The Kind of Fluid Problem Solving That Matters

Malcolm Gladwell: “Being “smart” involves facility in both kinds of thinking—the kind of fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and I.Q. tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from explicit learning. If Johnson’s book has a flaw, it is that he sometimes speaks of our culture being “smarter” when he’s really referring just to that fluid problem-solving facility. When it comes to the other kind of intelligence, it is not clear at all what kind of progress we are making, as anyone who has read, say, the Gettysburg Address alongside any Presidential speech from the past twenty years can attest. The real question is what the right balance of these two forms of intelligence might look like. “Everything Bad Is Good for You” doesn’t answer that question. But Johnson does something nearly as important, which is to remind us that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that explicit learning is the only kind of learning that matters.”

What's remarkable about Gladwell's article is how he criticizes Johnson's argument that books are isolating and linear, which he, Johnson, says encourages passivity. In the section that Gladwell quotes, Johnson comes across as quite serious, but Gladwell deflects by saying “He’s joking, of course, but only in part.” In the passage quoted by Gladwell, Johnson seems to have totally missed the other half of learning that comes from books, which people get through writing about the book or at least quietly reflecting about connections the reader can draw to other ideas.

Gladwell, in what is a positive review of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson, seems to approve of the notion of both IQ tests and a bell-shaped curve of intelligence. A counterpoint to that would be Doc Searls' excellent article on education for Linux Journal. The title says "Part 2", and you can read Part 1 as well, but the first part is not necessary for understanding the ideas in the second. (Both of Searls' articles deal with The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Friedman. I have several articles about the book, including an excerpt from the book, lined up in my reading queue.) Searls argues that we are all smart despite schooling, not because of it, almost totally rejecting all types of formal learning entirely, including university-level education. All that's fairly tangential to what Gladwell and Johnson are arguing, except that it has to do with education, informal or not, and I'm still on the side that says that smart people watch smart TV, but doesn't make you smarter.


Actually, Steven Johnson does make the distinction between fluid problem solving learning and reflective book learning in Part 2 of Everything Bad is Good For You. He says that reading may be declining as an activity because there are so many competing forms of media, but he is emphatic about the need to encourage deep reading skills and practice, because the cognitive gains can't be replicated by fluid learning skills. Beautiful site, by the way.