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'What is Smart?': A Qualitative Study using Ethnographic Methods of 5th Class Children's Concepts of Intelligence

Research Staff

Anna Fiona Keogh, Dr. Jean Whyte

About the Project

Research has shown that by the time children are 11 or 12 years old, their beliefs about the nature of intelligence play a pivotal role in their achievement motivation - in their decisions about accepting challenges, in their behaviour during difficult tasks, and in their interpretation of success and failure. As children's concepts of intelligence are linked to their achievement motivation, it is important to probe what these concepts are. 'What do children think is smart?' and 'how do they think they can succeed?' For some, it may be through formal schooling, for others it may be getting out into the real world as quickly as possible and starting to earn money. This study also aims to explore what factors influence the development of their concepts of intelligence and whether their concepts of social intelligence influence their academic motivation. An understanding of children's concepts of intelligence, the development of these concepts and how they relate to children's academic achievement motivation will give educators a better awareness of what motivates children to achieve and also the media through which children can be encouraged to learn. It is hoped that this will inform teacher training and practice.

What does the research focus on?

This research project had the general aim of increasing our understanding of issues influencing the educational and general development of children in disadvantaged settings. The specific aims were:

  • To explore children's concepts of 'smartness' in different contexts i.e. academic (in class) and social (with friends), and to determine what influences the development of these concepts.
  • To explore the relationship between children's concepts of 'smartness', their aspirations and the options they see open to them.
  • To explore whether there is a connection between their concepts of intelligence, and the activities on which they decide to spend their energy during the day.
  • To inform policy and practice in the area of primary educational disadvantage by getting a better understanding of what motivates children to learn and achieve and the kinds of activities and materials that help them to learn

What does the research involve?

The study was carried out over 9 months. The first stage was the process of gaining access to the school and also to the children, seeking and negotiating consent. The second stage was participant observation over a 4 month period. The researcher went to the school 2 or 3 days a week, and spent a maximum of 4 hours there at any one time. The third stage of the research aimed to build on the data through a series of focused activities, which included a photographic project, a classroom drawing, individual and group interviews. This gave the children an active chance to produce data and was also an opportunity to feedback initial theories emerging from the research to the children. The fieldwork stage ended with a trip to the Children's Research Centre and Trinity College for the children and the teacher. The fieldwork finished in June 2003.

Timescale and final products of the research

The final report became available in Spring 2005. Initial findings were been presented to both the staff and students of the school. In addition, the research was presented at the Conference of the Educational Studies Association of Ireland 2004, Psychological Society of Ireland Annual Meeting, 2003 and the American Anthropological Association 102nd Annual Meeting, Chicago 2003.

What is Smart? An In-depth study of Children's Concepts of Intelligence (PDF 832 kB)


Last updated 15 March 2010 by The Children′s Research Centre (Email).