A Smart View of Intelligence

MI Around the World

In June 2008, I squeezed into a tiny New York conference room along with 15 other educators. Advocates of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), and drawn from all global corners, we’d gathered to share our work and record its impact. Our host was indeed Prof. Howard Gardner, and the result of that meeting, nearly a year later, was ‘Multiple Intelligences Around the World‘.

I sat with a Chinese researcher called Happy, and Joy, a school reformer from the Philippines. Always vigilant for a chance to lighten the mood, I introduced myself as ‘Mild Discontent’, just in from the UK.

During the morning coffee break I found myself alone in an elevator with Howard who had misplaced his name badge. I spotted it on the floor by his foot, passed it to him and, joking again (how did I even get a place at that table?) said, ‘I should keep this, put it on ebay, sell it so I can afford the flight home.’ Howard laughed then made a serious point. He explained, with the authentic humility for which he’s known, that he’s not the ‘edu-rock-star’ folks make him out to be. He has his critics, and it’s been said that MI is the most debated and least implemented of all educational theories.

Gardner’s work extends far beyond MI: Project Zero, creativity, leadership, influence, good work (the ethics of vocation), and recent studies of higher education. But still, his concept of intelligence – nearly 40 years on – splits the audience.

It’s a cognitive-contextual theory with detractors and devotees lined up on either side of the classroom. It goes like this:

  • everyone is ‘intelligent’ (as defined by eight criteria),
  • ‘intelligence’ is multiple and diverse (at least eight kinds, in fact), and,
  • anyone can become more ‘intelligent’ (with the right resources and experiences).

However, when the battle starts, a shared definition of ‘intelligence’ is usually absent from the debate. Both sides argue well, but about different things.

How to be Smart With Intelligence

If we want a smart view of intelligence, we must first define it. Then we’ll know exactly what we’re arguing about. How does your take on ‘intelligence’ match these:

  • The ability to achieve complex goals. Max Tegmark, AI Researcher.
  • The ability to solve problems and create products that have value. Howard Gardner, Psychologist.
  • The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Most dictionaries.

13 years after that meeting in New York, MI still smolders away, flaring up now and then: rediscovered by an energetic new cohort of educators or re-demonised by conservative strategists. ‘Intelligence’ is a word we should define and use with great care. Give it a scope that’s deep and wide and everyone can be part of it, everyone’s abilities can be valued. Restrict its reach and we’ll create an elitist, unhelpful and divisive world.

Everyone is intelligent; everyone is valuable; everyone succeeds.

Here’s one of my books from that time. Still relevant; more so now as the world demands diverse skills sets and flexible working. Feel free to pay £57 for it. Or 96p (plus P&P). I’m sure you’ll use your intelligence to decide.

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