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Soc Psychol Educ (2011) 14:1–22

DOI 10.1007/s11218-010-9137-8

A picture is worth a thousand words: a comparison

of pupils’ images of intelligence in Finnish
and Russian Karelia

Hannu Räty · Katri Komulainen ·

Nina Skorokhodova · Vadim Kolesnikov ·
Anna Hämäläinen

Received: 6 October 2009 / Accepted: 16 June 2010 / Published online: 14 July 2010
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Abstract The study set out to examine Finnish and Russian children’s images of
intelligence as contextualized in the systems of the school and gender. Finnish and
Russian pupils, aged 11–12 years, were asked to draw pictures of an intelligent and an
ordinary pupil and a good and an ordinary pupil. A distinctive feature shared by the
children in both countries was that intelligent pupils were depicted as positively orien-
tated to knowledge and studies and as similar to good pupils. The Russian children’s
pictures emphasized academic performance, suggesting that the contribution of the
school to children’s representations was greater in Russia than in Finland. In regard
to gender appearance, the intelligent pupil was usually pictured in gender-neutral or
childish features, suggesting that being defined as intellectually competent entailed
deviating from the heterosexual ideal. In the discussion, the ambivalence associated
with social definitions of intelligence is addressed.

Keywords Social representations of intelligence · Children · Cross-national

comparison · Gender · School

H. Räty (B) · K. Komulainen · A. Hämäläinen

Department of Education and Psychology, University of Eastern Finland, P.O. Box 111,
Joensuu 80101, Finland

N. Skorokhodova
Department of Education and Psychology, Karelian State Pedagogical Academy,
Petrozavodsk, Russia

V. Kolesnikov
Department of General Psychology, Karelian State Pedagogical Academy,
Petrozavodsk, Russia

2 H. Räty et al.

1 Introduction

Being competent oneself and identifying competence in others are culturally relative
phenomena, which can be understood in terms of the prevailing values, practices, and
prototypes of the cultural group. In the Western world, competence is usually under-
stood as intelligence (Plaut and Markus 2005). Notions of intelligence also form an
important part of the definitions of social hierarchies and intergroup relations. This is
well demonstrated in the public as well as scientific discussions in which the relation-
ships of intelligence to various cultural, social, ethnic, and gender-related divisions
are repeatedly and passionately addressed (Jahoda 1992). Any examination of notions
of competence is essentially an examination of their social dimensions, including
social power: who is entitled to define the most valued aspect of competence, that of
As the concept of intelligence is part of the social fabric, children learning the con-
cept will also learn something significant about their society. This makes it interesting
to explore how social orders and related meanings are reflected in children’s concep-
tions. The present study set out to examine how ‘the social’ is involved in children’s
images of intelligence by analyzing drawings of an intelligent and an ordinary pupil,
made by school children representing two different social, educational, and national
contexts: eastern Finland (North Karelia) and northwestern Russia (Russian Karelia).
As the development of knowledge in childhood is a process of socialization in which
children are introduced to the ways of thinking that are current in their society (Emler
and Ohana 1993), we hoped to ‘read’ in the children’s drawings the notions of compe-
tence to which they were being socialized. Given that the present study is an explorative
one, we defined it as a cross-national rather than cross-cultural comparison without
leaning on any specific cultural factors or theories in explicating our findings.
Social representations influence social behaviour by means of “natural environ-
ments”, i.e., by representing the taken-for-granted reality (Moscovici 2000); that
results from the adoption process of the representations and the importance they have
for the social identity and the values of the group. Given that social reality consists
of interpretations that often conflict, a group’s relationship to other groups tends to
structure its social representations, too. This holds for the representations of intel-
ligence in particular. Though cognitive-verbal activities are commonly understood
to constitute the essence of ‘genuine intelligence’, different groups and individuals
may well position themselves differently in regard to this culturally hegemonic notion
(cf. Clémance 2001). The predominant notion of intelligence is contested and resisted
in the school as well (Gorman 1998). In our scrutiny of the children’s drawings, we
were therefore also interested in finding potentially critical or polemical elements.
The relatively scant research on children’s conceptions of intelligence has mainly
focused on tracing age-related changes in the ways the formation of these concepts
corresponds to the patterns of cognitive development (e.g., Nicholls et al. 1986). We
adopted a social-psychological approach and looked at children’s images of intelli-
gence as social representations, which can be defined as the ways in which the members
of a social category understand something regarded as important (Mugny and Carugati
1989). Pictorial elements are an important part of social representations, for they reflect
deep-rooted social and cultural meanings. For instance, as de Rosa (1987) observed,

