Intelligence is bigger than a number

I’m currently reading (and really enjoying) Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it as a summer read.  It is full of insight and thought but is an easy summer read.  I want to share some pieces of the book that are standing out to me and share some of my thoughts and responses as I read it.   Blogging helps me internalize what I am reading and continues the conversation beyond my thoughts and the pages in the book.

  • We have come to accept that intelligence comes with a number.  In the age of standardized tests, IQ numbers, and the “vanilla education” we have been lured to believe that intelligence is directly tied to a number.  Robinson points out just how wrong this is.  We have boiled education down to discovering how intelligent students are.  Instead of asking how intelligent are you?, a better question would be: how are you intelligent?
  • Current education is born out of existentialism, the idea that knowledge is what can be proved through logical reasoning and evidence.  The problem with existentialism was the question of where to begin this process without taking anything for granted that might be logically questionable.   As a result, Descartes came to the conclusion that the only thing that he could take for granted was his own existence.  “I think, therefore I am.”  The Industrial Revolution was a natural outcome of this kind of enlightenment thinking.  Schooling as we know it was also established at this time, in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Schools were built on the idea that intelligence can be quantified.
  • Robinson goes on to describe how the IQ test was created by Binet.  Binet didn’t create the test for the way it came to be used, he sought to help those with learning disabilities get the help they needed.  The use of the test changed in 1916 when Lewis Terman, of Stanford, took Binet’s test and developed the Stanford Binet Test.  Terman was part of the eugenics movement that sought to weed out entire sectors of the population, assuming that criminality, feeble-mindedness, and pauperism were genetic and possible to identify through intelligence testing.  The movement succeeded in lobbying for the passage of involuntary sterilization laws in 30 states.  If you were found to have a particularly low IQ, it was decided that you could not have children.  Obviously, these laws were eventually repealed.
  • Carl Bringham is the creator of the SAT test we use as a college entrance exam today.  Bringham also claimed to be a part of the eugenics movement.  5 years after creating the test, Bringham disowned it rejecting eugenics along with it.  Bringham may have disowned the SAT, but colleges and universities didn’t follow suit.   The SAT focuses on two intelligences: linguistic and mathematical.  Elitism in education is still alive and well because we refuse to consider intelligence in a broader sense.  We insist on standardizing education and making it a game of have and have-nots.  We insist on defining it in a limited scope using numbers as our guidelines.  Intelligence isn’t as finite as we have been led to believe.
  • Howard Gardner talks about our multiple intelligences.  These intelligences include: linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intra-personal.  Currently in education we focus on two of these.  All aspects of human intelligence should be nurtured and celebrated.  To down-play intelligence outside of mathematical and linguistic is to do a disservice to the child and the world.  Everyone has different strengths and aptitudes to offer the world.  I wonder how many of these we are missing out on by forcing everyone to focus on developing only two intelligences?  We are missing out on a rich fabric of humanity.  When we work at out own abilities and nurture out individual strengths, the world becomes a more complete place to be.
  • Teachers know that no child is a single intellectual score on a linear scale.  There are complexities there.  Yet we continue to use that score to determine the worth of a student, a teacher, a school.  Even children who score the same in standardized testing are vastly different and unique in their make-up.  They have their own passions, dreams, goals, and interests.  It makes me wonder if what separates the haves from the have-nots is not money at all.  Perhaps the biggest separating force is in the narrow definition of intelligence.  Maybe the difference in options has more to do with a series of tests that determines a child’s future than it does with money.

I am 3 chapters into The Element but I find myself stopping often and jotting down notes and digging deeper in an attempt to understand why education is in the place that it is.  What do you think? Am I jumping to conclusions too hastily?


  1. IQ stuff is all very interesting and frustrating. I can’t stand the standardized testing that our children/students go through. I would much rather they were judged by actions, writing, projects, etc.

    My brother, Stephen Murdoch, has written a book the history of IQ tests, how they’ve been abused in the US and other countries, etc. It’s called IQ: How Psychology has Hijacked Intelligence. Actually, it has a couple different subtitles depending on which edition you see and which country you are in.

  2. This is very interesting. I would like to read this book as well. Until then, I have wonderings. I tutor a boy who is extremely articulate and imaginative, yet math concepts are extremely difficult as well as writing his thoughts. We are, as you reported, geared for linguistic and mathematical thinking. How do we help kids like this one succeed in this world? What is the minimum skill level required in math to be functional? It’s like trying to take a duck for a walk. It would much rather fly or swim. I don’t want to make this boy walk, but he has to have some functionality. Where do I, as an educator, draw the line? I just want to do what is best for this boy, without stifling his creativity….I’m afraid I’m not sure what that looks like.

    1. Kerry, I think that the question isn’t how to make a duck walk. I think the objective is to make the math fly or swim with him. We have to find out what makes our students tick and then meet them in that place. If this boy is highly creative, find a conceptual way for him to understand math concepts. Writing may be difficult when it is guided about a topic he is not interested in. Can he write about something else first. Writing is difficult for all of us when we don’t feel we have something to say about a topic. When we write on a topic we feel knowledgeable about we can write pages without thinking about it. Perhaps giving him time to write about his favorite topic will show him that he can write and give him the confidence to write on other topics (like those you need him to write about). It isn’t easy to think outside the box like this because it often isn’t the way we learn. Another idea is to ask him what he thinks would help him. A lot of kids know what they need if we would just give them permission to tell us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s