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Geekend: Want To Be Smarter? Draw, Sing, Teach

Three new studies offer advice that can help us in the workplace.

Do you have trouble remembering things? Do you think you could be more successful at work or in school if you could just concentrate better? Wouldn't we all like to be even a little bit smarter? Three new studies have some advice for you: Learn to draw, sing, play a musical instrument, or start teaching others what you know.

Let's start with the subject you're likely able to do the least about: drawing. A study conducted at the MRC Social, Genetic, and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King's College London examined how kids' drawing skills show intelligence later in life. The researchers scored the drawings of 4-year-olds based on how well they depicted the reality of a human figure. For instance, a child got more points if his or her drawing included the right number of arms, legs, and facial features. At age 4 and again at age 14, the children who drew the pictures were administered nonverbal intelligence tests. Those who scored highest on their drawings at age 4 tended to be the most intelligent at age 14.

Judging by the test, this child might be a genius.

Having trouble figuring out what this drawing depicts? Is it a parent riding a hippo? A clown falling off a dinosaur? I'll wait until the end to tell you, but it isn't the perspective or the quality of the drawing that matters. This drawing (which was not done by anyone in the study) shows a person with hair, facial features, and the correct number of limbs riding an animal with teeth, a tail, and the correct number of facial features (but the incorrect number of legs).

The assumption is that children who observe the world around them better than others are likely to draw more accurately. They're also likely to observe the world better in general, which should lead to higher intelligence, or at least higher achievement.

[Is online education becoming the new normal? Read Remote Learning: Intriguing Options Emerge.]

Here's the thing, though: The correlation is "moderate." Drawing ability doesn't determine intelligence. It may be an indicator of it -- or at least an indicator of a skill that can be helpful in learning. So if you can't draw, you aren't doomed to a life as a crash test dummy. And no one is sure just yet if learning to draw will help you later in life, but the observation skills required sure come in handy.

A second study, conducted at Northwestern University, shows the importance of music in the development of learning mechanisms. The study tracked students in the university's Harmony Program, designed to give underprivileged kids access to musical training. Half the kids in the study were in the program and either took musical instrument lessons or sang in a choir. The other half were on the wait list. At the beginning of the program, all the kids showed similar reading and IQ levels.

After two years of music lessons for half the group, all the kids were asked to take a test. While they took the test, a distracting noise was repeated consistently in the background. The kids who had taken the music lessons were much better able to focus, despite the background noise. That skill was found to carry over into later life.

Why does this skill matter? Well, it's far more likely that kids from low-income families lack a quiet place to study than kids from higher-income families, so one way to help them is to give them the neural tools to learn in spite of distractions.

Later in life, regardless of family incomes growing up, most of us work in noisy, distracting environments. If you want to be more effective at work, consider a couple of years of music lessons. They may even help you deal with this.

If taking music lessons and learning how to draw seem like too much work, here's a study you can put into action right away. A Washington University in St. Louis study shows that people recall things much better if they think they're going to have to teach it to someone else.

The study asked a group of students to go through a series of read-and-recall exercises. Half the students were told they were going to be tested on the material. The other half were told that they would have to teach the material to another student. Both groups were given a test.

The group told they would have to teach had much better recall of the material and were able to organize their information more effectively. The main takeaway, according to the researchers, is that students don't always employ the best learning strategies, even when they expect to be tested. The prospect of having to teach the material forces them to deploy the strategies they learned. In my opinion, the study suggests a psychological desire not to look stupid in front of others.

This approach is used in many learning environments already, including multi-age classrooms. One of the best examples is the med school mantra of SODOTO -- see one, do one, teach one -- whereby students are asked to observe a procedure once, then perform the procedure with supervision, and then take on a supervisory role.

Try applying the SODOTO approach at work: Learn a new skill, technique, or process as if you would have to teach it to someone else on your team (or explain it in a meeting). Not only will you remember it better, so that you don't look like a fool, but you'll also organize it in your brain better, because you'll need to communicate it. You'll probably even learn it in more depth to begin with. Think about the difference between throwing a ball yourself and teaching a child to throw one. You don't think about where your hands and feet go until you need to teach someone else how to throw.