A picture is worth a thousand words 3

many pivotal iconic aspects that have been used to define mental illness for centuries
can still be traced in children’s drawings of the mentally ill person. Children in par-
ticular can be expected to reveal in their drawings the symbolic aspects they attach to
social topics (Cox 2005; Chambers 1983). Our starting point was, then, that in their
drawings the children would lean on the iconic resources of their culture transmitted
through the media, advertisements, films, and cartoons (de Rosa 2001).
The question of how the social is reflected in children’s images of intelligence was
explored in two ways: first, in what ways the social was organized into the contents
of the representations, i.e., whether the images of intelligence revealed hierarchies
pertaining to the status of different competencies in terms of cognitive, verbal, social,
practical, and other skills, and second, in what ways the representations were organized
by social position, i.e., whether the images displayed by the children differed according
to the child’s gender.
Concerning the content of children’s conceptions of intelligence, Yussen and Cane
(1983) noted that younger children emphasize social skills as the key elements of
intelligence whereas older children and adults emphasize the role of verbal-cogni-
tive skills. When children begin their formal schooling, they soon adopt the cog-
nitive-verbal notion of intelligence represented by the school and begin to evaluate
themselves and their classmates on the basis of academic criteria (Droege and Stipek
1993; Räty et al. 1999). Thus academic success and the verbal-cognitive competencies
required and valued at school may well play a major role in pupils’ representations
of intelligence. This particular institutional representation not only defines the status
hierarchy of abilities in terms of school subjects (Goodson and Marsh 1996) but also
defines intelligence as an essentially differential attribute of the individual (Danziger
1990). The school’s differential routines, normative assessment in particular, effec-
tively teach the pupils what proper intelligence is and that everyone cannot be equally
intelligent (Rosenholtz and Simpson 1984).
As regards the role of the pupil’s gender in the formation of representations of
competence, it is part of our culturally predominant notion of intelligence that males
are expected to surpass females in the cognitive domain, whereas females are expected
to surpass males in the verbal-social domain. This ‘gender-splitting of rationality’, as
Walkerdine (1990) calls it, shows up in children’s ideas of intelligence, too. Research
on choices and preferences among school subjects and related self-evaluations has
shown that boys and girls acquire a gender-marked notion of abilities quite early on
(Eccles et al. 1991).
Räty and Snellman (1997) asked a group of Finnish elementary school pupils to
draw a picture of an intelligent and an ordinary person. For the boys, the prototype of an
intelligent person was unequivocally a male, usually an adult one. In comparison, the
girls pictured adults and children, males and females, more equally. In another study,
a group of primary-school children representing different grade levels were requested
to choose the best pupils of their respective classes in Finnish and mathematics (Räty
et al. 2004). In Finnish, the children favoured their own gender in their choices, while
in mathematics, the boys chose only boys from the second grade on, and the girls
started choosing mostly boys from the fourth grade on—despite the fact that boys and
girls do equally well in mathematics (Kupari 1996). Furthermore, mathematics is the
subject in which parents’ gender-bound expectations are the most in evidence, and

4 H. Räty et al.

this tendency shows a measure of cross-cultural generalizability, too (Lummins and

Stevenson 1990; Chamorro-Premuzic et al. 2009).
Accordingly, boys’ and girls’ views of intelligence may well develop in different
ways: girls’ views are formed in relation to a non-feminine, ‘other’ culture, whereas
boys’ views are formed in relation to their own masculine culture (Lloyd and Duveen
1992). As Francis and Skelton (2005) maintain, the powerful link between female
academic attainment and asexuality causes girls a particular tension between social
and academic success. According to Walkerdine (1990), academically successful girls
must identify with the Other, often at a cost to their femininity. This phenomenon is also
seen in the common-sense prototypes of adult intelligent females, who are expected
to show traditionally non-feminine assertive social skills (Räty and Snellman 1992).
In comparison, the prototype of the intelligent adult male turned out to be a professor
type, characterized merely by his exceptional cognitive abilities and lacking typical
heterosexual features. Thus our cultural model of the intelligent person, whether male
or female, seems to differ from the predominant heterosexual ideals by being somehow
a less masculine or less feminine human being.
We may conclude that the predominant social representation of intelligence is inti-
mately connected with gender (in terms of expected differences between boys and
girls) and the school (in terms of its subject system and the related differential notion
of abilities). As it is fruitful to contextualize children’s images of intelligence in the
systems of gender and education, it may be informative to briefly sketch some salient
features of these systems in Finland and Russia.

1.1 Features of the Finnish and Russian systems of compulsory education

and gender

In cross-national comparisons it is useful to pay attention to the “differentiating rit-

uals” as Valsiner (1989) calls them, i.e., the ways in which the school’s definition
of intelligence shows up in educational practices such as assessment and streaming,
through which the children tend to adopt this notion; yet another related factor to
consider is the school’s and the teacher’s authority to define the child’s intelligence.
Russian obligatory education has undergone radical changes, albeit there are still
powerful continuities from the Soviet era and even from further back (Laihiala-
Kankainen 2000). The present school is orientated to more individualized instruction
stressing children’s interests, self-realization, and choice; yet the tradition of collectiv-
istic values and related pedagogy are still alive and well (Muckle 1990). In international
comparison, the Russian elementary school and the teacher’s authority are relatively
strong, partly because the school is seen as a key agent in overall citizenship education,
including substantial cultural and moral values (Alexander 2000); in issues of educa-
tion, teachers also wield authority in relation to parents (Laihiala-Kankainen 1998).
The role of the school in raising good citizens is generally acknowledged in Finland,
too, but there is a widely shared view that the upbringing of children is primarily the
task of the homes and the school should concentrate on teaching skills and knowledge
(Metso 2004). Also, as in Russia, teacher-centredness and teacher control have been
a relatively stable feature of the Finnish school culture, though in the current Finnish

A picture is worth a thousand words 5

comprehensive school the teacher is far from the authoritarian figure s/he used to be
(Räty 2003). This reflects a general and substantial shift towards a more discussion
and negotiation culture of upbringing (Korhonen 2002).
An illustrative example of the differences between the Russian and the Finnish
educational culture is offered by the experiences of present-day Russian emigrants
to Finland. According to Laihiala-Kankainen’s (1998) ethnographic observations, the
clearest differences show up in the role of the teacher and the pupil. Russian children
find it hard to grasp that pupils can call their teachers by their first names and even
criticize them openly and that teachers, too, tend to have familiar relationship with
their pupils. Russians feel that Finnish pupils lack proper manners and a respectful
attitude towards adults. In Finnish culture, children are treated as more or less equals
and are encouraged to develop independence and autonomy from early on. Laihiala-
Kankainen (1998) notes, referring to Hofstede, that such educational principles are
typical for countries with a narrow power distance. To Russian emigrant pupils, the
freedom of Finnish schools implies a lack of discipline, whereas Finnish teachers
associate it with the advancement of pupil responsibility.
The Soviet school was characterized by a culture of rather explicit pupil assess-
ment. For instance, Muckle (1990) reported a practice in many Soviet schools of
prominently displaying photographs of pupils who had achieved top grades in all sub-
jects. Alexander (2000) observed that current Russian primary school teachers usually
employ mainly oral (i.e., public) classroom assessments and that in self-assessments,
too, the pupils similarly score their own performance and the class is invited to col-
lectively register their agreement or disagreement with the answers and explanations
given. In Finland, teachers correct the pupil’s self-assessment with the pupil alone and
actually try to prevent the results of examinations from becoming public among their
pupils (Kasanen and Räty 2002). The Soviet Union also practised streaming, which
became a debated issue when the system of special schools for talented children was
extended to include physics, mathematics and modern languages. In the Finnish com-
prehensive school there is relatively little differentiation, and it is carried out within the
comprehensive school system. As Peter Mortimore (2008) argues in the “Education
Guardian”, “[T]he Finns believe that if a teacher has a low expectation, he or she will
elicit a low performance, which is why Finland has abolished all forms of streaming in
its lower secondary schools. Finland outperformed all other countries both attaining
high average scores and achieving the most equity for a third time in the latest results
from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.”
Finland shifted to the comprehensive school system in the early 1970s, strongly
motivated by the Nordic model of the welfare state and its emphasis on social equal-
ity (Antikainen 2006). Educational equity is widely supported by the parents (Räty
et al. 1996), which reflects shared faith in the power of education (Jauhiainen and
Alho-Malmelin 2004). The Finnish comprehensive school has also succeeded in its
objectives, for large-scale international comparisons indicate that the variance in learn-
ing outcomes among schools and pupils of different social backgrounds is small (PISA
2005). In Russia there is, or at least was in the Soviet period, paradoxically substantial
inequality of educational attainments related to the parents’ education and occupation
(Gerber and Hout 1995).

