Posted by: angmlr007 | 12/02/2011

Five Traits of the “Intelligent” Child

“How do I make my child smart?” This is one of the hottest, undying topics that is discussed among many Singaporean parents for years. In a land that advocates meritocracy and continued personal “upgrading” through education, many people invest a lot of time, money and effort to groom their children to become “brighter” and “smarter” than their peers. Getting into brand-name schools, attending character-development workshops, going for endless tuition classes at Learning Lab, completing piles upon piles of assessment books: the number of options are endless.


As much as the above options can help, we cannot help but acknowledge that in our world, not everyone is born equal. There are always that small bunch of kids who are undoubtedly born “gifted”, or have the potential to make remarkable progress in terms of intelligence development. There will always be that “spark” in some young ones that will distinguish them from the majority of their peers, and makes them special – the better kind of special, if you get what I mean. My parents are both teachers, and I myself have been a tutor to at least half a dozen school-going children. After work, we frequently discuss about our students, and talk about the traits that separate the good from the average, the best from the better. After much thought (and some searches on expert opinion from other sources), I’ve narrowed down the numerous traits into five general characteristics of bright children, in no order of importance.

Curiosity & Motivation to Learn

“Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” – Nancy Willard

Oh no. Wooden spatula and open washing machine. What’s next? Photo by: LPEstrela (Flickr)

The basic demand of intelligence is driven by a pull-and-push factor. With no force driving the mind, there can be no progress. That is why all learning must begin from the child’s curiosity of the world around him. He must be inquisitive about the things happening around, and constantly observing for the peculiar and the strange. Once the child has spotted something of interest, he will immediately have questions: What is that? What does it do? How does it work? Why is that possible? Once the questions start coming in, he immediately develops (on his own) the motivation to find the answers to his questions. That naturally provides for the foundation upon which others can build his knowledge through teaching and mentoring.

Affinity with Logic, Innate Ability to Reason, Natural Constructor of Knowledge

“He who will not reason, is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave.” – William Drummond

Baby solving Rubrik’s Cube? Now I’ve seen it all Photo by: GP Biancoli (Flickr)

One particular trait that I noticed about smart kids that enables them to learn a lot faster than their peers is their affinity with logic. Whether they have received formal training in logic, or that their reasoning ability is simply innately more well-tuned, it is undeniable that this enables them to be natural constructors of knowledge. Imagine being given a puzzle like the Rubrik’s cube. Most of us will simply just attempt to solve via trial and error, or take really long to absorb what needs to be done at each stage to arrange the colours, before slowly piecing together the solution. However, children with a stronger logic background will be able to arrange and sort out the ideas behind this puzzle at a much quicker rate than their peers, resulting in them solving the puzzle while others will give up trying (I am assuming no one is cheapskate enough to go read the algorithm just to solve the cube. That’s as good as reading the answer sheet to an examination). These children would also perform much better at thinking and strategy games, such as chess, complex card games, etc.

Comprehension & Articulation Ability (Listen/Speak/Read/Write)

“Observing and understanding are two different things.” – Mary E. Pearson

Teaching children how to read. Photo by Old Shoe Woman (Flickr)

Believe it or not, intelligent children also have a better comprehension ability. By comprehension, I am referring to listening and reading. If the child is more proficient at listening to others and reading materials, it becomes much easier for him or her to receive new knowledge as taught from external sources, such as school teachers or textbooks. Imagine trying to do maths by putting together your additions and subtraction skills when you can’t even understand the context upon which the two are to be applied (i.e. problem sums). The lack of understanding of the questions and problems faced would cause learning to gradually degenerate into memorizing solution sets, and identifying the key words of problems that require this solution.

Additionally, a child’s proficiency at expression- speaking and writing – would boost his or her learning potential. To read and listen to the theory is one thing, but most students would discover that they will only come to a complete understanding of the subject matter after they have applied it to problem sets, AND made an attempt to explain the concepts involved to someone else. I discovered this the hard way when I attempted to give physics tuition to a Grade 11 student preparing to sit for the IB exam. I was tasked with explaining the topic of waves and oscillations to my student. Before the class, I flipped through the lesson material and was thinking to myself, gosh this is so easy I’ve learnt all this before. But when it came to explaining the ideas and concepts behind the formulas on each page, I realized I was hitting roadblock after roadblock. It took me quite a bit of time before I could organize my thoughts together and teach the chapter in a systematic, logical manner. Not only was I helping the student understand the topic, I also found myself “relearning” what I’ve once got through by plain memory work.

Persistance & Mental Discipline

“Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.” – Roy L. Smith

Oooh. Knuckle push-ups.

Let’s face it, whether we like it or not, it’s only the most disciplined bodies that will complete a marathon. Likewise, only the most disciplined of minds would be able to take prolonged instruction and absorb the most sophisticated ideas. In particular, I am talking about self-discipline, and one’s willingness to focus for prolonged periods of time. A simple example would be the case of a child attempting to solve a Rush Hour puzzle. If the child is unable to keep his attention on the puzzle at hand, he will get nowhere near the solution. Only the ones who choose to persist and attempt solving the problem would eventually get their red car out of the jam. Another example that demonstrates the need to focus is learning in school. Most students that do well in school are either good listeners in class (i.e. pay extra attention to the teacher), or are very good at focusing on studying out of school by reading textbooks. Either way, a long attention span is certainly the way to go.


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

The Power of Imagination

Last, but not least, the final element that sets most smart kids apart from their peers is their creativity. Albert Einstein has said it well in his quote. Because of our education systems, we spend too much time looking for answers to question, when in fact the central idea of learning is to ask questions instead, and use our imaginations to broaden our intellectual horizons. My dad summarizes this quite aptly: “If you don’t ask the questions, there can be no answers.” Most kids that lack creativity often find themselves constrained within the context of classroom learning, only accepting whatever information that is fed to them through rote learning. Imaginative kids, however, have a higher tendency to embrace new, refreshing ideas, no matter how absurd, and the even brighter few would bring their imaginations to the next level by incorporating it with their learning.


Note: It is important to note that I’ve put the word “Intelligent” within inverted commas. This is because the term “intelligence” is quite an ambiguous term, and there is no direct means for us to measure/quantify it. I don’t support the use of IQ tests to gauge a person’s intelligence, because an IQ test, like any other test, can be “drilled” and prepared for, and would lose it’s effectiveness over time as one gets used to the nature of the questions. I find it unthinkable that we can put something as beautiful as the human mind onto a scale and “grade” people on their thinking ability. Instead, I’d very much prefer to describe intelligence in a qualitative manner, and use people’s abilities and achievements in various fields as their form of “intelligence”. Meaning, I would say that a great engineer (Nikola Tesla) is just as brilliant, just as intelligent as a great political leader (Nelson Mandela) based on the accomplishments in their respective fields.


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