All three of these strategies have one thing in common: better observation skills. Whether it's looking carefully at what you draw, ignoring distractions to concentrate on a task, or learning a task better in order to teach it, all three will help improve your concentration, recall, and performance. Pick the strategy that works best for you, or mix and match them.

Oh, by the way, that picture was of a kid riding a horse. Did you see it? Maybe that's a cognitive skill worth cultivating, too.

What do you think? If you're a musician or an artist, do you think that skill makes you a better learner? Does teaching help you learn? What techniques do you use to get smarter and better at what you do? Tell us with a comment below.

You can hear more about this article on this week’s episode of InformationWeek Radio. We’ll be talking with the author at 2:00 PM EDT on Tuesday, August 26 — we hope you’ll join us! Register here.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
8/25/2014 | 7:24:06 AM
Re: You teach better what you need to learn
I just want to add to the list of things that help cognitive function.  Exercise is a big one as is taking up a hobby.  I think that the bigger picture here isn't art or music it is activity.  Humans who wind down to nothing and become vegetative also lower their brain function.  Those who keep engaged and moving tend to build up that cognitive function.   I think this is one of the reasons Google's side project love is so good for the company.  Keeping people from sinking into a rut is good for them.
User Rank: Ninja
8/24/2014 | 1:55:34 AM
Re: different kinds of intellegence
jastroff, in continuation to your point, companies must ensure that staff get a flavour of other tasks too therefore they must formally ensure that people get job rotation. Viewing things from a different angle leads to development of an innovative mind.
User Rank: Ninja
8/24/2014 | 1:38:01 AM
Re: No stranger
SachinEE, background music never works for me. I like pindrop silence to concentrate. Thank God I don't share a room with my colleagues in office else my performance would have been much lower.
User Rank: Ninja
8/23/2014 | 9:30:52 PM
Re: Artist learning

I like the transition from STEM to STEAM. So what exactly do you do as a parent to foster creativity in your child. I particularly found drawing to be versatile, more handy, easy to manage and less messy.
User Rank: Ninja
8/23/2014 | 2:27:08 PM
No stranger
I am no stranger to the fact that a background music really helps you concentrate, and that is why most workplaces where workload is high use musical backgrounds. If we talk about a corporate group rather than children we see that even the lighting system and the temperature of the room can motivate a person to work harder.
Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
8/23/2014 | 10:49:35 AM
You teach better what you need to learn

Quite interesting. I am no convinced that drawing skills are interconnected with being smarter as it is related with which brain hemisphere is in use and the kind of abilities developed in that part of the brain. There are multiple intelligences, not only one kind. 

The music study: being used to having music/noise as background doesn't make you smarter. You focus better later in a noisy working environment because you are used to doing stuff with noise in the background. 

A kid drawing a person with more than four limbs might not be drawing a human being but a different kind of being product of his imagination. 

The recent study that says that teaching improves learning has not discovered anything new. Old studies have previously published that people teach better what they need to learn.

I don't think these "studies" have convinced me of anything, or have brought anything new.  

The drawing is super cute. :)

User Rank: Ninja
8/22/2014 | 4:18:54 PM
Re: different kinds of intellegence
@dave -- all great ideas and I've done all of them. I like to think it makes me a more valued resource, and a better manager. Bringing this all into the workplace can be difficult, but getting people to move from their "defined paths" or ruts can bring about more innovative thinking and better problem solving, that is, if the company culture permits risk-taking
User Rank: Ninja
8/22/2014 | 2:05:07 PM
different kinds of intellegence
I think all these are great strategies but they measure a specific kind of intelligence.  Many other others authors in these area have indicated something refer to as emotional intelligence.  I think different kind of intelligence is what really makes a better person to deal with the various types of challenges we face in our daily lives.  I would encourage any one to pick up a pen or start playing an instrument.  They are fun hobbies. 
User Rank: Ninja
8/22/2014 | 2:04:08 PM
Artist learning


Dave I think this is great information especially at a time when our schools are eliminating programs in the arts. Children absolutely benefit from music appreciation theater and art in general, it provides them with different approaches to problems. The research has long existed that appreciation for classical music fuels math and science skills. My school is now expanding STEM to include STEAM or the inclusion of the arts. I personally have my child spend a lot of time in art related endeavors as well as traditional subjects because I see the benefit!

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