a negative knee jerk reaction when I encounter such people. But, simply because someone has a message they see as important and they wish to communicate does mean they are expecting anyone to enjoy a glass of Koolaid.  My field is full of such Individuals such as William Glasser and Albert Ellis. Unfortunately,  I have encountered far less ethical people as well.

With my human limitations,  I do my best to avoid those labels. Unfortunately, too frequently I fail.
 
John Suavecito
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You bring up some interesting points, John Dean. I looked up William Glasser. Sounds impressive.  I am a fan of Edwards Deming but as an economics major.  

I think one of the key ways of differentiating people who can appreciate and tolerate "gurus" like Freud, Edgar Cayce, Rudolf Steiner, health gurus or innumerable religious figures is if they can endure parts of their theories that arent' perfect.   I remember in college, someone saying they couldn't take the theologian Paul Tillich seriously because he cheated on his wife.  I often read people say that they won't study Chinese Medicine because some have consumed rhinoceros horn.  That's like saying nothing is valuable in Western medicine because of thalidomide.  There are many great thinkers who have come up with complex, impressive, illuminating sets of ideas that can blow you away, but they usually have parts of their lives or theories that don't make sense. If you can ignore the bad stuff, the good stuff is so helpful.  Some people can't seem to follow the good stuff and ignore the bad stuff.  Just use someone else's theory for the other part.

I think that's a version of being smart about philosophers rather than book smart about them.

John S
PDX OR
 
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