Instead of "Are You Smart?" Try "Which Kind of Smart Are You?"

I believe there is an overemphasis on being smart. I have no problem with intelligence. My problem is with how intelligence is typically defined.

If I were to ask you, "in which subjects do the smartest kids major?" what would you say? I suspect that you would say mathematics (statistics, calculus, accounting, and so on) and the natural sciences (physics, biochemistry, neuroscience, and so on). It doesn't matter that tests of intelligence take into consideration a range of competencies--musical awareness, bodily coordination, memory, creativity, and so on. We more or less think that the physicists are smart and the musicians and artists, though talented, aren't very smart.

Children who happen to be gifted with numbers (mathematics) or letters (reading and writing) are reminded repeatedly about how they will be going places in life. Children who happen to be gifted in the creative arts and sports are reminded about how wonderful it is to have hobbies, but that they will eventually need to be like their maths and writing peers if they wish to be taken seriously in life.

That's what I have a problem with.

Thankfully I am not alone. An educational psychologist at Harvard has been pushing back against this narrow definition of intelligence for half a century. His name is Howard Gardner.

Gardner believed that all children were intelligent, but the intelligence measures that we were using at the time only focused on about 25% of the possible types of intelligence. This meant that 75% of intelligence was being ignored. Below is an illustration of the many types of intelligence Gardner argued for.

Image from Wikipedia

Gardner observed how schools were focused primarily on the bottom right quadrant. In the image, these are labeled "Logic Smart" and "Word Smart." Most schools today still focus on this quadrant. This is great for students who happen to be gifted with words, numbers, and abstract reasoning.

I happened to be gifted with numbers, so teachers boasted to my parents how exceptional I was. Can you imagine what it was like having teachers sing my praises throughout my entire life? It made me feel like I could do anything I wished.

Now imagine that I was gifted with music. When I was supposed to be memorizing multiplication tables, I was recognizing the rhythmic differences between 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. "You need to focus, Patrick," and so on. At parent-teacher conferences, my teachers would explain how I had trouble staying on task and learning the materials. I would probably have been given labeled with a learning disorder, and possibly given medication to curb my musical awareness.

Can you spot the problem? In both cases, a student is gifted. But only one of those gifts gets to shine.

For Gardner, schools should be designed to support the intellectual gifts that students have, no matter what they are. This means that a school for students gifted with language would be different from a school for students gifted with artistic awareness. 

Can you imagine attending a school that emphasized your gifts? A school that asked you to do what you were already good at, but to get even better? That was my experience, and it was wonderful. I enjoyed school. But it is Gardner's (and my) wish that everybody could have that experience.

If you can't predict which kind of intelligence represents your natural inclination, then take Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Test. (External Link.)