6 H. Räty et al.

Regarding gender culture, the Finnish gender contract shifted in the 1950s and 1960s
from ‘women’s social maternity’ to ‘wage work maternity.’ In comparison, there was
a single dominant Soviet gender contract, that of the ‘wage-working mother’, with
the emphasis on the last word (Temkina and Rotkirch 1997). However, there was
also a shadow gender contract. Though the Soviet ideology was sexless and androg-
ynous, the division between the public man’s sphere and the private woman’s sphere
was implicitly emphasized. One of the results of the shadow contract was feminine
appearance: ‘looking feminine’ and obtaining hard-to-get stylish clothes also signi-
fied a personal triumph over state-imposed norms and consumer priorities (Holmgren
1995). According to Temkina and Rotkirch (1997), there has been a sharp change in
Russian society, so that the Russian feminine ideal of the 1990s is almost the opposite
of the ideal woman of the Soviet 1950s. The shadow gender contract has become
more articulated and serves as the main base for the expected kinds of behaviour.
The transformation in current Russian society is accompanied by the enhancement of
traditional gender values in the family (Sinisalo and Nummenmaa 2000) and in the
articulation of feminine ideals with their values of female sex appeal and consumer
In contrast to Russia, there is a high level of agreement in Finland that the woman’s
place is at wage work. Many other attitudes, too, are quite egalitarian, although social
practices still tend to strongly segregate the genders (e.g., educational and occupational
divisions). According to Julkunen (1999), perhaps the most prominent idea in Finnish
mentality is gender neutrality, the idea that things depend on ‘one’s self’, not on one’s
gender. Gender neutrality is also part of the official ideology of Finnish compulsory
education (Gordon et al. 2000).
To recapitulate, as the school has an important role in defining intelligence, we
expected this to show up in the children’s drawings, too, as an emphasis on academic
achievement and conduct. As the school has more authority and pupil assessment is
conducted in more explicit ways in Russia than in Finland, we assumed that the role of
the school in defining the child’s intelligence would be more manifest in the drawings
of the Russian pupils than those of the Finnish ones. Given that intelligence is cul-
turally defined as a predominantly internal-mental (cognitive) attribute, we excepted
the gender appearance of the intelligent pupil to differ from that of the ordinary one
in being less heterosexual; and further, as intelligence (rationality) is considered to
belong to the male domain, we expected the girls to emphasize this asexualization in
their drawings more than the boys would. And finally, as the woman’s role is deter-
mined in more traditional ways in Russia than in Finland and Russian women tend
to share this view, we assumed that the gender difference in the images of the intelli-
gent and the ordinary pupil would be the most evident in the drawings of the Russian
As there has been both public and scholarly debate on whether school performance
can be regarded as a valid sign of intelligence, we examined if the children’s images of
the intelligent pupil would differ from those of the good pupil. This is a gender issue,
too, given that girls’ superior school performance is commonly explained as not based
on their talent but rather on their diligence and conformity to school norms (Eccles
et al. 1991).

A picture is worth a thousand words 7

2 Method

2.1 Participants

The participants were pupils from Finnish and Russian Karelia, which are geograph-
ically relatively close to one another but quite distinct from each other in terms of
their culture, religion, political system, language, ethnicity, and the standard of living
although there has been and still is multifarious interaction between them and even
the state border has moved somewhat in the course of history (Melin 2005). Though
there are a good many ethnic minority groups in both Karelias, the pupils in this study
represented Finnish and Russian majority cultures.
Two separate but comparable sets of data were gathered. In the first set, pupils
drew pictures of an intelligent and an ordinary pupil, and in the second, of a good
and an ordinary pupil. The participants in the first data set were Finnish elementary
school pupils (N = 60) aged 11–12 years, 24 boys and 31 girls, from two different
classes in two comprehensive schools in Finnish Karelia (Joensuu urban region), and
Russian elementary school pupils (N = 58), aged 11–12 years, 30 boys and 28 girls,
from four different classes in three public schools in Russian Karelia (Petrozavodsk
urban region).
In the second data set, the participants were a group of Finnish elementary school
pupils (N = 47), aged 11–12 years, 22 boys and 25 girls, from two different classes
in two comprehensive schools in the same region as the first Finnish sample, and a
group of Russian elementary school pupils (N = 58), aged 11–12 years, 35 boys and
23 girls, from four classes in two public schools in the same region as the first Russian
sample. All schools selected represented ordinary schools, i.e., they were not special
or private schools.

