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What is intelligence?

Intelligence is an abstract construct that eludes definition. Yet, we feel that it is something that can be measured and quantified. Furthermore, we have woven a web of biases of what an intelligent person should or should not do.

THE TERMS `intelligent', `brilliant', `slow' and `dull' are used by teachers and parents to categorise children according to intellect. While we all have an intuitive grasp of what intelligence is, we find it hard to define it. Intelligence is an abstract construct that eludes definition. Yet, we feel that it is something that can be measured and quantified. Furthermore, we have woven a web of biases of what an intelligent person should or shouldn't do. For example, a more intelligent child is encouraged to pursue a professional degree, while a less intelligent child is streamlined into softer options like the humanities. The history of formal intelligence testing dates back to the 1800s when Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, was commissioned by the French Ministry of Education to construct tests to determine which children were not likely to succeed in school so that they could receive special attention. This test was later adapted by Stanford psychologists Lewis Terman, who developed the Standford-Binet Test. A number of intelligence tests have sprung up since then — the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for children and adults, Kaufman's Intelligence Test and Raven's Progressive Matrices.

Most intelligence tests consist of a number of subtests that assess abilities such as verbal and mathematical reasoning, logical thinking, vocabulary and general knowledge — abilities that are generally required in a traditional scholastic environment. A significant contribution towards intelligence testing was made by Charles Spearman, who used the statistical procedure of factor analysis to show that a "general faculty" subserved all intelligence subtests. While different subtests tapped independent and separate abilities, a "general faculty" also operated upon them. Spearman based his supposition on the fact that most of the subtests of traditional psychometric tests of intelligence tend to correlate with each other to some extent.

In India, The Standford-Binet test has been adapated as the Binet-Kamath Test. Most intelligence tests are designed to provide an I.Q. (intelligence quotient) score, which is defined as: I.Q. = Mental Age/Chronological Age x 100. Thus, a ten-year old child who has a mental age of a 14 year-old, will have an I.Q. of 140. The mental age is based on a set of norms that have been devised by collecting data on a fairly large sample of children of different ages, whom the test makers believe are representative of a population at large. One of the criticisms of I.Q. tests is that most tests are not truly representative, especially regarding lower income and minotiry groups. Even if I.Q. tests are truly representative, they have some drawbacks. Foremost, traditional psychometric tests of intelligence are based on the proposition that human beings are endowed with a single, "general faculty" for acquiring information. Secondly, as a person is given a fixed I.Q. score, his/her intelligence is taken to be a fixed, unchanging entity. Traditional tests of intelligence do not take situational and contextual information into account. Thirdly, they penalise a child for a creative or unconventional answer.

Fortunately, I.Q. tests are used selectively in India, mainly by psychologists who assess children with learning problems. In such situations, an intelligence test may provide valuable information regarding a child's cognitive profile over and above the single I.Q. score. Even though I.Q. testing has not pervaded the Indian educational scene in a big way, our conception of intelligence in school settings is similar to those who developed psychometric assessments. Parents and educators view intelligence within a narrow framework. Thus, even though most children do not undergo formal I.Q. testing, school tests and examinations serve as proxy intelligence tests. Children who score high marks in school are deemed more intelligent than those who do not. Our marks-oriented approach, which streamlines children into future careers as early as Class IX, has a number of drawbacks.

Firstly, we use the term `intelligent' quite narrowly and measure it based on performance on academic tests which, by and large, do not provide an index of a student's creative or critical reasoning skills. Performance on mathematical and linguistic tasks, which form the bulk of academic assessments, are taken as a yardstick of the student's overall intelligence. Second, we overlook other abilities and do not provide sufficient opportunities for students to explore and excel in other domains. The cultivation of positive self-esteem is often neglected in schools as children are judged solely by their marks in scholastic tasks. Children who excel in sports, music, dance or drawing are often not given due recognition by the system. Third, we often overlook the contribution of environmental factors for the development of intelligence. As a culture we tend to view `intelligence' as being more innate; and do not give due recognition to the external factors that are as important as, if not more, than our biological endowment.

An alternative view to the traditional conception of intelligence has been put forth by the neuropsychologist Howard Gardner. His theory of multiple intelligences looks at human potential in its broadest sense. He defines `intelligence' as a "biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture". Thus, he broadens the scope of `intelligence' by pluralising it. He believes that we are endowed with separate faculties for dealing with different kinds of symbol systems. Drawing evidence from eclectic sources, including neuropsychology, experimental and developmental psychology, Gardner claims that there are at least eight distinct intelligences. These are 1) linguistic; 2) logical-mathematical; 3) bodily-kinesthetic; 4) spatial; 5) musical; 6) interpersonal; 7) intrapersonal; 8) naturalist. The first two intelligences are those required for scholastic tasks and have been traditionally viewed as the faculties comprising intellect. However, the theory of multiple intelligences has broadened the scope of how we conceive of intelligence — Gardner argues that people who excel in other areas such as dance or music should also be considered `intelligent'. Gardner also stresses the importance of socio-cultural variables in the development of an intelligence. While a child may be inclined towards a particular type of intelligence, he/she is not going to excel in that field unless given an opportunity to cultivate and hone it. We need to be aware that our school system stresses the importance of linguistic and mathematical intelligences, often to the exclusion of other faculties.

What are the implications of the theory of multiple intelligences of educators and school administrators? First, the theory questions the disproportionate importance given to linguistic and mathematical skills in traditional forms of testing. Most schools also tend to evaluate students solely on these skills. Thus, educators need to be a aware of the fact that different types of intelligences exist, and that a child who does not perform well on a task that requires a certain type of intelligence may excel at a task that taps a different type of intelligence. Second, the fact that Gardner used eclectic sources of data while formulating his theory also throw light on the nature of the intelligences and their assessment. Intelligence is complex, and a number of tasks in appropriate contexts are required to assess it. Plain paper and pencil tasks simply will not do. Gardner, however, remains wary regarding assessment, and is aware of the pitfalls of any standardised test. Teachers need to be aware of the fact that traditional tests do not necessarily reveal a student's potential.

While the theory of multiple intelligences has gained popularity in many schools all over the world, Gardner remains sceptical of whether his theory is being misunderstood or misrepresented when applied in school settings. As he himself does not offer concrete application criteria and leaves it to the educators to develop for themselves, his scepticism is fair. Even in India there are a few elite schools that claim to be applying the theory. Often, this application is at a very superficial level — a pitfall that Gardner himself has warned against. He has also cautioned educators from labelling children according to types of intelligences.

However, what the theory can offer educators at this point is a framework to shape their philosophy of how they view children and intelligence — two areas of concern for any institution dedicated to the cause of education. The theory of multiple intelligences offers a broad framework for educators to review their pedagogical goals and priorities. As assessment is an integral component of most schools, educators will benefit from critiquing their own assessment standards and criteria.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

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