In our inaugural episode of the Compass, we look at an idea that underlies all of our learning in college: intelligence. Where does this idea come from? We also discuss Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory and how it complicates the modern concept of intelligence.
Bess Cohen: This podcast is a production of the Office of Academic Resources at Haverford College. For more information about the OAR, go to haverford.edu/oar.
Peter Granville: Hello everyone, this is the compass, the official podcast of the Office of Academic Resources at Haverford College.
Charlie Bruce: For those of you who may not know, the Office of Academic Resources offers students an array of services designed to enhance their academic potential and supplement the opportunities already available to them through their coursework and research here at Haverford.
PG: My name is Peter Granville, and I’m the office’s program coordinator.
CB: And I’m Charlie Bruce, the graduate assistant.
PG: We’re two educators interested challenging students to tap into their full academic potential through various educational theories. And this podcast is called the compass because it offers a guide to help students navigate the sometimes difficult terrain of college.
CB: In our first episode, we want to delve deep into a topic that we don’t talk about much, but one that underlies so much of educational life: the idea of “Intelligence.” Our current understanding of intelligence strongly emphasizes certain sets of skills, like how to do math, but it fails to acknowledge the full capacity of the human mind.
PG: We’ll start by sharing the history of our modern, admittedly western, conception of intelligence. Afterwards, we’ll talk about a theory that challenges this idea – it’s called multiple intelligences theory, and it says that we can do a much better job conceiving of intelligence. This theory says that intelligence is multidimensional, highly diverse across people, and not fixed. One of the biggest implications for educators and students is that the human mind has many different strengths, which relates to how they acquire knowledge and skills and how they apply their learning.
CB: By introducing MIT on this podcast, we wanted students to get excited about pushing themselves in their learning and understanding how complex their minds really are. So, let’s hit the rewind button, Peter, when we were initially discussing this, you had said that this goes back to not that long ago.
Peter: Right, this particular idea of intelligence goes back to the year 1900, Alfred Binet, and he was approached about a particular problem. Lots of students from outside of Paris were having trouble in the Parisian primary schools, and with limited space in the Parisian primary schools, how could they predict which children would be successful in school, and which would not. Do you have any ideas Charlie?
Charlie: Maybe they could take a test.
Peter: Maybe, that was Binet’s idea. He came up with this test that had various questions. Every child took his test of logic and the results did strongly correlate with students success in schools. He went so far as to call this an intelligence test, and within a matter of years, this test was quite popular. Binet had come up with an idea that put intelligence measurement as something that you could measure, like someone’s height. Flash forward to 2018, I think most of our listeners have taken a form of this test, mainly the SAT or the ACT, this test is a necessity on the road to higher education.
Charlie: From your experience, do you think taking the SAT is a good measure of your intelligence?
Peter: For myself I would say not, I know that there are a lot of skills that were not measured on the SAT. And the scary part is that so much of your life hinges on how well you do on this test.
CB: I see, so it’s kind of like Binet was Dr. Frankenstein here, where he creates a psychometric tool for a good purpose, but it ends up taking a life of its own and causing distress for people generations to come.
Peter: Yeah, to be sure, he said himself that it does not evaluate intelligence holistically. Binet’s intention was to evaluate a specific, small group of people for a particular purpose. It was not conceived of something that should be used to rank everyone in the whole world.
CB: So if Binet created our modern idea of intelligence as something that can be measured in, say, fifty questions or less. What would be a better more holistic understanding of intelligence look like?
PG: yeah, there’s this guy, Howard Gardner, it’s his book that I read, the book is called Multiple Intelligence, and in the early 80s, he came up with this theory of MIT based off of his observations there are so many ways in which the brain does incredible things which is not summarized by these forms of intelligence. His specific definition of an intelligence is any computational capacity of the brain to solve problems and create products. A product could be a statistical analysis, or a music composition, and solving a problem could be repairing a quilt or anticipating a move in chess, it covers almost everything that the brain does.
CB: So what are the specific ways our brain makes products or solves problems?
PG: Gardner identifies 8 intelligences, and just to list a few of them, there’s musical intelligence, there’s body kinesthetic, spatial, logical intelligence. And every person is using all of these intelligences, you don’t have one, but not the other, you have all of them, they’re just expressed at different levels. There are just some people who are inclined to one and not the other
CB And why is it important in the field of education that there are multiple intelligences?