2.2 Procedure

During regular lessons, research assistants requested the pupils to draw pictures of an
intelligent and an ordinary pupil or a good and an ordinary pupil. No details, examples,
or reference materials were made available. Both pictures were drawn on the same
sheet of paper (size 20 cm × 30 cm). The task took about 20–30 min to complete,
and the children did the drawings willingly. The instruction read, “There are no right
or wrong answers. Please draw freely what comes into your mind. Draw alone, do not
look at what your friend is drawing. The drawings are collected for research purposes
only. They will not be evaluated by your teacher.” After the drawing, the children
were asked to write a few words about why they drew the particular characters and
to mark their age and class but not their name in the bottom right-hand corner of the
In Finnish the word for ‘pupil’ is gender-neutral, but in Russian it is different for
boys (‘uchenik’) and girls (‘uchenitsa’). Therefore we formulated the instruction for
both national groups in the following way: the children were asked to draw a picture
of “an intelligent boy pupil or an intelligent girl pupil” or “an intelligent girl pupil or
an intelligent boy pupil”. One half of each class were given the first variant and the

8 H. Räty et al.

other half, the second variant. The same procedure was used for the drawings of a
good and an ordinary pupil.
The drawings were subjected to a content analysis with the coding categories deter-
mined on the basis of a previous study (Räty and Snellman 1997) and the data itself.
The coding categories and related subcategories for the characteristics of the target
persons were as follows:
Gender: boy, girl, undifferentiated
Hairstyle: short, little hair, grown (overlong), spiky, punk (Iroquois hairdo), open
and straight, open and curly, ponytail, pigtails (on both sides), braids, other
Clothes: casual (simple, plain), formal (a suit, a tie), fashionable (up-to-date, trendy,
faddish clothes), sporty (e.g., brand-name)
Hat: no hat, academic or fancy hat, cap, other
Eyeglasses: eyeglasses, sunglasses
Face: make-up (apparent), freckles, smile, comical (big and crooked teeth, big ears)
Jewellery (e.g., necklace, earrings)
Bag: backbag (school bag), briefcase, handbag (purse)
Setting: no setting, school-related, other
Activity: conducive and favourable schoolwork (reading, writing, doing math, having
an idea), putting up one’s hand, distracting schoolwork (concentrating on something
other than school tasks, unsuccessfully doing math, sleeping, bullying, talking), non-
school-related, no activity
Grades: excellent, good or average, poor, no grades shown
Gender appearance: gender-neutral, feminine in a childish way, feminine in an adult
way, masculine in a childish way, masculine in an adult way.
The judgment of the target’s gender appearance was based on a general impression
in which we considered the following features in particular:
Feminine in a childish way: hairstyle (pigtails or braids), casual clothes (unfash-
ionable clothes or clothes with childish symbols such as animals), formal clothes
(skirt and school uniform in drawings made by Russian pupils), face (freckles
or no make-up), no jewellery, bag (backbag), and body (no breasts or marked
Feminine in an adult way: hairstyle (open and straight or open and curly, pony-
tail), clothes (fashionable), eyeglasses (sunglasses), face (make-up), jewellery,
bag (handbag), and body (breasts, curvy).
Masculine in a childish way: hairstyle (short or little hair), clothes (casual or
sporty), face (comical), bag (backbag), and body (no marked muscles).
Masculine in an adult way: hairstyle (grown, spiky, punk or open), clothes (fash-
ionable or sporty), hat (cap), eyeglasses (sunglasses), bag (briefcase), and body
Gender-neutral: whether a boy or a girl: hair (short or open and straight), clothes
(casual), face (no make-up, no freckles, not comical), and body (no overt physical
signs of femininity or masculinity).
The characteristics were identified dichotomously in terms of the coding categories
(0 = not present, 1 = present). The primary coding was done by the Finnish researchers
with help from a native Russian consultant who knew the Russian school culture and

A picture is worth a thousand words 9

youth fashion and also translated the children’s written comments. The comments were
used to clarify the codings but were not examined systematically because not all chil-
dren wrote any. To measure the reliability of the primary coding, 40 randomly selected
pictures—20 from each national data set—representing a total of approximately 2,000
codings were re-rated by an independent Russian rater and an independent Finnish
rater. The inter-rater reliability obtained with the Russian rater was 94% and with the
Finnish rater, 98%.

3 Results

3.1 Gender and the intelligent pupil

The gender of the intelligent and the ordinary pupil drawn was strongly associated
with the gender of the drawer (see Table 1): the pupils preferred their own gender as
instances of the intelligent pupil in both the Finnish group, X 2 (1) = 36.7, p < 0.001,
and the Russian group, X 2 (1) = 33.1, p < 0.001. Similarly, the pupils favoured their
own gender as instances of the ordinary person in both the Finnish group, X 2 (1) = 37.5,
p < 0.001, and the Russian group, X 2 (1) = 32.0, p < 0.001. There were no significant
differences between the Finnish and the Russian children in the gender of the intelligent
pupil, X 2 (1) = 2.85, p > 0.10, nor in the gender of the ordinary pupil, X 2 (1) = 0.01,
p > 0.10.
Since the choice of the gender of the intelligent and the ordinary pupil depended
on the gender of the drawer, we decided to compare the portrayals of intelligent and
ordinary pupils by controlling both the drawer’s and the target’s gender. Thus we
compared the pictures of intelligent and ordinary girls drawn by the Finnish girls and
pictures of intelligent and ordinary boys drawn by the Finnish boys, and the same
comparisons were made with the pictures drawn by the Russian girls and boys. The
McNemar test for related samples was used to detect significant differences, and the
Exact method was used to compute statistical significance.

