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Redefining Intelligence

In a number of contexts I have talked about research on intelligence that presents a more nuanced look on what it really means to be “smart.”

As progressive educators, we at Beaver continually ask ourselves what really constitutes intelligence and how that impacts learning and teaching. Unfortunately most of the educational establishment remains stuck on using various forms of standardized testing to quantify intelligence, even though it flies in the face of current research. There is so much research in the educational community about what constitutes intelligence and how we learn.

Robert Sternberg of Tufts has developed a triarchic theory of intelligence. His definition of “successful intelligence” holds that people who are to succeed in the real world must possess a combination of practical, creative and analytical skills. And, in fact, Sternberg has developed some assessment tools that might identify talented students in a way that standardized tests do not, and push schools to think in different ways about student potential.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Again, the world of traditional testing would contend that individual intelligence is a finite matter. In her research Dweck suggests that “a growth mindset is based on the belief that basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience. A person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable, and it is impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.”

And many of you know of Harvard’s Howard Gardner, who developed the theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner posits that human cognitive competence is better described in terms of a set of abilities, talents and mental skills that he calls intelligences. In his most recent book, Five Minds for the Future, Gardner writes, “We need to cultivate five kinds of minds if we want to be successful as a nation and more important as a world,” and these include a disciplined mind, a sympathizing mind, a creative mind, a respectful mind and an ethical mind.

Even the private sector has taken note.

Each year The Wall Street Journal lists the 20 most influential business thinkers. This year 3 of the top 5 are Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell and Howard Gardner. The former number one and two gurus, Michael Porter and Tom Peters, have dropped down to 14 and 18.

Business writer Daniel Pink addresses the issues of intelligence, and the kinds of thinking that students will need to succeed, in a compelling way in his book, A Whole New Mind. Pink contends that left-brained thinking – or L-directed thinking as he calls it – thinking that is sequential, literal, functional, textual and analytic is the kind of thinking that made for success in an earlier age. While this kind of thinking is still critically important, by itself it is not enough. Pink asserts that to succeed in tomorrow’s world, right -brain thinking – or R-directed thinking – will be as, if not more, important. Thinking that stresses the simultaneous, the metaphorical, the aesthetic, the contextual and the synthetic; and that was, until recently, underemphasized and devalued in discussions about intelligence.

Pink notes that over the last 150 years we have grown from an agricultural nation to an industrial one, to an information nation and now we are in what he calls the “conceptual age.” Pink projects that people with only left-brained skills will be less in demand in this era. Most jobs in technology, traditional engineering and other strictly L-directed professions will be outsourced to those with the requisite technical skills in countries like India to people who make $15,000 a year. Those with the right-brained skills will “be key to professional achievement and personal satisfaction.”

Recently New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about what he calls “a new cognitive age,” very similar to Pink’s conceptual age. Brooks argues that the essential process driving us is not globalization or technology; it is the skills revolution. “We are moving into a more demanding cognitive age and in order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information. The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel fifteen thousand miles in an instant. But the most important part of the information’s journey is the last three inches – the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived?”

Beaver’s progressive approach, one we’ve been refining since the school’s founding 1920, is ideally suited to teach the right-brained, conceptual skills that are so essential to success. At Beaver, thinking about learning, teaching and assessment will continue to be based on contemporary research, not the 100-year-old research that informs the vast majority of conventional schools, both independent and public.

As I’ve said before, progressivism is an approach whose time has come, again. Our students will graduate with the conceptual and creative skills they need while administrators at conventional schools are still trying to figure out how to reconcile teaching to a battery of standardized tests with teaching their students to actually think.

Note: All our department heads have been asked to read Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, this summer. If you’d like to learn more about it here.

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