"I know he knows this. I can't understand why he's not able to..."
This unfortunate scenario plays out all too commonly at parent-teacher conferences, or when digging in the backpack for returned tests or getting back report cards or important test scores.
Why is that that some kids choke on their academic performance while their knowledge base seems so good? There are many possible reasons for this, but one paper I came across this week reinforced the notion that knowledge, creativity, and knowledge or information retrieval are very different things.
Information retrieval is not as catchy a notion as attention these days, but it is a distinct process in the brain, and it what you are asking students to do when you ask them to repeat back what they learned in class or from their homework. In the study, when researchers looked at brain regions important for retrieving studied and individually-generated word associations, they found that whereas information studied or learned was retrieved by the prefrontal cortex, self-generated word associations came from parietal lobes. This is interesting, but also implies that one can be very good function, is not necessary good at the other.
For instance, although a student may be very good at synthesizing information (parietal), he can also be quite weak or slow at retrieving stored information from memory (prefrontal). This in fact is more the norm than the deviation for high IQ kids. Their prefrontal lobes are slower to develop.
Slow retrievers often overpopulate the ranks of "gifted underachievers," and their exasperate their parents and teachers because in other instances they can provide dazzling insights and show how deep their knowledge bases really go. Not surprisingly some of these bright self-generating thinkers may prefer to learn on their own (auto-didact) rather than hone themselves into more rapidly answering rote memorizing machines.
This paper also helps remind us that it's a mistake to equate prefrontal cortex with attention. The prefrontal cortex (executive function control) does a lot, including keeping information in mind and organizing and planning decisions. Gifted underachievers are commonly misdiagnosed as having ADHD, but few people seem to mention the fact that if they were truly inattentive (poor attention for anything), how could they know so much? The answer is they know so much because their attention is really OK, its really information retrieval that has trouble getting going, and most will usually have no problem with testing formats that emphasize recognition memory like multiple choice.
Don't forget, too that prefrontal cortex is very slow to develop in some kids - including many very bright kids and dyslexics. For more reading, check out the links below.
Role of Prefrontal and Parietal Cortices in Associative Learning
Eide Neurolearning: The Blessings and the Burdens of High IQ
Eide Neurolearning: Who is Smart?
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Parietal Prodigies?: Superior Intelligence in the Parietal Lobe?
Eide Neurolearning: Understanding the Two Executives in Your Brain
Eide Neurolearning: Biology of Late Bloomers