Table 1 The gender of the intelligent and the ordinary pupil by the drawer’s gender among the Finnish
and the Russian children

Finnish Russian
Boys Girls Total Boys Girls Total
n = 28 n = 30 n = 58 n = 33 n = 36 n = 69

Intelligent pupil
Boy 26 4 30 24 2 26
Girl 2 26 28 9 34 43
Ordinary pupil n = 28 n = 31 n = 59 n = 32 n = 36 n = 68
Boy 24 2 28 27 3 30
Girl 4 29 31 5 33 38
For the picture of the intelligent pupil, one Finnish boy, one Finnish girl, and one Russian boy drew a figure
whose gender could not be determined, and for the picture of the ordinary pupil, one Finnish boy and two
Russian boys drew a figure whose gender could not be determined

10 H. Räty et al.

3.2 What distinguished the intelligent pupil from the ordinary one

A characteristic shared by all groups was that the intelligent pupil was depicted as
wearing eyeglasses much more frequently than the ordinary pupil: 52% of the pic-
tured intelligent pupils wore eyeglasses while the corresponding percentage for the
ordinary pupils was only 4% (see Table 2). Yet another shared distinguishing feature

Table 2 Characteristics of the intelligent boys and girls by the drawer’s nationality and gender among the
Finnish and the Russian children

Characteristics Russian boys Russian girls Finnish boys Finnish girls

n = 20 n = 32 n = 23 n = 24
Intelligent Ordinary Intelligent Ordinary Intelligent Ordinary Intelligent Ordinary

Short 17 14 0 0 12 9 0 0
Little hair 3 0 0 0 6 2 0 0
Grown 1o 7o 0 0 4 6 0 0
Spiky 1 5 0 0 1 4 0 0
Punk 0 2 0 1 0 1 0 0
Open and 0 0 6o 14o 0 0 14 15
Curly 0 0 0** 9** 0 0 1 0
Ponytail 0 0 4 1 0 0 3 3
Pigtails 0 0 13 7 0 0 3 5
Braids 0 0 9** 0** 0 0 3 0
Other 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 1
Casual 16 18 9 8 18 12 18** 7**
Formal 4 2 19*** 2*** 2 0 1 0
Fashionable 0 2 1*** 19*** 0 4 5** 17**
Sporty 0 0 0 2 0 0 1
Eyeglasses 9** 0** 16*** 2*** 15*** 0*** 13*** 1***
Sunglasses 1 0 0 2 0 1 0 1
Make-up 0 0 11 16 0 0 4 8
Freckles 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
Smile 9 8 11 12 15 10 14 12
Comical 2 0 0 0 7** 0** 0 0
Jewellery 0 4 3 9 0 0 4 9
Backbag 4 3 7o 2o 3 1 1 0
Briefcase 0 0 7** 0** 0 0 1 0
Handbag 0 0 0** 10** 0 0 3 2

A picture is worth a thousand words 11

Table 2 Continued

Characteristics Russian boys Russian girls Finnish boys Finnish girls

n = 20 n = 32 n = 23 n = 24
Intelligent Ordinary Intelligent Ordinary Intelligent Ordinary Intelligent Ordinary

No setting 11o 16o 17 21 16 15 14 17
School-related 9o 4o 15* 9* 7 4 8o 3o
Other 1 1 0 2 0 2 2 4
Conducive 8** 0** 9** 0** 6* 0* 7** 0**
Putting up 3 0 5o 0o 0 0 2 0
one’s hand
Distracting 0 2 0 4 0 4 0 3
school work
Non-school 0 3 0 4 0 1 0 2
No activity 13 16 23 24 17 18 17 19
Excellent 3 0 8** 0** 0 0 1 0
Good or average 0 1 0o 5o 0 0 0 1
Poor 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
No grades shown 18 20 24 27 23 23 23 23
Gender appearance
Gender-neutral 16 12 1 3 20** 10** 6* 0*
Feminine in a 0 0 30*** 17*** 0 0 15 21
childish way
Feminine in 0 0 1*** 12*** 0 0 3 3
an adult way
Masculine in 3 8 0 0 0*** 13*** 0 0
a childish way
Masculine in 2 1 0 0 3 0 0 0
an adult way
o p < 0.06 * p < 0.05 ** p < 0.01 *** p < 0.001 according to the McNemar test (2-tailed)
The category of Hat was excluded because a great majority of the pupils (94–100%) drew their figures
without any hat

was that the intelligent pupils (42%) were pictured in a school-related setting more
often than the ordinary ones (19%). Further, the school activity of intelligent pupils
was portrayed in many cases as conducive (29%) while this feature was totally lacking
in the pictures of ordinary pupils.
Regardless of the gender of the intelligent pupils drawn, gender neutrality turned
out to be a differentiating feature between the intelligent and the ordinary pupil in

12 H. Räty et al.

the pictures drawn both by the Finnish girls (25%) and, in particular, by the Finnish
boys (87 %). Almost all (94%) of the pictures of intelligent girls drawn by the Russian
girls were depicted as feminine in a childish way; among the Russian boys, gender
neutrality did not differentiate between the pictures of intelligent (67%) and ordinary
pupils (63%), nor did childlike masculine appearance (25% and 33%, respectively).
The pictures drawn by the girls in both countries had a common focus on clothing.
In the girls’ pictures, intelligent girls were less often dressed in fashionable clothes
than ordinary girls. The boys in the two countries had no common characteristics in
their pictures, except that there were fewer differentiating characteristics than in the
girls’ pictures.
In terms of the number of distinguishing characteristics, the Russian girls made the
most clear-cut distinction between intelligent and ordinary girls. In their drawings, the
intelligent girls differed from the ordinary girls by having braids, formal clothes, eye-
glasses, a backbag and a briefcase more often, while the ordinary girls were depicted
as having open and straight or curly hair, fashionable clothes and a purse more often;
moreover, the intelligent girls were more frequently pictured as childishly feminine,
while the ordinary girls were more frequently drawn as feminine in an adult way;
furthermore, the intelligent girls were depicted as putting their hand up in the class
and getting excellent marks. Although the Finnish girls, like the Russian girls, asso-
ciated fashionable clothes more frequently with the ordinary girls, they depicted the
intelligent girls not as formally but casually dressed and their gender appearance not
as childishly feminine but gender-neutral. And though they depicted the intelligent
girls as having a positive attitude towards school, their school performance was not
brought up explicitly.
In their pictures, the Russian boys distinguished the intelligent boys from the ordi-
nary ones only in terms of wearing eyeglasses and positively conducive schoolwork.
A particular feature of the pictures drawn by the Finnish boys was the assigning of
comical features to the faces of the intelligent boys.

