The Case Against “Smart”

Sure they like to read. But can they screw in a lightbulb, unlike their father?

What does “smart” mean, really? Within the context of formal education, it seems to indicate some variation on the phrase “good at school.” But when we break it down, does that mean you’re a good reader? A good writer? A Math whiz? A test-taking machine?

Oxford’s etymology:

“… related to the verb, the original sense (late Old English) being ‘causing sharp pain’; from this arose ‘keen, brisk’, whence the current senses of ‘mentally sharp’ and ‘neat in a brisk, sharp style’.”

“Causing sharp pain” resonated, as I recall as a child my mother saying “Don’t get smart with me, young man,” which often came a few hours after a well-meaning teacher directed a “Nice job on that test, Rory! You’re a smart little guy!”

So when we talk about a smart student, what do we actually mean? They process information quickly? They’re creative? Their insights in class discussions are more sophisticated than their peers’? And then what if none of this translates to good grades? Then bring on the cliche: “He’s so smart; if only he applied himself!” And what does that mean for the kid who works incredibly hard, but is not as “bright.” Do we label her as “successful” even though “she wasn’t that smart”?

And once you’re labeled a smart kid, watch out. Any behavior deemed “not smart” yields double punishment. “Hey, why’d you do that? You’re supposed to be one of the smart kids.” As if that label exempts you from being human. Worse yet, there’s the entitlement for kids who’ve been told how smart they are their entire lives. Any criticism comes as an affront to their identity and can spin them into a cycle of self-doubt. I know this all too well as a “smart” kid myself and the coordinator of a program of, you guessed it, “smart” kids.

In many areas of my life, I’m not smart at all. I have a Master’s degree, but I’ve got a grill that’s been sitting unfixed on my deck for two years. I barely know how to use a leaf blower. And anything with pipes or wires is totally off-limits.

If you were to add up all of my “smarts,” Master’s and all, I would probably be pretty average, as would most PhDs. Even a medical doctor is plenty “smart,” but if you’ve ever had one with poor bedside manner, you know many lack social intelligence.

Meanwhile, one of my students, Devin, buys and sells car parts and builds engines from scratch. Who’s smarter, Devin or the doctor? Depends on if you need a new heart or a new engine.

The “smart” label probably causes more harm than good, especially when we’re dealing with adolescents who are hyperfocused on where they fit among their peers. So let’s replace the “smart” label with something else, although I’m not sure what. Any ideas?

Sorry, I’d help – if only I were smart enough.

Let Them Lead

Left: What he wants; Right: What I want for him

I took my four-year-old to the tennis court the other day to teach him the game I fell in love with as a kid.

I was a 4-time city champion in Flint (granted, there were only four teams but who’s counting) and have spent my career teaching kids. I knew what I needed to do: start simple, let him experience some success, and leave while he was still having a good time.

We started with a simple drill, where James stood at the center of the court and I hit balls to his forehand. James swung like he was swatting a bee, not making contact. Yikes. Rough start.

Sensing his frustration, I had an idea. I had to be the responsible and responsive educator, and meet my student where he was and adjust accordingly.

So for the next drill I brought him to my side of the net and simply dropped a ball and told him to let it bounce, then smack it over. This time, fewer whiffs but still not proficient. As we gathered the balls, I considered how I might modify the next drill.

Another genius idea from an experienced educator: before I dropped the first ball, I said “James, if you hit the ball, you get one point. If you hit it over the net, you get two points.” He nodded with excitement. I almost patted myself on the back with my racquet. He was getting it, and he was loving it.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

My chest puffed as I silently congratulated myself for entering the realm of Superdad.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Seven in a row over the net.

“James! Buddy! You got it! Look at you!”

The “lightbulb” going on…the “aha moment.” It was happening. I envisioned James thanking me for being such an inspiration in his acceptance speech at the 2040 U.S. Open. This is why I became an educator. Heck, this is why I became a father!

“James, let’s do it again, huh?! Let’s gather up these balls and see how many more we can get over the net!”

He looked up, cocked his head a little with an ambivalent smile, then shrugged.

“Nah, I think I’ll go climb that tree.”

And with that, he dropped his racquet and ambled away, leaving me and my crushed dreams of being a proud, rich tennis parent on the steaming asphalt.

After collecting myself, I went over to see if I might be able to change James’ mind, but before I could start in on my lecture, he blurted out:

“Dad, you know why I like climbing trees better than tennis? Because you don’t get points. You just climb the tree and have fun. And I like that it makes you stronger. And you’re off the ground but you can breathe, not like swimming. Dad, did you know trees are nature’s playground? ”

The student had become the teacher.

For the next several minutes I just watched James climb that tree. I managed to step back from my ego and acknowledge what a fool I was for thinking I could control my kid’s likes and dislikes.

