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Redefining smart

4 min read


As a sports fan, I have often thought about how certain built-in realities of the professional game impact the likelihood of a particular player’s potential  for success. For example, the height of a basket in basketball places a premium on tall players; even guards and wing men are typically well above six feet tall. Similarly, football offensive linemen who can block well but are nowhere near the standard 300+ lb. weight that has become commonplace in today’s NFL are almost assured that they will not find a job in the premier football league.

This same reality applies to the classroom. Out of necessity, we have created a set of standards and parameters for schooling, and tend to define smartness and intelligence in those narrow terms. We focus on particular academic areas, such as language and mathematics, and account less for students’ abilities and interests in other disciplines. Moreover, we use testing measures that cater to visual, linguistic and logical learners over those who would benefit from a testing environment that allows for oral testing, dialogue, and/or movement, to choose a few.

The kids who grow up thinking that they are smart are oftentimes the ones whose talents and gifts are rewarded by schools and teachers. By rewarded I mean that they are most capable of navigating effectively through the school system and demonstrating mastery of content in the way that it is presented to and then asked of them. In contrast, “weaker” students are often hampered by a lack of confluence between their abilities and the instruction that they receive, as well as what they are allowed to do in order to demonstrate their abilities and knowledge.

For example, suppose I asked students to produce a product, such as a painting or a building model, or to develop a computer program or write a song instead of jot down information. How might that level the playing field?

If you are not sure, think about the young men and women that were either your classmates or your students that were valedictorians and/or regularly awarded and recognized in school. These were the kids who were featured in your class yearbook that were “most likely to succeed.” Now think about the “class dummies” that struggled mightily to perform to any meaningful standard. Once you have your list, consider where all of these people are in life today and what they have been able to achieve professionally and otherwise. You will likely find that the success-failure continuum has shifted somewhat over the past many years, perhaps even drastically. (The internet is replete with lists of school age “failures” that have taken the world by storm and achieved great success.) Life and the marketplace can be powerful equalizers.

This is not to suggest that we have it all wrong or that academic achievement is a poor predictor of future success. I am saying, however, that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence and how to promote such intelligence so that we can produce “smarter” students with a greater collective sense of efficacy and confidence.

There are many ways by which to do this. These include teaching to different modalities, differentiating and assigning creative projects that offer students various ways by which to shine. It also can include having open conversations with students about intelligence and smartness, so that they become better self-advocates while also not getting down on themselves to the point that they see themselves as failures before the game of life has truly begun.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Download his free leadership ebook at Read his blog at

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