I have been tasked with answering this question, “What is Smart?” for my short TEDxWestVancouverED talk today. The essay that is a basis for the talk is a final collaboration I wrote with my dad this past July. The slides are at the bottom and I am sure the video will be up in a couple of weeks.
‘Smart’ just isn’t what it used to be. It is actually becoming passé.
In a world of knowledge scarcity, being smart was very important. Those who were smart were the people with knowledge. Others would seek out those who were smart. Smartness was in the hands of the few. This is not just the world of centuries ago, but this was the world I grew up in.
We know who the smart people were:
- Political leaders
- Doctors, Lawyers and Teachers
- And Jeopardy Champions – I am sure “Who is Ken Jennings” is the answer many would have given when asked about someone who was smart
Largely, these were the people who were the keeper of the facts, the smart ones with the information who would share it with others.
In school, it was those who could recall the facts, and particularly those who could recall them quickly. If you could memorize your multiplication tables you were quickly labelled as “smart”. Smart was a product of a system based on sorting – some kids were smart, and the other kids were . . . well, we didn’t really call them anything aloud, but the implication was that they were less than smart. And in the traditional school smart hierarchy – the matching of provinces and capital cities along with the ability to memorize weekly spelling words was the apex of smartness.
Of course, the last 20 years have moved us away from a world of knowledge scarcity to knowledge abundance; now, all manner of information is available to everyone. For better or worse, we no longer look to our political and intellectual leaders for their all-knowing guidance, we quickly check what they have said with what we read on Wikipedia, Web Doctor MD or other online information available to us.
And even our leader of smarts, Ken Jennings, was outsmarted by a computer. . . . Damn you Watson!
Really, the value of smart is not only about the move from a world of knowledge being scarce to it being abundant . . . . we are devaluing the word ourselves. We have:
- Smart phones
- Smart cars
- Smart Meters
- And even a Smart Planet.
The word “smart” was reserved for the few, for the special, and now we attach it to the objects in our pockets. When we say someone is smart it ends a conversation, it doesn’t start one. The word has become greasy. Smart has become fast food.
We are actually at a turning point in the history of smart. We either need to abandon the word for newer, more apt descriptions of the qualities and traits we value, or come to a new understanding of the word that is reflective of what we now value as smart.
And, in our schools, especially if we listen to Psychology Professor Carol Dweck, we need to get away from so often using the word, to rather encourage effort, continual improvement and a growth mindset and abandon ranking and sorting.
So, there is a good question – what is smart? But there is also another good question, Is being smart relevant and does it still matter?