3.3 What distinguished between the Finnish and the Russian images
of the intelligent pupil

We compared the pictures of the intelligent girl drawn by the Russian and the Finnish
children (girls, mostly), and similarly, the pictures of the intelligent boy drawn by
the Russian and the Finnish children (boys, mostly). When a significant difference
emerged, we checked whether the same difference showed up in the pictures of the
ordinary pupil, too. In this way we ensured that the differences we found were cross-
national differences in the images of intelligence, not ones in the images of the school
pupil in general.
In the pictures of the intelligent girls, the significant cross-national differences
pertained mainly to appearance and clothing. The Finnish children drew intelligent
girls dressed in casual clothing (71%) more often than the Russian children did
(42 %), X 2 (1) = 7.52, p < 0.01, and in fashionable clothing (21 %) more often than the
Russian children did (5%), X 2 (1) = 4.77, p < 0.05, whereas the Russian children drew
formally dressed intelligent girls (47%) more frequently than the Finnish children

A picture is worth a thousand words 13

did (4%), X 2 (1) = 15.01, p < 0.001. In addition there were a few marginally signifi-
cant differences: the Finnish children tended to picture intelligent girls with open and
straight hair (61%) more often than the Russian children did (37%), X 2 (1) = 3.76,
p < 0.09, whereas the Russian children tended to picture intelligent girls with pigtails
(33%) more often than the Finnish children did (25%), X 2 (1) = 2.99, p < 0.10; the
Russian children also tended to attach a backpack to their drawings more frequently
(21 %) than the Finnish children did (4%), X 2 (1) = 4.22, p <0.08. All these differences
showed up in the pictures of the intelligent girls only. Moreover, the Finnish children
tended to attach a handbag to their pictures of the intelligent girl more often (11%) than
the Russian children did (0%), X 2 (1) = 4.81, p < 0.06, whereas the Russian children
tended to include a handbag in their pictures of the ordinary pupil (23%) more often
than the Finns did (7%), X 2 (1) = 5.16, p < 0.05.
In the pictures of the intelligent boys, the significant cross-national differences
pertained mainly to appearance and school achievement. The Finnish children drew
intelligent boys with eyeglasses more frequently (70%) than the Russian children
did (42 %), X 2 (1) = 4.36, p < 0.06, and with comical faces (30%) more often than
the Russian children did (8%), X 2 (1) = 4.39, p < 0.05, whereas the Russian children
(77%) pictured short-haired intelligent boys more often than the Finnish children did
(50%), X 2 (1) = 4.31, p < 0.05. Additionally, there were a few marginally significant
differences: the Russian children tended to draw intelligent boys who put their hand
up in class (12%) more frequently than the Finnish children did (0%), X 2 (1) = 3.66,
p < 0.09, and the Russian children (12%) tended to show excellent grades in their pic-
tures more often than the Finnish children did (0 %), X 2 (1) = 3.66, p < 0.09, while the
Finnish children tended to exclude grades from their pictures more often (100%) than
the Russians did (88%), X 2 s24 (1) = 3.66, p < 0.09. All these differences showed up
in the pictures of the intelligent boys only.

3.4 What distinguished an intelligent pupil from a good one

The gender of the good pupil (and of the ordinary one, too) was significantly associ-
ated with the gender of the artist: the pupils preferred their own gender as instances
of the good pupil in both the Finnish group, X 2 (1) = 39.17, p < 0.001, and the Rus-
sian group, X 2 (1) = 24.66, p < 0.001. There were no significant differences between
the Finnish and the Russian children in the gender of the good pupil, X 2 (1) = 1.40,
p > 0.10.
Since the choice of the gender of the intelligent and the good pupil depended so
strongly on the gender of the drawer, we compared the pictures of intelligent and good
girls drawn by the Finnish girls (n = 52) and the pictures of intelligent and good boys
drawn by the Finnish boys (n = 45) and made the same comparisons with the Russian
girls (n = 60) and boys (n = 43).
Wearing eyeglasses was the only characteristic that significantly separated the intel-
ligent pupils from the good pupils drawn by the Finnish girls (15 vs 1), X 2 (1) = 17.69,
p < 0.001, the Russian girls (16 vs 2), X 2 (1) = 10.87, p < 0.001, and the Russian boys
(9 vs 2), X 2 (1) = 4.05, p < 0.08. Among the Finnish boys, wearing eyeglasses was not
a statistically significant ( p > 0.22) distinguishing feature, but they attached a comical

14 H. Räty et al.

face to the intelligent pupils more often than to the good pupils (9 vs 0), X 2 (1) = 8.22,
p < 0.01, and childish gender appearance to the good pupils more often than to the
intelligent ones (7 vs 1), X 2 (1) = 8.18, p < 0.01.

3.5 Illustrative cases of children’s drawings

For illustration, we selected four representative pictures, one from each subgroup of
children and each portraying both an intelligent and an ordinary pupil. The first picture
was drawn by a Finnish boy (Fig. 1). The intelligent boy was categorized as gender-
neutral, wearing big eyeglasses and holding a history book and a pen in his hands. The
text in his t-shirt read, “Down with sports!”, and the drawer commented, “A nerd, that
is, a wise one, and he’s intelligent because he does nothing but read!” The ordinary
boy, wearing sports clothes (“Nike”), was categorized as masculine in a childish way,
and he was holding a poster saying “Down with nerds!” The artist commented, “An
ordinary one is like this because he doesn’t read so much”. The second picture was
drawn by a Finnish girl (Fig. 2). The gender appearance of the intelligent girl was
categorized as feminine in a childish way, whereas her ordinary peer was categorized
as feminine in an adult way as she was portrayed with an adult body shape accom-
panied with corresponding dress and make-up; further, her hair is open and stylish in
comparison with the intelligent girl, whose hair is tied with a ribbon. Neither pupil is
portrayed in the school context or in any specific activity. The drawer’s comment on
the intelligent girl read, “I’m not quite sure why I drew this kind of picture. She just
looks intelligent”, and on the ordinary girl, she had this to say: “This just looks like
an ordinary one. That’s the kind of ordinary girls I have seen most.”
The third picture was drawn by a Russian boy (Fig. 3). He portrayed both the intel-
ligent and the ordinary pupil in the same position, and the appearance of both was

