Editorial 11: What is Intelligence?

October 2011

Parents are greatly concerned about the learning ability of their children during their upbringing and education. If this does not appear to evolve well, their concern deepens and they wonder: what will become of my child in later life if he/she does not do well at school?

However, success in the current education system is not a good indicator of people's development capabilities or whether they will be successful in life. It is being increasingly questioned whether academic success identifies the most intelligent individuals or, more to the point, whether academic failure necessarily identifies less intelligent people.

Intelligence, according to the Royal Spanish Academy of Language is, amongst other things, the “ability to understand or comprehend” or the “ability to solve problems”. It is a controversial term, but in both the educational and psychological world the idea has long prevailed that an intelligent person is someone who performs well in intelligence tests. Since the early 20th century when Binet in France was commissioned with developing a test that could differentiate between those that could be educated and those that could not, tests measuring a person's ability to solve common problems employed in schools throughout the 20th century have been developed with great success in many areas.

However, schools today do not appear to adequately meet the educational needs of children to cope with the realities of the 21st century and beyond. Much is considered and plenty of emphasis is placed on mathematical and linguistic ability, but very little on social skills, empathy, organisational abilities, etc., fundamental attributes for many modern jobs.

In recent decades there has been an effort to extend the concept of intelligence with definitions proposed such as “a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience” (Mainstream Science on Intelligence, 1994) or the “ability to adapt to the environment, comprehend complex ideas, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought” (American Psychologist Association). Change in the concept of intelligence has been accompanied by the development of a critique on the educational system that considers it ill-equipped to provide people with an all-round, general education, and poorly adapted to the continuous, fast moving changes of the society in which children at school will have to live and interact.

A major critic of the standard education system in the West, and concept of intelligence, is Howard Gardner, recent recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award and Harvard professor, who several decades ago started a project to try to define and describe human intelligence. After many lectures and studies, he arrived at his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, with approximately 7 or 8 independent abilities, with an innate, but trainable or teachable, component.

His work has proved very influential in a new approach to looking at children's abilities in a more flexible and broader way than has been done traditionally. Gardner talks of people with great interpersonal intelligence, others with intrapersonal intelligence, some that are musical and those who are kinesthetic, linguistic, mathematical, spatial or naturalistic. He explains that each person has a different natural skill or talent. This does not imply that a lot of one ability will mean a lot of the others, but rather that the combination in each individual is different. In some people one of these abilities is clearly dominant, others are very harmonic and capable in all the intelligences and others have two or three notable abilities and are very mediocre in the rest. Parents clearly understand these ideas. Because they know their children well and are reassured that what the school is teaching and demanding are not the only possible abilities or even probably the most important. Many parents know that their child is valid in many aspects, that he/she has virtues and talents, and that the stigma of failure the school attaches to him/her is not a totally fair reflection of his/her abilities. They are also reassured when they read how the pre-eminence of mathematical-linguistic intelligence is questioned as an indicator for being successful in life. These theories have served as a shake-up for educational approaches. Based on them, education should be able to enhance the natural intelligences of people, use them for development and learning and educate or train those less naturally gifted, but always with the intention of providing a balance for each person and a learning and personal and professional development path in harmony with their natural abilities.

Continuing with our current expert, Howard Gardner has taken a further step forward in his development of the theory of multiple intelligences. He now proposes the type of styles of thinking we should teach children and young people for their usefulness in dealing with present and future reality. He speaks of the ethical mind, the creative mind, the disciplined mind, the synthesising mind and the respectful mind.

Within different intelligences, Emotional Intelligence is the ability to relate to others and ourselves; it is the ability to know and understand what we feel and what others feel to control and manage emotions. It includes both social (interpersonal) and intrapersonal (introspection, ability to know oneself and take effective life decisions) intelligence, which according to many educational theorists is an essential intelligence for being successful in life.

In recent decades, many voices have demanded that education systems take an interest in learning to teach relationship, communication and social skills, i.e. including emotional education in the standard obligatory education curriculum. In fact, UNESCO decided in 1998 that aspects promoting emotional intelligence should be included in schools worldwide, given its potential to reduce levels of violence in schools.

The Association wants to disseminate these theories this year, make it known that emotional education is possible in schools and that it is beneficial to children in general, particularly those less gifted in traditional academic skills such as linguistics and mathematics.

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