What Does It Mean To Be Intelligent?

June 21st, 2013 2 Comments Features


Sighing loudly, Jimmy Thompson, the quiet student in the front row, is smoothing his hair back nervously with his left hand. His right hand is tapping his pencil, eraser-side down, on the desk rhythmically. His feet shift under the desk in an absentminded yet patterned restlessness; right ankle over left, left ankle over right, feet flat on the floor; lather, rinse, repeat.

He seems to be having difficulties with the math test.

In the last twenty minutes he has only written down his name, the date, and a pretty spot-on sketch of Master Chief from Halo in the margin. His fidgeting is causing other students’ attention waning from the test, and instead being focused on him. Hoping to help ease his frustration, you walk to his desk, bend down slightly, and whisper: “Are you ok? Do you need help with anything?” He looks up at you, defeated, and says the words no teacher wants to hear: “I’m just too dumb for this.”

What do you do?

If your first instinct is to agree with him, you might need to seek out a different profession. What Jimmy needs now is immediate positive feedback. He needs to be encouraged, and feel that he is worthwhile and understand it is okay to have different strengths and weaknesses than others. Unfortunately, this will be hard to do during a test. The best thing to do at this point is to tell him it is important to try, not to give up, and ask to see him after class for a pep talk.

When Jimmy does come dragging his feet to your desk after class, be prepared for a less than enthusiastic response to your pep talk.  He is feeling bad about himself, frustrated, and possibly angry at you for giving the test in the first place. The hard part is knowing what to say to him to motivate him.

So What Do You Say?

Before you have a talk with Jimmy about his intelligence, or at least his (and yours!) perceived level of intelligence, you need to know what it is first. You might be thinking that it is easy to know who is intelligent and who is not, but therein lies the problem. While many educators and parents equate good grades and study habits with intelligence, doing so can be doing a disservice to many of your students and children.

Have you ever heard someone say: “She’s brilliant in math, but has no common sense”? Or perhaps: “He can’t find his way out of a paper bag, but he makes a mean tiramisu”? While the point of the comment is either to be disparaging or complimentary is unknown, it is an example of different areas and levels of intelligence.

What Do You Know?

If someone were to ask you right now to define the meaning of intelligence, what would you say? What if someone asked you why someone in your class is smart; would you know? Think about it for a second while all of the hundreds of ideas float around in your mind as you quickly try to define it. In a psychology course given at Mercer Community College in New Jersey, a PowerPoint presentation was shown asking students to define intelligence and theories regarding it.

It is actually pretty difficult to explain an individual’s perception of intelligence. You may also find it surprising that your friends and colleagues will define intelligence, or smart, differently than you do.

Intelligence is Unofficially Measured in Many Ways

intelligence quote

This may be startling to some, but intelligence is judged subjectively. This can cause problems when conflicts arise. One person’s genius is another person’s average individual. Many people have never taken an IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test to find out their number, but that is probably a good thing. If we only went by IQ test numbers, then your IQ would have to be listed on your resume, or as this same article suggests, a CAT scan should be performed at every job interview.

This may actually sound like a good idea, especially of a co-worker you find to be lacking, but do not get too excited. While mandatory IQ testing and number revealing could potentially “thin out the herd”, this would not be a true indicator of what the person can actually do.

Intelligence is measured by those around you and also against the individual’s own knowledge of the world. Have you noticed how you are idolized by the younger students who think you know everything there is to know about everything? As far as they know, you do know everything!

Unfortunately, once they hit about twelve years old, you cease to have any grey matter left in your ancient brain, and the same elementary angels are now wondering how you got your shirt buttoned on your own.

It Is All Relative!

Thinking someone is smart or intelligent is not only subjective, but also relative. Someone who is not musically inclined will think the fifteen year old pianist next door is a musical genius. The fifty year old piano professor, however, will most likely be wincing at said fifteen year old’s murderous rendition of  Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and remind himself to buy better ear plugs at the drugstore.

Pride can also factor in on measuring intelligence. Grandma deems her three year old twin grandsons the smartest toddlers in the history of time for blowing out the candles (along with a mild amount of spit) on their SpongeBob SquarePants birthday cake.

However, every time those same darling three year olds smacks mom in the head with a toy, their perceived intelligence levels go down as mom’s blood pressure rises.

But What Is Intelligence?

Over the years, intelligence has been defined, redefined, summarized, and defined again, but still no one person has the same exact definition or idea. There has even been a paper written called “The Collective Definitions of Intelligence” which include approximately seventy different definitions, or interpretations of what intelligence entails. Seventy! These seventy definitions were analyzed to find a simple informal definition. The one that is used by many comes from S. Legg and M. Hutter and it states: “Intelligence measures an agent’s ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments.”

“The Collective Definitions of Intelligence” which include approximately seventy different definitions, or interpretations of what intelligence entails. Seventy!

Similarly, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “…the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations… the skilled use of reason…the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests).”

The gist is the more intelligent the person, the more they are able to apply what they know to new situations. This sounds fair, but the question remains: how does one become intelligent?

The Bell Curve

Many ideas currently held about intelligence were brought forth in 1994 when the book The Bell Curve was published. It was written by a Harvard psychology professor named Richard Hernstein, and a political scientist named Charles Murray. Although controversial to many researchers, the book grew to popularity of epic proportions. Educators, policy makers, and the general public felt this book was an “aha!” moment and held the ideas and explanations near and dear to their hearts.

Conclusions gained from the book were that intelligence is genetic, IQ tests are accurate, and an individual’s IQ is not affected by living conditions, nurture, or the environment. The points the book also managed to get across were that IQ differences between the races were also genetic, and outside influences, educational or otherwise, did not affect the IQ of a person, or even out the IQ gap between different races.