Fig. 1 Intelligent boy (left) and ordinary boy (right), drawn by a Finnish boy. The drawer’s comments are
translated in the picture

A picture is worth a thousand words 15

Fig. 2 Intelligent girl (left) and ordinary girl (right), drawn by a Finnish girl. The drawer’s comments are
translated in the picture

categorized as gender-neutral. The intelligent boy was wearing eyeglasses and carry-
ing a school bag, whereas the ordinary boy had a sandwich and a cola can in his hands.
The fourth picture was drawn by a Russian girl, who portrayed the intelligent girl as
wearing a (school) backbag and holding a test report in her right hand, showing that
she had got the top mark (“5”), and a textbook of Russian in her left hand (Fig. 4). Her
gender appearance was categorized as feminine in a childish way, while her ordinary
peer was categorized as feminine in an adult way in that her body was depicted as
more curvy, she was wearing a short skirt with an ample belt, and her hair was open;
further, she was not engaged in studying but carrying a foreign magazine (‘Cool’).

4 Discussion

Children’s drawings, turning out to be social, not haphazardly individual, representa-

tions within the intertwining systems of the school and gender, proved to be a useful
way of scrutinizing the contents of their images of intelligence. Though the distinction
between the intelligent and the ordinary was explicated in the method, our participants
seemed to identify intelligence as a particular form of competence and even a way
of life and mental outlook that differed from the ordinary. As a Russian girl wrote
on her paper, “Intelligent persons have nothing but studying in their minds”, whereas
“normal people study passing well and do all things passing well”.
Our findings indicated that regardless of the participants’ country and gender, they
typically pictured the intelligent pupil, whether boy or girl, as wearing eyeglasses.

16 H. Räty et al.

Fig. 3 An intelligent boy (left) and an ordinary boy (right) drawn by a Russian boy. The intelligent one is
carrying a school bag and wears eyeglasses, whereas the ordinary one holds a sandwich and a cola can

Fig. 4 An intelligent girl (left) and an ordinary girl (right) drawn by a Russian girl. The intelligent girl is
holding a test report with a top mark “5” and a textbook in Russian. The ordinary girl is carrying a foreign

A picture is worth a thousand words 17

In Western culture, eyeglasses are regarded as an archetypal sign of a “bookworm”,

a person absorbed in mental activity (Harris 1991). As another Russian girl wrote,
“Intelligent people read a lot, that’s why they have eyeglasses.” The symbolic impor-
tance of eyeglasses also emerged in our observation that a great majority of the partic-
ipants separated the intelligent pupils from the good pupils merely by portraying them
with eyeglasses. Yet another distinctive and cross-nationally shared pictorial feature
was that the intelligent pupil was portrayed in the school milieu and his/her attitude
to school as a favourable one. This contextualisation can be seen to reflect a cogni-
tive-verbal emphasis in the definition of intelligence, an overriding trait of our culture
(Danziger 1990).
Admittedly, our study was conducted at school and the instructions given were
prone to invite the participants to portray the target child in the school context. Yet
that context was more manifest in the drawings of the intelligent pupil than in those
of the ordinary one. Apart from the eyeglasses, the children’s images of the intelligent
and the good pupil were practically identical to one another in both countries, which
further highlights the role of the school in defining intelligence according to academic
criteria (Rosenholtz and Simpson 1984).
As expected, the role of the school turned out to be more important in the Russian
than in the Finnish representations: the Russian boys and girls were inclined to empha-
size excellent grades and positive class activity in their pictures of intelligent pupils,
whether boys or girls. This cross-national difference is probably associated with pupil
evaluation and ranking being more explicit in Russian than in Finnish schools. As to
how these differences in evaluation practices are related to differences in educational
cultures and ethos, that is a matter for further studies, but we do know that equality
is highly regarded in Finnish schools—indeed, we found about half a dozen written
comments by the Finnish participants such as “I think an intelligent and an ordinary
pupil are alike” and “Wise people look the same as others”. We may argue that through
their greater authority, the school and the teacher exert a greater influence on children’s
representations of the intelligent pupil in Russia (Laihiala-Kankainen 1998) whereas
the peer group may well contribute relatively more to children’s representations in
As expected, it was the Russian girls that separated the intelligent girl from the
ordinary girl most clearly, especially in terms of gender appearance. The Russian view
of the intelligent girl seems to represent rather a traditional view of the good girl pupil
with childish gender appearance (i.e., immature in terms of her heterosexuality), with
pigtails or braids, and still belonging to the world of children, whereas the ordinary girl,
with her near-adult female look with open hair, is closer to the adult world in terms
of mature heterosexuality as well. In the Finnish view, intelligent girls seem to be
lacking in female characteristics, too, but they are not so categorically separated from
their peer group; for instance, they are even allowed fashionable clothes and open hair.
Furthermore, in the Finnish drawings a majority of both intelligent and ordinary girls
represented childish femininity. Despite these cross-national differences, though, the
findings concur with our assumption that both the Finnish and, in particular, the Rus-
sian girls would tend to depict intelligent girls as less heterosexual (childish/immature
or neutral) than ordinary girls. As the predominant notion of intelligence (rationality)

