How do you characterise intelligence? - Michelle Gibbings

How do you characterise intelligence?

There are many words we use to describe someone who is intelligent. For example, brainy, clever, bright, brilliant, sharp, quick-minded and smart. To name but a few.

Who immediately springs to mind for you when you think of someone who fits that definition?

We all have a view of what intelligence looks like and who we see as intelligent.

It could be the tech-wizz who is brilliant at designing apps. The researcher who uncovers new ways of understanding the world. The person who can hold facts and data in their head and always win Trivial Pursuit. The gifted orator who uses verbal reasoning and narratives to inspire.

Our view of what makes a person intelligent and what it looks like in practice differs.

This is one of the reasons why I like Howard Gardner’s perspective on intelligence. He is a research Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He believes that intelligence is the capacity to process a certain kind of information in a certain way. It is this processing that enables us to solve problems or create solutions that matter to people.

He developed a theory known as the multiple intelligences, of which there are eight categories:

  • Musical: a person with this characteristic shows sensitivity to rhythm and sounds in their environment. They like music.
  • Bodily/kinaesthetic: a person with this characteristic can move their body effectively and have a keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things and touching.
  • Logical/mathematical: a person with this characteristic can solve problems rapidly, and are able to reason, calculate, think conceptually, and see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment and solve puzzles.
  • Linguistic: a person with this characteristic can use words effectively. They have highly developed auditory skills. They like reading, playing word games and making up poetry or stories.
  • Spatial: a person with this characteristic tends to think in terms of physical space. Being very aware of their environments, they like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles and read maps.
  • Interpersonal: a person with this characteristic can note contrasts in moods, motivations and intentions of other people
  • Intrapersonal: a person with this characteristic has a strong understanding of their own feelings and emotions, and how they guide their behaviour
  • Naturalistic: a person with this characteristic is readily able to nurture and relate information to the natural environment in which they live. They can recognise elements in nature and the core distinctions in the natural world and use this ability productively.

You can read more about this in his book: Multiple Intelligences.

Fortunately, we don’t just slot into one of these categories, nor are we born with all the intelligence we will ever have. Each of us has many bits of intelligence, which come together and combine in a unique way – producing a set of capabilities we use at work and in everyday life.

For example, a computer programmer or app designer would use a mix of linguistic, mathematical and spatial. A history teacher would use a mix of linguistic and interpersonal. A dancer would use a mixture of musical and bodily/kinaesthetic. A coach or mentor would use a mixture of linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. A surgeon would use a mixture of logical/mathematical, linguistic and bodily/kinaesthetic.

The challenge is that across society and the workplace we assign different values to these intelligences. Gardner suggests that it is the linguistic and logical-mathematical modalities, which are most highly prized and valued. Consequently, we can discount other forms of intelligence as less intelligent, less worthy and less important.

Listening to the cognitive scientist, Scott Barry Kaufman, on the Hidden Brain podcast he explains how standard IQ tests don’t measure all forms of intelligence equally well, particularly creativity. If you want to feel smarter, it’s worth listening to. He challenges us to think about how we define intelligence and to not too quickly judge and categorise people.

As Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology from Cambridge University, Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian and colleagues remind us “…some of the greatest achievements by our species have primarily relied on qualities such as creativity, imagination, curiosity and empathy”.

In their article in The Conversation they suggest that one of the critical elements we need is cognitive flexibility. This is the ability to switch between ideas, change your operating style and behaviour, shift how you learn and adapt your decision-making. When we are cognitively flexible we can be more adaptive and creative in how we approach and solve problems.

For me, it’s also about contextual intelligence. Context matters in all we do. Different types of intelligence are more relevant in different situations and environments. To achieve the best outcomes and make the most progress we need to be adept at recognising the shifting context and then open to identifying what is best needed at that moment. In doing this, each person can then step forward (or step back, if needed) and let the person with the most fit-for-purpose intelligence at that moment lead the way.

The lovely thing about intelligence is it isn’t static. Sure, there are elements that people are more naturally suited to and more comfortable with. For all of us, our intelligence advances and changes as we learn and grow, and experience new things.

So what effort are you putting into expanding your intelligence, and where are you best leveraging the different intelligences of your colleagues and team members?

As Howard Gardner said: “If you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance”.

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