How our culture and background influence our view of ‘intelligence’

Written by: Sanjo Jeffrey | Published:
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How we define talent and intelligence can vary depending on our culture and background, but how often do we take this into account as teachers and across schools? Sanjo Jeffrey considers why and how we should…

The narrow definition of the words like gifted, talented and intelligent automatically omit students who are linguistically and culturally diverse (LCD), those from groups identified as Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), and those with certain sensory and physical limitations. This is cause for concern.

Views of intelligence

Determining a student’s giftedness and talent is usually based on the intelligence criterion and often assessed via intelligence quotient (IQ) tests.

Interestingly, the societies that use these instruments are diverse and have multiple groups with unique qualities. These “one size fits all” IQ tests are to the detriment of diverse groups because intelligence has a cultural context.

Many students from diverse backgrounds have been deemed “stupid” simply because they did not approach tasks or thinking in the way that others did; no consideration was given to asking them to demonstrate their way of doing these tasks.

Consequently, they “are often penalized on tests of ability”. According to Sternberg (2000) this happens because each culture’s mechanism promotes those who perform and thus are “acing” the invented system. Of course it does not enquire about what it is that the excluded can do in order to foster them accordingly. “Abilities differ cross culturally”, but no attendant allowances are made.

Monocultural perspectives

Dissonance often accompanies IQ tests that are monocultural. Clark (1992) reiterates this with the example of the Stanford-Binet test that “was standardised and its scores for success were established on white children of English-speaking parents”. It is reasonable to think then that non-white students of non-English speaking parents will be at a clear disadvantage. Obviously, this is not representative of our 21st century global village.

Such situations can be eliminated when culturally responsive policies and cultural awareness education programmes are implemented. This is differentiation of a different kind – ethnicity and culture – and is simply promoting equal educational opportunities for all as a basic human right.

Caulfield, Hill and Shelton (2005) conducted a study in Glasgow in which they examined the primary to secondary transition for BAME students. The students had concerns about the lack of respect for their culture and customs and disappointment in their poor academic performance.

When a student’s home life is not accepted or understood, it is difficult for that student to have a positive school self-image and to believe she is capable of achieving success in an area that is far removed from home and its values.

Cultural ignorance

Teachers’ cultural ignorance means their students do not have the tools with which to navigate a different academic landscape and hence are not able to perform according to the norms of the landscape. Kearns (1981) and Wagner (1978) cited in Sternberg (2000) posited that: “Various studies have shown that when children or adults are tested in ways that suit their cultural patterns of adaptation, their scores are better and may even exceed those … individuals who would otherwise have looked ‘smarter’.”

Esquivel and Nahari (2000) confirmed that, “lack of academic experiential background in the host culture, social economic status and a lack of English proficiency is often construed as poor academic performance”.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought into scrutiny the need for a revised (decolonised?) curriculum as well as the need for staff CPD in being empathetic and culturally informed. The future is beginning to look brighter.

Different views of talent

Different ethnic groups identify giftedness, talent and creativity in different ways and this not often understood or recognised by the host country, nor its educators. A study done with Mexican Americans, Asians and blacks in the USA revealed the following:

  • Mathematical excellence and diligent work were recognised as giftedness in the Asian culture.
  • The rich imagery in the language of the black student and the facility for role play as well as their ability to be emotionally expressive are recognised in the black culture.
  • Maturity of age and excellent social interactions with adults was seen as giftedness in the Mexican American culture.

Once teachers examine these aspects and incorporate them into their assessment, curriculum and delivery, students are more likely to perform in a manner consistent with their socialisation and culture and in a manner indicative of them being labelled gifted. However, when no allowances are made for the inclusion of the things their cultures value they are marginalised and ultimately excluded.

Lopez (2000) cites supporting data from studies by Malesky (1984) and Torrance (1963) that because “individual cultures stress specific intellectual abilities and talents, the ways in which LCD children express their gifted and creative abilities are directly influenced by their cultural background”. This is further supported in a National Research Council study in 2002 that posits the following two key points:

  • “A process of cultural misunderstanding would be likely to undermine achievement.”
  • “The giftedness of students who do not come from cultures that prepare them for the particularistic demands of the school may be overlooked, and those students’ gifts may go unnurtured.”

