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It's time to redefine who is smart...just ask Moana

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The more research I do, the more autobiographies of different thinkers I read and the more experts I interview, the more I’m challenged to ask:


What is intelligence?


I thought I used to know.


Let’s do a little poll. True or False?


Intelligent kids do well at school.

Intelligent people read and write well.

Intelligent people grasp concepts quickly.

Intelligent people can eloquently explain what they know.

Intelligent people give quick, witty responses.

Intelligent people have good memories for facts and details.

Intelligent people look you in the eye.


Thomas West, my expert guest this month on the Wonderfully Wired podcast, invites us to challenge all that by looking at stories of successful visual thinkers in his book Seeing what others cannot see.

“Many of the stories tell of men and women that found simple maths and early education hard but went on to excel at complicated maths, physics, sciences, reason and thought.”

Tom diverts his discussions from individual men and women and looks at Polynesian navigators. He marvels at the highly refined observational skills and visual thinking needed to navigate across the Pacific.


“We have Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars—the places where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean. If you can identify the stars, and if you have memorized where they come up and go down, you can find your direction. The star compass is also used to read the flight path of birds and the direction of waves. It does everything. It is a mental construct to help you memorize what you need to know to navigate…."

—Navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, on having sailed on the traditional Polynesian canoe, the Hokule‘a.


These navigators, Tom explains, didn’t have complex mathematics, sextants and maps, electronic compasses and other modern tools that you and I would believe necessary for educated navigators to achieve these great accomplishments

They trained their brains and senses through close observation, apprenticeships, and they used what was at hand.


Which made me think of the Disney song from the movie Moana


We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high

We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze

At night, we name every star

We know where we are

We know who we are, who we are

We know where we are. We know who we are.


What an extraordinary thought.


The ancient skills, the deep knowledge of a people ‘sensitively taught’ and practiced, helped Polynesian seafarers know where they are. And who they were.

And for the longest time the educated world would have called their culture primitive because the kind of visual and spatial abilities that the culture excels in, was under -appreciated in modern education.


But, says Tom, all that is changing.

“As we begin to use the newest technologies in really powerful ways, we will begin to tap into some of the oldest and most ‘primitive’ neurological (visual and spatial) talents.”

Tom looks at length at new computer visualisation of complex data that allows people to ‘see’ what was previously only visible to the exceptionally visually gifted.


It’s funny isn’t it? We’ve developed so far that we are just discovering the ‘oldest and most essential abilities’ as Tom calls them.


Eugene Ferguson from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (or MIT) said something similar;

“Until the 1960s, a student in an American engineering school was expected by his teachers to use his mind's eye to examine things that engineers had designed, to look at them, listen to them, walk around them and thus develop an intuitive feel for the way the material world works and sometimes doesn’t work.
By the 1980s, engineering curricula had shifted to analytical [and mathematical] approaches, so that visual and other sensual knowledge of the world seemed less relevant.”

As a result, Ferguson explains, the visual, intuitive understanding that is so essential to good engineering slowly disappeared. MIT has been on the cutting edge of fixing such a mistake.

“Perhaps we are just now mature enough in our modern culture to fully appreciate what these navigators accomplished in an earlier culture with the simplest of tools and the most sophisticated use of their brains” Tom continues.

It is about maturity, I think.


When I was young I was so certain about things. Now, I’d rather grow and learn than be right all the time.


Wouldn’t it be good if modern culture could mature to a bigger and more humble understanding of what intelligence is and who gets to be called ‘smart’?.


So many of the stories Tom tells of men and women who struggled at school but went on to change mathematics and science have a familiar plot:

They could ‘see in their mind’s eye things others could not. Their challenge was to try to explain to others what they ‘saw’. (Not a dyslexic strength!) As a result their ideas were often rejected by formal education until decades later.


We set a course to find

A brand new Island everywhere we roam

Aue, aue

We keep our Island in our mind

And when it’s time to find home

We know the way

We are explorers reading every sign

We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain


Tom is something of an explorer reading every sign, like other dyslexic thought leaders before him.


I’m just starting to see the signs myself. Will you join me?


If we read the signs well, Tom says “…we will begin to see ourselves and the world,” and the Wonderfully Wired child in our home, “with very different eyes - leading, in time, to fundamentally different attitudes toward education and concepts of intelligence, as well as the skills and talents that are considered to be most valuable.”


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