How might we define intelligence? What do we mean when we speak of intelligence and what evidence do we seek when we look for it? Is it a singular, fixed attribute determined at birth or does it vary across time and environment? These are questions educators have struggled with for years and thanks to improvements in brain science are questions that today can be given more complete answers. But away from the world of high-tech laboratory research and MRI analysis or neural patterns what evidence of intelligence is seen by teachers and what does this tell us about how our students learn and how we may maximise their potential?
For much of its history schooling has been obsessed with one type of intelligence as evidenced by what is given time within the learning day and that which is the focus of assessment. Indeed, pedagogy, curriculum and assessment within schools has delivered a clear and consistent message about what constitutes intelligence. Knowledge, defined as the recall of information, literacy, defined as the ability to read and write and numeracy, defined as the ability to calculate, have formed the pillars of educational systems and have both framed and been framed by our view of intelligence. Further that which is worth knowing has been determined by cultural and socially constructed beliefs that value particular knowledge over others. This introduces a whole debate about the social construction of curriculum as a tool of power and control that is beyond the focus of this posting. The result of such a narrow definition of intelligence is that it has benefitted those who fit the definition and disadvantaged those who do not. Some examples from the classroom make this point clear.
Recently our Year Six students have been completing their 'Genius Hour’ projects. As is the norm for this style of project students have imagined and implemented their own projects centred on areas of personal interest. The diversity of projects as been immense and the results displayed at the final ‘Gallery Walk’ were impressive. Throughout the span of this project we noticed that some of our more ‘traditionally' capable students were struggling while others who found routine academic tasks difficult, were shining. We saw that students who thrived in an environment of direct teacher instruction concluding in a summative assessment task lacked the resilience to independently problem solve towards a solution. Meanwhile the physical dimensions of many of the projects combined with inherently immediate feedback of what works and does not work suited others who would switch off in traditional lessons. Undaunted by failures and mistakes some of the students rose to the challenge and overcame obstacles while others looked for external assistance, direction and affirmation. It was clear that for many of the ‘Genius Hour’ projects 'traditional intelligence' was neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for success.
The same can be seen on the sporting field. I recall coaching a Soccer team some years ago in which, as is often the case, one player stood out from the rest. This particular year we had an unusually strong team and many of our games were won by a large margin and yet this boy rose above what was clearly a talented group. It was more than his skill with the ball but his ability to read the play many moves ahead and then use that understanding to control the flow of the game. They say good players don’t go where the ball is, they go where it will be. This boy went a step further and through his action dictated where the ball would go so his team could capitalise on the evolving play. In class he struggled to keep up. His results on assessments were never great and on traditional measures his intelligence was low. However, if you analyse the complexity of manipulating to your advantage a field of twenty-two players, a ball, a referee, a complex set of rules and varying pitch conditions you must conclude that this boy was demonstrating a high level of intelligence. Just not the sort that matters in a typical school day.
For years now we have noticed a similar pattern during school camps. Those who seem to do the best while learning in the outdoors are not always those who do best in the classroom. It is more than just knowledge of camping skills but an intelligence that allows problems to be solved, group dynamics to be balanced and leadership to emerge. The performance differential for some between the week at camp and the week before at school can be immense. You have to wonder how impressive these students learning might be if the environment they experienced on a daily basis was more like camp.
The same story can be told for our dancers, who like the young girl in Sir Ken Robinson’s story need to move while learning and find the confinements of desk and chair restrictive and limiting. We see it in students who demonstrate advanced learning in ICT but then go beyond having knowledge and assume a leadership role they would normally avoid when presented with the right environment. Through the use of video we have unlocked the story-telling potential of students who find writing difficult. With the use of iPads in mathematics we have uncovered layers of understanding previously hidden by a poor recall of multiplication tables. Through the use of ‘SketchNoting’ to share understandings of new concepts we are uncovering a deeper learning than was revealed by a traditional essay response and from students who we previously believed had missed the point.
In special education 'Universal Design for Learning’ (UDL) is seen as a way to allow students to achieve despite identified learning difficulties. If we see intelligence as a diverse domain that is variable and manipulable through modifications to the learning environment, the learning task and the mode of engagement, then UDL should be seen as the norm not the exception. Instead of a deterministic one-size fits all approach to education based on a singular model of intelligence, we should always be seeking ways to engage our learner’s potential and empower them to leverage and importantly expand their strengths.
If you want to develop a more complete understanding of intelligence and its changeability and variability read 'New Kinds of Smart: How the science of learnable intelligence is changing education' by Bill Lucas & Guy Claxton It will help you to see and value the many forms of intelligence that exist within your classroom.
By Nigel Coutts