Practical considerations

What then is the way forward to ensure that the BAME students’ gifts are nurtured? Bernal (2000) says “play to what they’ve got” and “give them what they need” so that “non-dominant ethnic students need to discover they can be successful on their own terms, that they do not have to ‘sound white’ to … feel their presence is appreciated”.

This could also impact on the students from different backgrounds choosing to use anglicised versions of their names so they are linguistically easier for those of the host country to pronounce.

Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, one of the stars of the television series Orange is the New Black, reiterates this when she tells the story of her asking her mother to call her Zoe because it would be easier for her friends to pronounce. Her mother’s response was: "If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka."

Quite often, teachers have fallen in to the trap of labelling a student as being shifty or having low self-confidence because she does not make eye contact when communicating. Is this because they have not realised that in some cultures, not making eye contact, especially in the presence of an adult or authority figure, is a sign of respect of their academic focus, especially if their performances are stellar.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes are so ingrained in school culture and staff psyche that students from culturally diverse backgrounds who do not articulate in the classroom have the quality of their written work questioned if it is of an acceptable, above-average standard. It is believed that if a LCD student does not articulate well verbally then they cannot also express themselves in writing. The suggestion is that the work could not be their own but the product of another student who meets the criterion.

AJ in year 9

Such was the case with AJ in year 9. She was from the Caribbean and shy, afraid to speak lest her accent be mocked; she did not speak often or remained “unresponsive” when spoken to in the lesson. Many of her white British teachers had no idea what to make of her.

As a result, they questioned the authenticity of her first submitted assignment because of the excellent quality of work produced. Unknown to them, she had always been an excellent student and her mother was a teacher.

Had the teachers taken the time to find out about her they would have found out that she was afraid of the ridicule of her class mates, who were known to play the game “guess the accent” in a mean-spirited manner. Her lack of verbal contributions in lessons was not because she lacked academic fibre or that she had poor facility with the English language, but because she wanted to minimise the public embarrassment that her “broad” Jamaican accent could incur.

Yoshi from Japan

Take the case of Yoshi who was from Japan. English was her second language and she was competent. The teacher however could not understand why Yoshi did not answer questions unless they were directed at her or why she did not challenge the teacher even when encouraged to do so. Culturally for Yoshi, the challenging or questioning of an adult or authority figure is not seen as polite or respectful. It did not mean that Yoshi could not and was not capable of operating on a highly analytical or critical level. Her mental and intellectual acuity were far above her more vociferous peers. Awareness of this would have given the teacher insight into how she could have nurtured Yoshi in the new environment so that her innate ability could have an appropriate platform from which to shine.


Black Lives Matter has helped to turn the spotlight on everything including inclusive education in culturally diverse schools. Now we are embracing the idea that the playing field can be level because the opportunities exist and are available to everyone.

  • Sanjo Jeffrey is SENCO at Copthall School in north London. Read her previous articles for SecEd, via

References & Reading

  • Caulfield, Hill & Shelton: The experiences of black and minority ethnic people following the transition to secondary school, SPOTL!GHT (93), 2003.
  • Clark: Growing up Gifted, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
  • Donald, Gosling & Hamilton: No Problem Here? Children's attitude to race in a mainly white area, SCRE Newsletter (55), 1995.
  • Esquivel & Nahari: Culturally diverse gifted students: A historical perspective (in Creativity and Giftedness in Culturally Diverse Students, Esquivel & Houtz (eds), Hampton Press Inc, 2000).
  • Lopez: Identifying gifted and creative linguistically and culturally diverse children (in Creativity and Giftedness in Culturally Diverse Students, Esquivel & Houtz (eds), Hampton Press Inc, 2000).
  • Mac an Ghaill: Young, gifted and black: Student-teacher relations in the schooling of black youth, Open University Press, 1988.
  • National Research Council: Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education Committee on Minority Representation (in Special Education, Donovan & Cross (eds), Division of Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education, National Academy Press, 2002).
  • Omdal et al: Education of students who are gifted and visually impaired, DVI Quarterly,2000.
  • Sternberg: Multicultural issues in the testing of abilities and achievement, (in Creativity and Giftedness in Culturally Diverse Students, Esquivel & Houtz (eds), Hampton Press Inc, 2000).


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