The Tug of War is Over!

The war of words between psychologists over the nature of human intelligence is over

Branton Shearer < excerpted 12/12/17 >

A scientific puzzle is solved. The debate is over. For 35 years teachers, students and parents have been stuck in the middle of the war of words between psychologists regarding the nature of human intelligence. Neuroscience evidence now builds a coherent bridge between IQ and multiple intelligences. This battle among theorists has resulted in confusion and unhappy compromises as teachers struggle to serve two masters. On the one side are IQ-ists who argue that intelligence is unitary and only associated with academic skills (reading, math and such). These folks advocate for a standardized curriculum emphasizing basic skills development. On the other side are advocates for personalized instruction based on the idea of multiple intelligences. They argue that human intelligence cannot be summed up with a single number and that student learning will increase with differentiated instruction that emphasizes strength-based activities.

Multiple Intelligences theory describes eight forms of intelligence possessed by all people but with varying levels of skill and ability. The eight intelligences are Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical (associated with general intelligence and academic success), Visual-Spatial, Kinesthetic, Musical, Naturalist, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal [3]. Since 1983, schools and teachers around the world have been striving to find the best ways of using MI theory to enhance education.

Of particular concern are the large numbers of students who are marginalized as a result of being stigmatized by simplistic labels such as “merely average,” or “below average,” or “not very bright.” On the flip side are students with highly developed skills that go unrecognized, unappreciated, or denigrated because they don’t fit into the academic hierarchy. No room for creativity on tests of intelligence or math skills.

This debate is not merely an arid academic question among ivory towered grey beards. Millions of dollars are paid out to the winners. Careers are wrecked or made; egos bruised or acclaimed. This conflict is most keenly felt in the schools and classrooms as teachers plan lessons and curriculum designers organize their priorities. Students and parents are casualties of the conflict, too. Parents preside over the “homework wars” as students wrestle with worksheets and perplexing projects.

There is something appealing about the simplicity of the IQ score (as a measure of general intelligence, also called g by psychologists). Unfortunately, like most simplistic labels it is simply not true that a person’s intellectual potential can be neatly fit into the box like someone’s shirt size. The human brain resists being carved up into neat categories because it is a massively interconnected and always changing and growing organ.

Five investigations involving more than 500 neuroscience studies lead to the conclusion that each intelligence possesses its own unique neural architecture. What is the relationship between IQ and MI? In 1983, Howard Gardner explained that general intelligence is comprised of the Logical-mathematical and Linguistic intelligences. This theory is supported by the neuroscience evidence because IQ is associated with nearly the exact same neural structures as those two intelligences.

The debate is not MI vs. IQ but rather how can we use a multiple intelligences understanding of each student to build the academic skills associated with IQ? MI does not minimize the importance of skills such as reading, attention to detail, logical thinking, and mathematics. Of course, those are important skills. But for artists they are no more important than imagination, spatial awareness, and intuition. Only when we understand each person’s unique profile of strengths can we devise strategies to maximize their development and build or manage weaknesses. IQ-based limitations are not to be avoided but instead creatively addressed by leveraging strengths in the service of whole brain development. This is not a dry theoretical argument but instead a practical approach to developing human potential.

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