Friday, November 16, 2007

The Elusive Definition of Intelligence

My kids are all brilliant, of course.

C. Peevie and M. Peevie have the kind of intelligence associated with traditional academic success—early verbal development, top percentile reading scores, quick grasp of math concepts and easy mastery of the basic facts.

A. Peevie, on the other hand, seems to my subjective eye to be brilliant in a completely different and often unappreciated kind of way. He struggles to master elementary math facts—but he worked his way through 15 pages of basic geometry lessons when he learned that one of his heroes, Albert Einstein, loved geometry. I blogged about it here:

Besides the intelligence that directly relates to math and reading skills, there seems to me to be a different kind of intelligence that fuels Middle Peevie’s learning. It has a creativity component that enables him to think differently about things than most people think. For example, one Halloween, he was contemplating his costume choices, looking over the traditional super-hero options. He picked up a box, cut some narrow slits in it to see through, and put it over his head. Then he searched the basement for accessories, and he settled on being Box-Head with Knife.

What is intelligence? You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that there are as many definitions of intelligence as there are "experts" who study it. Usually the word refers to general mental capacity to reason, solve problems, learn, and think abstractly--but the problem with this definition is that it's circular. If you look up "reason" in the dictionary, you will get "intelligence" as one of the definitions; and if you look up "think", you'll get "reason" as a definition.


So where does that leave us? According to the online encyclopedia Encarta, "no universally accepted definition of intelligence exists." (Here's the link to the Encarta article.)

One dude, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, came up with a model of intelligence that includes nine abilities that work individually or together to produce "intelligence:" naturalist, musical, logical-mathematical, existential, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, intra-personal, and spatial.

Some of those abilities seem more like interests or skills than intelligence to me--but the list is helpful to frame the discussion about intelligence in a broader way than we typically understand it.

Cognitive psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed a triarchic theory of intelligence:
  • Analytic Intelligence--the type generally assessed by intelligence tests; measures the ability to break down problems into component parts.
  • Creative Intelligence--the ability to cope with new situations and solve problems in new and unusual ways. Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, but imagination circles the world."
  • Practical Intelligence--Common sense. Using and implementing ideas.

Sternberg said you can grow your creative intelligence by questioning assumptions, taking sensible risks, and allowing yourself to make mistakes.

I like what Albert Einstein had to say about intelligence: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid."

This kind of thinking, I suspect, is what is behind Gardner's model of multiple intelligences; and it's what makes me see A. Peevie as a brilliant, out-of-the-box thinker. While C. Peevie and M. Peevie are climbing redwoods, A. P. is down below doing smart fish-things, like figuring out a way to swim upstream to lay eggs.

1 comment:

sharon said...

That is the most lovingly sort of appreciation I believe I have ever read from a mother about her son...