18 H. Räty et al.

is a masculine construct, an intelligent girl or woman is expected to give up some of

her femininity (Walkerdine 1990).
Regarding the boys, our results turned out to be more complex than expected. It
was actually the Finnish boys that described the intelligent boy as gender-neutral most
frequently; among the Russian boys, differences in gender appearance did not show
up because they portrayed both the intelligent and the ordinary boys mainly as gen-
der-neutral. The fact that the boys in both countries were more inclined than the girls
to draw gender-neutral characters may also indicate that the girls, being developmen-
tally closer to puberty, were more sensitive to gender issues. Also, some boys may
not have taken the task seriously enough, which would then be reflected in the poor
hasty quality of their pictures. At any rate, because of the lack of differences in gender
appearance, it is paradoxically the Russian boys’ drawings that are the closest to the
prototype of the intelligent pupil. This finding concurs with the research evidence that
the top values for boys in Russian Karelia include self-respect and interesting work,
which indicates an orientation towards achievement and self-direction (Sinisalo et al.
Among the Finnish participants, the prototype of the intelligent boy turned out to be
a gender-neutral character and was also often portrayed in humorous or ironic terms.
Could it be that the attributed gender neutrality was a way of showing somewhat
negative attitudes towards intelligent and academically successful boys?
The function of social representations is to make something unfamiliar familiar by
combining novel elements with established categories (Moscovici 2000). An illus-
trative case is the category of ‘nerd’, which was used explicitly in the comments of
some of the Finnish boys to label the intelligent boys they had drawn (see Fig. 1). A
combination of eyeglasses, a comical face, and asexual appearance tends to establish
a modern variant of the bookworm, who is occupied solely with matters pertaining to
learning and thinking and is disconnected from ordinary life and its activities, interests,
joys, and relations. Such elements of a polemic representation of intelligence showed
up in our Finnish drawings, too. It may well be of significance that the nerds drawn
were not placed in the context that the term originated from, working with computers,
which is actually an important activity domain for ordinary boys nowadays. Feminist
studies have emphasized the problems of girls in entering the category of intelligence
(Francis and Skelton 2005). Our findings suggest that boys, too, face problems when
defined as intelligent in the school context.
The category of nerd illustrates the ambivalence of attitudes towards intelligence.
Firstly, ambivalence is generated through the dichotomy of body and mind when
intelligence is defined as a cognitive-mental extension of the mind accompanied by a
division between male and female realms. Secondly, it arises from the dichotomy of
normal and deviant when intelligence is defined as something abnormal, appreciated
but still treated with some suspicion, e.g., by constructing the intelligent person as
asexual and asocial.
Though our participants distinguished between the intelligent and the ordinary
pupil in several respects, it should be borne in mind that none of the distinctions was
categorical. Though eyeglasses were the most prototypically differentiating character-
istic of intelligent pupils, almost half of them were depicted as not wearing eyeglasses.
It is the pattern of distinctions rather than individual characteristics that makes the dif-

A picture is worth a thousand words 19

ference. Further research is needed to examine whether more than one prototype of
the intelligent pupil could be identified.
Examining children’s drawings offers a useful way of studying their representa-
tions of socially significant matters, because it enables one to explicate such latent
meanings as are difficult to express verbally in general and for children in particular
(de Rosa 1987). In cross-cultural comparisons, drawings and other tangible methods
have advantages over verbal ones, especially Likert-type scales, which are prone to
ambiguity because mean scores are confounded when comparisons are made among
respondents belonging to different reference groups (Heine et al. 2001). However,
since the styles of drawing vary among cultures and even within a culture (Cox 2005),
special cultural understanding and care are required when judgments are made. To
ensure such understanding, several intensive joint meetings were arranged in Joensuu
and Petrozavodsk to plan and conduct the study, and especially to design the coding
categories and discuss their interpretations.
Our findings should be considered in the light of the following limitations. Our
samples were small, so that further studies are needed to cross-validate the findings.
Though the class structure in Russian Karelia is quite similar to that of Russia in
general (Blom and Melin 2005), Russia is a diverse multiethnic country, so that a
single sample cannot possibly represent the 11–12 year-old pupils of this huge empire
ranging from Kaliningrad to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. That is one reason why
we selected the two neighbouring Karelias for our comparative study.
The order of the drawings may also have had an effect, as the children may have
paid more attention to their first picture, that of the intelligent pupil. Though we did
not notice any marked quality differences between the pictures of the intelligent and
the ordinary pupil, it would be useful to randomize the order of the drawings in further
research. The children’s drawings turned out to depend on their own gender, as they
usually do when children are asked to draw people of their own age group (Cox 2005).
In further research, it would be advantageous to ask some of the participants to draw
a picture of an intelligent boy and others a picture of an intelligent girl so as to enable
more direct comparisons in terms of gender and country.
As Alexander (2000) notes, comparing just two countries easily puts us into a
polarizing mindset, from which it is hard to get out of. Comparing several countries
would be useful for establishing larger cultural patterns. A related question pertains
to within-group variability. To avoid drawing over-simplified conclusions about any
group, we need to understand that members of every culture may well vary in the extent
to which they share an image or belief (Tudge et al. 1999). For theoretical reasons, we
looked at variation within the genders. Another important factor to consider is pupils’
social background, as measured by their parents’ occupation, educational level, or
social class. There is research evidence to show that these social-positional factors
are highly relevant for studies of the social representations of intelligence (Räty et al.
As schools become more multiethnic, the definition of intelligence and competence
becomes an important issue. When examining the significance of different ethnic
groups’ notions of intelligence for their children’s performance at school in the US,
Sternberg (2004) concluded that the rank order of various groups according to the per-
formance of their children could be predicted by the extent to which the parents shared

20 H. Räty et al.

the teachers’ conception of intelligence. In other words, teachers tended to reward

those children who were socialized into a view of intelligence that corresponded to
their own. Thus the study of cultural and national variations in the social representa-
tions of intelligence has important practical implications, too.


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Author Biographies

Hannu Räty is a professor at the University of Eastern Finland, Department of Education and Psychology,
and has a PhD degree. His research interest include the social representations of educability.

Katri Komulainen is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland, Department of Education and
Psychology, and has a PhD degree. Her research interest include gender and educability.

Nina Skorokhodova is a professor at the Karelian State Pedagogical Academy, Russia, Department of
Educational Psychology, and has a PhD degree. Her research interest include the psychology of effecive
teaching in school.

Vadim Kolesnikov is an associate professor at the Karelian State Pedagogical Academy, Russia, Depart-
ment of General Psychology, and has a PhD degree. His research interests include the development of
students’ metacognitive skills.

Anna Hämäläinen is a research assisstant and practising psychologist at the University of Eastern Finland,
Department of Education and Psychology, and has a MA degree. Her research interest include children’s
conceptions of social issues.