What is intelligence? For centuries we have asked ourselves this question, wondering why we have the intellectual abilities we do and how to properly evaluate them. It’s more than just idle curiosity; by understanding intelligence, we can improve our education system so that all aptitudes are nurtured equally. We can dismantle myths, erase racial and gender stigma, and help our children reach their full potential.
Intelligence: From Singularity To Diversity
One of the most prominent myths about intelligence is the outmoded idea that it can be accurately measured via simple pen and paper tests. Traditionally, it was assumed that children who perform well on reasonably challenging tests must have greater intellect (which was assigned a numeric value, the “Intelligence Quotient”) than children who perform poorly on such tests. “IQ” was thought to be a static quality that one is born with, like blue eyes or red hair. It was therefore assumed that a child’s overall level of intelligence could not be changed. Over time, this view expanded somewhat to allow a child to have either a “mathematical” or “verbal” intelligence, but at base the idea that intelligence was a fixed, inherent trait remained prominent until the 1980s.
During the aforementioned decade, perceptions began to change when Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of Education at Harvard University, asked his contemporaries to rethink “IQ.” Gardner posited that intelligence cannot be measured by specific pen and paper tests; instead, a child’s ability to solve problems as a whole (in many different contexts) should be analyzed. Rather than being a singular property, Gardner felt that intelligence was in essence the possession of any useful ability. A talent for music, gymnastics, or building things, for example, could all qualify as “intelligence” regardless of how well a child performs on written tests.
Gardner’s most revolutionary idea, however, was that intelligence is not actually an immutable property. He believed it could be trained, balanced, and even increased. He saw each different form of intelligence (verbal, mathematical, spatial, musical, etc.) as being akin to a tool: The more you use it, the better you become at wielding it. As such, each form of intelligence can be independently improved with specific practice. Since the 1990s, many of Gardner’s ideas have been incorporated into the classroom, but their penetration into popular knowledge remains somewhat limited.
Gardner’s Theory Of Multiple Intelligences
According to Gardner, intelligence is a process that governs solving problems or resolving difficulties. If not directly, then through the creation of new products or methods that have the potential to solve problems or resolve difficulties. Additionally, the ability to create new problems—which is to say, ask challenging questions—is a form of intelligence. This kind of experimentation is valuable because it drives the acquisition of new information.
Gardner further clarified that human intelligence is different from machine (as in, computer) intelligence in a few fundamental ways. One, it can be changed or isolated by damage to the brain. Two, it possesses a unique and individual developmental history that entwines with a plausible evolutionary purpose. (The strengths of the individual add to the strengths of society as a whole.) Three, it possesses the inherently human trait of symbolic thought. It can also be accessed by strictly “human” assessments, such as experimental, psychological, and psychometric tests.
To narrow down and clarify these general parameters, Gardner delineated eight major types of intelligence:
- Linguistic intelligence
- Naturalistic intelligence
- Musical intelligence
- Logical-Mathematical intelligence
- Spatial intelligence
- Body-Kinesthetic intelligence
- Interpersonal intelligence
- Intrapersonal intelligence
It’s important for parents and educators alike to understand that few children fit neatly into just one of the eight categories above. Instead, most children will excel in several different areas. What’s more, their areas of excellence will probably be at least somewhat interdependent. After all, most “real world” situations require that we use more than one aptitude at a time in order to generate favourable results. A musician, for example, may rely primarily on his musical intelligence, but he requires a certain amount of interpersonal intelligence to read cues from his audience, from his bandmates, from a conductor, etc. He will also need to develop his kinesthetic intelligence in order to play a musical instrument effectively.
To truly nurture a child’s individual intelligence, parents and educators therefore need to observe how that child solves problems: What skills is he or she using, and in what ways? The more adults allow children to arrive at answers using their own approaches (rather than adhering to rigid instructions), the better they will understand each child’s unique combination of intelligences. Moreover, they will be well-positioned to isolate any areas where the child does need to improve.
If a child cannot solve a given problem, the teacher should look at where exactly the deficit lies: Does a child have great ideas, for example, but struggle to communicate them to others? If so, his verbal intelligence probably needs to be trained. In the meantime, perhaps the child could be permitted to express his ideas spatially if that comes more naturally to him. This approach tailors education to the individual child, rather than trying to change the child to fit the education system.
Gardner was eager to point out that children know how they solve problems better than anyone, and by taking a “hands off” approach, we can gather the most relevant information about their processes. According to Gardner, the ideal role for an educator to take is that of a guide and provider: Teachers should provide children with structure and guide them toward the knowledge and skills they should acquire while also allowing them some freedom to create their own pathways to these ends. After all, the true strength of the human mind lies in its diversity and adaptability—not its ability to repeat predictable, measurable processes without variation.
- Armstrong, T. (2009). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. ASCD.
- Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Hachette Book Group.
- Cohen, R. (2019). The seven intelligences: a parent’s guide to MI theory. Advanced Psychology
- Marenus, M. (2020, June 09). Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Simply Psychology.