PG: One of the biggest takeaways from Gardner’s theory is that we need to recognize that different people have different methods of engaging with content. Now, there’s two sides to this application of multiple intelligences. One is about how we teach, and the other is about how we learn. Gardner cares a lot about how we teach, and his main argument for teachers is that it’s important to recognize the many ways in which mastery of material can be demonstrated. He wants instructors to give students the chance to demonstrate learning in the way that best reflects how their brains work. Here’s Gardner himself explaining this idea.
HG: We have this myth that the only way to learn something is to read it in a textbook or to listen to a lecture on it…anything can be taught in more than one way…
PG: So, there’s one big implication of MI theory for teachers: consider giving your students options. But, there’s this whole other side of this: how should multiple intelligences inform how we learn?
CB I think maybe a story is the best way to talk about this actually. Peter, before we started recording, you were telling me about a way you used one intelligence in a field that was not traditional to it, right?
Peter: Yeah, so going back to my freshman year of college, I was intending on being an english major, and I was really struggling with paper writing, I would get feedback saying “this is a bad paper,”. My sophomore year, I took a course in the math department called foundations in abstract mathematics. And in that course, there was a greater scrutiny around the assumptions that we make. There was all this conversation around what logical statements to lead to what following statements, purely in a mathematical sense. And that helped me bring that to my paper writing. There was no formal bridge necessarily, but as I was writing papers my sophomore year, I was doing a better job questioning what are my assumptions right now, how do these things all connect, and I think that came through because of that logical mathematical intelligence I was developing through my abstract math course. And asking yourself, what other skills can i develop or bring into this exercise that can help me do the best work that i can, will help you tap into your fullest potential.
Charlie: Right, and when students are reflecting on the types of intelligences that they have, two intelligences that are often overlooked are interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence. Interpersonal intelligence is having a way of relating to other people, being aware of how your interactions have an impact on the world around you. intrapersonal intelligence is knowing yourself really well, understanding your own habits, and these two often go overlooked in academia. In general, we could do a better job of getting to know ourselves and learning how to interact with the world around us as something that is a part of the “academic experience.”
PG: Yeah and I don’t think we really teach those well, i mean how many times have you entered in a group project and you’ve struggled because no one knows how to work with each other.
CB A lot. But when I think back to my college years, I remember one professor I had who was able to get us to cultivate our interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, he teaches here at Haverford, John Muse, teaches Interdisciplinary College Program courses, theory and practice of conceptual art. And when you were talking to me about MIT, I thought, “I should reach out to John”.
Peter: What made you want to reach out to John specifically?
CB: He teaches courses a little bit differently.
John: I wanted to teach classes in conceptually based practices, in deskilled, you don’t need to know anything except how to engage with materials that are close at hand. And once I started teaching that way, more project based classes came to mind.
CB: John challenges his students by asking his students to do things a little out of the ordinary. I wanted to see what kinds of projects that he’s currently trying to do, so I stopped in on one of his classes. I talked to a couple of students in his class like Kate, who were really excited about the course.
Student: “There’s a really interesting line in the course description that its art but the creators of conceptual art don’t need to know how to draw or paint, because it’s not traditional art. so I think thats the coolest part about it.”
Charlie: This is different from other classes where you’re more or less expected to already have some level of strength within the subject before you walk in.
Peter: “So what kind of exercises and activities does John do in his class?”
Charlie: “So this particular class they middle of starting their first homework assignment.”
Peter: And that was?
“Now we’re waiting in a queue to saw a blank of wood.”
“The only rule is that it can’t exceed the length of one arm from us the whole week.”
Peter: “What kind of reactions did the students have to this assignment?
Charlie: “They varied.”
“I started laughing,”
“This is cool, but inconvenient, which I believe is the goal of it.”
CB: there were some concerns, like the logistics of carrying this object
“I’m already curious about the transport, because I like to ride my skateboard and my bike, and I think I would be restricted in my mobility with an object like this in my hands.”
“Yes its going to be bothersome but it doesn’t bother me that I’m going to be carrying this for a whole week because I will discover some interesting stuff.”
