Mar 22, 2010

What is Intelligence?

It’s easy to define improvement in sports. Making another save on defense, clipping time from your fastest lap, scoring more points against the opposing team – it’s obvious when you “get better”. But what about improving intelligence?

“Smartness” is tricky to pin down. Throughout history, there have been several attempts at defining and measuring this surprisingly elusive concept, and so far, a unanimously acceptable definition has remained out of reach.

Why has it been so difficult? One reason is the seemingly endless variety of ways in which someone could be considered “smart”. For example- is a theoretical physicist “smarter” than a master mechanic? The physicist can create elaborate mathematical theories for the explanation of natural phenomena, while the mechanic can diagnose a malfunctioning internal combustion engine just by listening to it- skills that both require intelligence. With such extreme variation, the quest to standardize intelligence may seem impossible.

Yet despite these difficulties, there remains a modern system that attempts to do just that. Understandably, the true efficacy of this system is still under debate. Critics of the modern IQ (intelligence quotient) test state that it is a falsehood to believe that an individual who does not perform well is not “smart”. They say that while a high score does generally correlate to some kind of “proof” of intelligence, the opposite is not necessarily true.

So, if the system in place is not perfect, what can we do to improve upon it? One popular theory is that of “Multiple Intelligences”. Proposed in the 80’s by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, multiple intelligences tries to encompass all the ways in which an individual could be deemed “smart”. These varied definitions tie back directly to individual learning styles, and embrace the idea of employing unique methods for teaching unique minds.

Unsurprisingly, multiple intelligence theory is not without its own critics. But while a perfect definition for what intelligence is and what it is not may be far off in the future, it’s important to remember that there are more ways to be smart than a record high test score.

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