Then, this:

“Dad, how much do you love me?”

“From here all the way out to space and back.”

“James, how much do you love me?”

“From the top of this tree all the way to the edge of the universe. Because you let me climb this tree and didn’t make me play tennis.”

This episode has been top of mind this week in meetings with students, parents, and staff. Whether it’s steering them into a certain AP class, making them play a sport they hate or insisting they apply to our alma mater, we can often get so caught up in what we want for them – out of love, of course – that they never figure out what they want for themselves. So this year I’m going to try my best to let students lead those conversations about who they are and who they want to be. I’m going to let them, if they need to, go climb a tree.

I hope you’ll join me.

Redundant Communication

I’ve had several conversations in recent weeks with students and parents about the dreaded acronym: G.P.A. Many students are below the 3.0 requirement for the program and several others, while above 3.0, are not where they would like to be to get into their dream college. Most of the time, we are talking about a few basic fundamentals for success in school: effective time management, being present in class, paying attention, and asking questions. These are not revolutionary strategies, and most students have heard them repeatedly over their school career from parents and teachers. Still, for many students, it’s not sinking in.

This inability (or unwillingness) to mind seemingly simple advice is no different than my four-year-old punching his brother in the back whenever he gets frustrated, despite my and Andrea’s repeated pleas and punishments. He hears me when I tell him, he understands it’s wrong, but he keeps doing it. Likewise, despite your demands, your 14-year-old keeps checking her phone when her teacher is explaining an important concept. So what do I do with my son to help him stop punching his brother? What do you do with your sophomore daughter who won’t submit work even though she knows it’s hurting her grade, no matter how many times you beg her?

It turns out a person needs to hear something between 10 and 20 times before it sinks in (after 20 times it becomes counterproductive). But there is a catch here. Harvard Business professor Tsedal Neeley concluded in a study of “redundant communication” in organizations, that employees were much more likely to change their behavior in response to messages from those who were not in a position of authority.

So let’s extrapolate this out to students: we know that parents and teachers are authority figures. So yes, and you’ve heard it from me many times: these messages need to be coming from peers and mentors.

This is not to suggest that parents shouldn’t have direct conversations with their kids about, for example, subpar grades from the first semester. And yes, sometimes good old-fashioned nagging is just fine (otherwise I never would have cleaned my room when as a kid). But also look for those other people in your kids’ lives who don’t hold any authority over them and let them deliver these important messages multiple times and in multiple ways.

And of course, we must keep in mind that some kids just aren’t ready to change their behavior until it they’re ready, no matter what anyone else does or says.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. James just punched Sam in the back again.


“It’s Not Nagging: Repetition is Effective Communication” Jojarth, Martin.

“How Managers Use Multiple Media: Discrepant Events, Power, and Timing in Redundant Communication” Neeley, et al.

Joke’s On Me

A month ago, my boys thought iPads only worked on airplanes. In light of the growing body of research about the dangers of kids and mobile devices, I was in the Anti-Tech-for-Young-Kids-Except-For-TV-Because-Hey-I-Gotta-Stay-Sane camp. So when my son’s school informed us he’d be receiving an iPad for Pre-Kindergarten, I was apoplectic. I had spent Sam’s entire life teaching him that iPads were evil.

I wouldn’t even utter the word “iPad” when it arrived. It’s a “learning pad,” I said, “and it only works during school time.”

So you can guess what happened after Sam had spent just ten minutes is his first Zoom meeting. “Dad. I can’t look at the screen anymore. I have to turn this off. You know screens are bad for me.”


I’d spend five years railing against something that we would need to rely on for the next several months, if not longer. The joke was on me. Suddenly I didn’t feel so high on my horse as Mr. Fishing and Golf Dad.

What I had perceived to be an advantage for Sam had now become a disadvantage, at precisely the time he needed to feel a sense of efficacy and belonging: his first experience in school. This reinforced a lesson I’ve been learning and relearning over the last six months: Embracing change, even when it goes against the very core of my being, is inevitable, and it’s probably healthy.

What I used to think was surrendering my values is now simply accepting reality.

Every day Andrea and I alternate between encouraging Sam to engage in this bizarre online Kindergarten world (25 5-year-olds singing “The Hello Song” with bad audio, for example) and telling him it’s okay to take a break. We want to instill the importance of education and of honoring commitments, but we also know a 5-year-old should probably put down the screen occasionally to wrestle with his brother.

So whether it’s Sam on his iPad, your 9th grader blaring his French horn in front of a Chromebook camera, or your 6th grader working on a project without ever meeting her group members, remote learning is forcing all of us—parents, educators, and students—to surrender what is ideal for what is real. It’s a hard lesson, and one especially young people often don’t learn until much later in life, but the optimist in me believes they will all be stronger for it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shut off the learning pad.