Charlie: But they all said John acknowledged the limits they might have in bringing around this plank of wood, so they didn’t need to bring it if they were, say, playing field hockey. One of the reasons why I wanted to share this example is that the students were genuinely excited about a challenge.
Students: “I see it as a challenge that has merit due to the constraints in which it was formed.”
“It’s hard to see how it relates to academics, I think that it’s cool that at haverford we can think about things that aren’t traditional.”
“Im a math major and comp sci minor, but I’m always interested in art in my whole entire life, whether it’s related to dance or art, but just having something my scope of understanding outside of the logical world is great.”
“So when I first heard about this exercise, my reaction was: how much could I destroy this board? And I guess my next reaction was also along that project taking that material and transforming it. I’m also an electric guitar builder, and so that was the logical next step was to turn it into an instrument”
CB: After this class, I was thinking about other ways that students and educators can push themselves to grasp new concepts by trying different techniques.
Peter: To me it sounds like the students each viewed the exercise through the lens of their other coursework: they naturally thought of ways that this exercise could expand the kinds of thinking that they do on a daily basis. Someone thought of it as working in contrast to their more logical academic tasks. Another person was excited for how it was unlike anything else they had done for Haverford. I think these responses highlight how rich it can be to do something outside your comfort zone, engaging in unfamiliar modes of thought.
Charlie: Exactly. And, remember how we talked about how interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence aren’t taught much in college?
Peter: Yeah, those two intelligences get left to the wayside pretty often.
Charlie. I think that John’s exercise with the plank of wood is a great example of how these intelligences can be developed.
Peter: Oh sure, by carrying around a plank of wood that’s your own height, you get a new sense of your own dimensions, which develops that inTRApersonal intelligence through increased self-awareness of how tall you are.
Charlie. Yeah, and the student’s inTERpersonal intelligence is developed because, by constantly carrying around a plank of wood that’s 5 or 6 feet long, you’re more sensitive to those around you, and how they’re affected by what you’re carrying. So Peter, I brought this up to raise the question: how do you think students can push themselves in general in their learning like the students in John’s class?
Peter: Yeah, that’s the big question. Not every class is like John’s, but students can still benefit from the same principles by flexing the intelligences they don’t use as often. To a student, I would say, take a serious look at your approaches to your coursework – could you benefit from strengthening the modes of thought you use less often?
Charlie: Like when you were taking that Math course.
Peter: Right, when I took that Math course, I was using a mode of thought I hadn’t been using as much, but it helped me across my coursework, including in English. So that’s one question to ask. But also, try to understand your own intelligences. Ask yourself questions like, “when did I do really well in school? What exactly was going on there?” If a teacher ever gave you really positive feedback, what exactly did you do that lead to that achievement?
Charlie: I think that this question is really important as you start to shape your academic journey to have that sense of self awareness. Like, if you wanted to be anthropology major, you could ask your professor what strengths do I have that would make me suitable for studying in this field?
Peter: It doesn’t even need to be discipline specific. You can ask any professor, what are my defining features as a student in your class? Because by asking those questions, you’ll learn more about yourself and you may develop a more nuanced sense of your strengths. I would also say lastly, recognize that no task involves just one intelligence. If you feel stuck while taking on a new task, see if you can reframe it in terms of your strengths.
Charlie: I think those are great examples. And one of the things that we’ve learned in our research is when you challenge your brains in new ways, they can literally change. That’s called neuroplasticity.
Peter: Like brains rewiring.
Charlie: And in our next episode, we’re going to be talking about how neuroplasticity relates to deliberate practice.
Peter: And what’s Deliberate Practice?
Charlie: It’s about a way of devoting yourself to a particular task like playing guitar that over time will allow your proficiency to improve.
Peter: That’s cool!
CB: In closing this episode, I want to thank John Muse, students of Theory and Practice of Conceptual Art, staff and interns at the OAR for their support on this project. Hiroyo Saito, Charles Woodward, and Sebastiana Skalisky for helping us draft our website, thehaverfordcompass.com.
PG: If you haven’t visited yet, you can find our show notes and other information there.
CB: If there’s a topic that we haven’t explored that you want to hear more about, email us at HC-OAR@haverford.edu. Tune in for our next episode where we talk about deliberate practice.
PG: See ya then!