Do not worry, all of those conclusions have been torn apart, analyzed, and reworked. Educators know very well how outside influences affect a student’s intelligence. If, in fact, it did not make a difference, what would be the point of interventions or initiating programs trying to give students a better chance and to help bridge the gap between races?

What if you learn best by bouncing ideas off another person, gaining important feedback, and there is no one around to do that for you?

The notion of living conditions or the environment not affecting IQ seems absurd when you think about it, but in fairness, it is not if you are coming from an “IQ is genetic” place. Think about where you learn best. Is it in a noisy, crowded, and littered area? It could be, there is no judgment here. But what if you had that type of environment and you learn best in a calm, quiet, clean atmosphere?

Conversely, what if you learn best by bouncing ideas off another person, gaining important feedback, and there is no one around to do that for you? This definitely will affect intelligence. If the tools are not there for a person to learn how to know what to do in different situations, how will they achieve this? The disparity of levels of intelligence has much to do with the conditions one lives in.

Inherited Smarts

While many have believed in the past that “smart breeds smart” naturally, it is not necessarily true. It can be genetic, but to be able to actually measure the amount that is, is a test to be taken in the far, far future. You may often see well educated and intelligent parents having “smart” children, it could be argued that it was just as much environmental influences as genetic. After all, there are intelligent parents with children who are not as bright as they are, well, at least not yet.

Parents that went to college and who were motivated academically are more likely to do the same for their own children. The converse is also true, although many parents work hard so their children can achieve more than they had during their schooling years.

Disparity of IQ

Disparities can often be simply because those with lower socioeconomic status have fewer opportunities. Often lower SES families deal with poverty, poor living conditions, and an environment not conducive to learning. To gain data, this study  followed almost 49,000 mothers and their children, numbering almost 60,000, all in different living conditions and SES from birth to age seven.

Often lower SES families deal with poverty, poor living conditions, and an environment not conducive to learning.

At age seven, the children were given the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children test. From this we were able to ascertain that the higher the SES, the less inhibiting environmental factors there were, and the IQ’s were higher than those with lower SES.

The Bell Curve Doesn’t Ring as Loud

Now that the findings of The Bell Curve have been corrected, it is time to get educators, parents, and policy makers to get on board. Hopefully, those still thinking the original findings are right are few and far between. Not to disregard the conclusions in their entirety, it was correct that tests can determine IQ, but not like people may think.

IQ Tests

IQ tests can provide a function, but the score should not be used as a defining factor of complete intelligence. These tests can be a predictor of future success, but not a guarantee. IQ tests actually measure two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. The intelligences work together, but where crystallized intelligence cannot affect fluid, the fluid intelligence can affect crystallized.

Fluid Intelligence

Fluid intelligence is monitored by the prefrontal cortex and measures ability to predict patterns, problem-solving, and learning. It can be affected by amount of working memory (where the thinking happens) and the ability to focus attention. Because this intelligence is learning-based, it remains level until middle adulthood, then begins to wane. Based on this definition, you can see where a student with ADD or ADHD can have lower scores, even if they are highly intelligent.

[Click here to find out more about engaging students with ADHD.]

Crystallized Intelligence

Crystallized intelligence is monitored by many different parts of the brain and measures the knowledge about the world, and the understanding that things can change, be changed, added upon, and subtracted. It is also includes language, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. Crystallized intelligence is ever changing, and builds throughout one’s life.

Multiple Intelligences

While these two types of intelligence are measured, there are many different forms of intelligence. Dr. Howard Gardner, a name most educators are familiar with, developed the Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983. There are nine different intelligences that people have, and many have more than one.

They are: linguistic, logical-mathematical, music rhythm, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, naturalist, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential intelligences. Everyone has something they are good at doing or learning, and it can be defined by one of the intelligences. Some people also have social and emotional intelligence.

If these intelligences could be measured formally, many people would have a much higher number on their IQ score. Think about someone in your class that struggles, then see if you can find what they are good at doing based on the list above. Put yourself, as an educator to the test, and see where you fall in the Multiple Intelligences.

Hopefully, one is interpersonal, which is dealing with others.

On Being Smart Vs Intelligent

As with intelligence, the word “smart” is heard, and the two are often interchangeable. The difference is that being smart is more about being adaptable. Do you know someone who is more successful than you (not narrowly defined by money) and never went to college? They may not be formally educated, but they were smart and did something right.

Someone can be book-smart and effortlessly regurgitate what they have read, while others learned how to fix cars and electrical devices by watching others.

So, Back to Jimmy…

Here comes Jimmy, shuffling his feet, dreading the talk with you about his test. What are you going to say? Not to be ominous, but this could be a defining moment for Jimmy. We all have one teacher we look back on fondly for something, and it is usually because of the way they treated us, believed in us, and made learning fun.

Remind Jimmy of what he can do, and do not focus on what he cannot do. [Read more about the right way to give student feedback]

Point out Jimmy’s artwork to let him know you would appreciate it even more on a large piece of paper, rather than the test. Remind him of what a good artist he is, and ask what he feels he can do well. You may be surprised to find that this quiet, frustrated boy that cannot do his math problems, is more intelligent than you think.


2 Responses

  1. Alex M. says:

    I think self-awareness is a real show of intellect – being aware of others and your impact on the world around you. Creativity is key, too, such as with authors and musicians (composers, particularly) – being able to understand human emotions and convey an incredible story. Obviously if you’re academically gifted that’s great, but there’s much more to intelligence than simply getting straight As in your exam results.

  2. Marilyn says:

    What it means to be intelligent, as, for my opinion is a combination of being street smart, and book smart. They work together.

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