Intelligence is in the Eye of the Beholder.

I love to learn.

I love finding out new things, and it makes me so happy to see a puzzle piece fall into place, that ‘aha’ moment, when I discover a connection between two words in different languages, or ‘oh wow, how cool!’ feeling when I find out that ladybirds change colour according to the ambient temperature. The world is awesome and amazing, and my knowledge of it has come mostly from books and formal education. That’s in great part because I’ve been lucky to be able to read and go to school, but also because that kind of learning is my ‘thing’. I like reading, and I like classroom learning. I like facts. And growing up, I figured that this was what made a person smart. Intelligence was learning facts, and being good at remembering them.

Yet, not everybody learns this way. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this! I came across multiple intelligence theory while studying for my teaching degree (ironic that I discover these things in a classroom, right?!) It was fascinating, because I had always been a little arrogant in my views on intelligence, but this also hinged on the fact that I felt as if I were on the defensive.

It was not only that formal education made you smart, as far as I was concerned, but that the real smart people–the real intellects–were involved in science or maths. They were the ones who were advancing humanity. They were the ones who were discovering new species and curing diseases and reaching out to the stars.

And I wasn’t that way inclined at all. My favourite subjects were English and Social Studies, and later, German and Philosophy. I loved learning about science, but if there were any maths involved, I’d have to work so hard to get my head around it, my eyes would eventually glaze over and I’d find myself daydreaming and writing a poem about it.

So this theory was not only an eye-opener for me, it also shone a light on the possibility that I, too, was intelligent. And so were people who weren’t so interested in a classroom learning environment. Just because others didn’t perform well on a spelling test didn’t make them stupid. It just meant that, unlike me, they perhaps didn’t have a visceral response to letters being in a certain order.*

In my very first teaching prac, we were assigned to primary school classes. We had to teach for only a few minutes during the week (it was our first time; they didn’t want to scare us off too quickly!) and so most of the week was spent observing the teachers in their classrooms, and of course, the students.

One morning, the teacher took them outside to play a game. She had a soft ball, about basketball-size, and she told the children to spread out on the grass, wherever they wanted to stand. Then she explained the rules: the ball would start with one person, and that person would then throw it to someone else, and then leave the grass and stand on the pavement. Then the next person would throw the ball, and leave the grass. The aim was to have only one person left on the grass at the end–kind of like playing solitaire.

There were a lot of skills needed for this game, which I thought about as I watched them. Of course, it involved the ability to aim and catch and throw, which, considering these were eight-and nine-year-olds, wasn’t necessarily a given. But it also involved communication, and strategy. Only a few of them realised that if they didn’t plan ahead, they would end up with children too far away from one another to be able to throw and/or catch the ball. These students tried to tell the others where to throw in order to finish the game with the desired result.

‘Isn’t that great?’ I murmured to the class teacher. ‘They’re really planning it out.’

She smiled and nodded.

These students were demonstrating such forward thinking, a real ability for strategy, which I never would have had at that age. They were illustrating an intelligence I probably wouldn’t ever have. I was humbled. You are not as smart as you thought you were, Rebecca.

Studying and discussing multiple intelligences gave me a better understanding and empathy for the different students in my classroom, and it also helped me to attempt to provide different tasks to try and meet the varying needs of their varying intelligences. It also made me sceptical about how we place those we consider genius on pedestals. We choose certain types of intelligence–logical/mathematical, for example–and really celebrate individuals who demonstrate it, but we don’t celebrate those who might have other, less well-known (or less well-respected) intelligences, such as interpersonal, or naturalist.

Yet these intelligences are just as important. If we only had gifted scientists or writers, and no dancers or social workers, what kind of world would this be? It could be that a certain individual won’t ever make a scientific breakthrough or write a symphony, but instead has a real sense of how to comfort a grieving stranger. This doesn’t make them any less worthy. This doesn’t make them any less intelligent. It makes them wonderfully important.

I’ve grown to dislike the word ‘gifted’, because I think it’s too narrowly used, and I think it implies elitism. We’re all gifted–some of us incredibly so–but I don’t want to believe that one intelligence is any better or more valuable than the rest. I believe we should celebrate the ways in which people make each others’ lives and the world such an enriching experience, simply by virtue of being who they are. Intelligence exists on such a broad spectrum. It’s time we stopped pinpointing these tiny areas, and stepped back to get a better look. Because when we do that, I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised at how absolutely beautiful is the view.

*incorrect–some may call it creative; to each her own–spelling makes me squirm. In fact, incorrect grammar and punctuation make me quite uncomfortable, as well. I also have a similar reaction to instruments being out of tune. It makes me shudder. I suspect that’s just a bit of an odd quirk, rather than having anything to do with intelligence, however.


7 thoughts on “Intelligence is in the Eye of the Beholder.

  1. Fascinating post! Like you, I’ve always been a classroom leaner. But teaching college writing forced me to look at other ways of learning. Fortunately, I was part of a department that promoted this notion–especially by way of service learning.

    Great post, my friend.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • It’s great that you were in a place where people embraced the variety of ways students learn. I think for too long we assumed that if someone didn’t do well in school it was that individual’s fault, when it can be very much how the material is presented.

      Thank you!

      Hugs from very hot and sunny Western Australia…

  2. I left school life early, experienced a challenging life for a couple of decades, and then returned to classroom learning. I’ve also experienced distance education, and while it can serve a purpose, it lacks the input from the diverse views of other students, a key I believe, to a rounded education. My father had to leave school much too early for his liking, but it was the time of the Great Depression. However, he had great intelligence – evidenced in his problem solving skills, his playful use of language, his constant inquiring mind, and an ability to present information in a concise manner. Observing many people of his generation, who had limited schooling, I think the lack of formal education actually helped them to develop their own methods of learning and achieving their goals. When I worked in Aged Care, I was often humbled by the wit and intelligence of so-called ordinary old women who’d spent their lives living on farms caring for their families, and may have never travelled further than the next town!

    • I have to agree, especially with regards to the part about aged care. I think that we’re so focussed on book-knowledge these days, that we don’t consider just how much can be gained from life experience, and the women you mention would also have had to learn a lot by trial and error, and using initiative… something you don’t get by reading a book! (Or going online!)

      The collaborative aspect of learning is so important, too. I have done some study as an external student, too, and while I like the freedom of not having to attend classes, I definitely miss the interaction with classmates.

  3. I really enjoyed this post! I have always been reassured of my intelligence in literary based subjects and recently graduated from law school. This really made me think about my parents who barely graduated high school and are now very successful managers in their field. You’ve really encouraged me to appreciate that not everyone will get an education like I did – but that doesn’t mean that they are any less intelligent! I like to think I am very open-minded and treat everyone equally but I am sometimes guilty of falling Thank you for opening my eyes 🙂

    • Congratulations on your recent graduation! Neither of my parents went to uni, either, but I definitely think of both of the ad very intelligent and capable human beings. I’m not saying I am without prejudice, of course, but I have certainly come to understand that other people can be ‘smart’ even if they don’t fit the mould of traditionally accepted intelligence. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Pingback: $10,000 or $100,000? | WhoRAHS

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