Intelligence vs ability

Orla is struggling in maths again. ‘I’m just not clever enough to do this, Miss’. For some reason the fact that she has been hailed a ‘literary genius’ since the age of seven on the basis of her creative word play and devouring Philip Pullman novels since the age of eight doesn’t seem to factor in this negative self-perception. And Sally. Well, what can we say about Sally?

Working beyond Level 8 in maths at the tender age of 12, though she needs to work alone and abhors open-ended questions. The concept of error does not factor on her agenda. And what about Felix, the self-appointed ‘voice’ of his year group? A master of oracy, community activism, verbal persuasion, divergent thinking and conflict resolution, he has been tipped to be the next prime minister by his peers, though looking at the doodles and scrawls in his English book, you would never guess that this boy is a lightening-quick thinker.

If you were asked to place these diverse individuals in order of intelligence, who would you plump for as number one? And who would be last on your list? And who can and should progress to university or beyond? I would argue that these have become pivotal questions for educators.
At the heart of the matter lies our very understanding of the nature of intelligence and ability. And intrinsically linked is the concept of potential. Add the nature versus nurture debate and throw in social class, genetics and schooling and it is quickly apparent that this issue is complex and sticky.

Scholars such as Spearman and Terman championed the IQ tests as a measure of intelligence and you might argue that this measure has withstood the test of time. Organisations such as Mensa continue to use similar questions in their search for genius. This is perhaps fair play, given that a decent IQ test provides opportunities for candidates to display a number of skills such as spatial ability, problem solving, literacy and numeracy skills. But which of our three pupils would score the highest? And does this test really provide a comprehensive assessment of a person’s intelligence? I would argue not.

Debates have raged for years about the potential for class bias and sheer narrowness of IQ, as well as their tendency to minimise the vast and complex beast that is human intelligence to a one dimensional score. The other end of the spectrum is to acknowledge a range of intelligences. This view, espoused most prominently by Howard Gardner, has the potential to raise the esteem of bright young things overlooked by traditional testing, though the broadness of these defined intelligences doesn’t help me to put my pupils in rank order. Are we really helped by the knowledge that Orla tends rabbits better than Sally or that Felix likes to solve problems when walking across the yard with a pencil behind his ear?

So perhaps intelligence is something bestowed on us at birth – a ‘golden gene’? Although I would not dare to deny that genetics play a huge part in our entire make-up, this does not explain why Sally’s mother and father were both well documented maths ‘failures’. Or does it? To what extent do nurture and accompanying social factors such as diet, social class and aspiration intercede in the development of our intelligence? This is the rabbit hole of intelligence and the reason neither IQ tests or the broad spectrum descriptors are helpful in pinning the concept down.

If education is based on the concept of cognitive development, then surely we must accept that intelligence is to a certain extent ‘plastic’ and capable of growth? This is where the heavyweight concepts of potential and aspiration muscle in. And we all love ‘rags to riches’ stories and inspirational quotes about following your dreams, don’t we? As a practitioner, I have always championed the importance of aspirations, self-esteem and motivation in achieving one’s potential. Yes, potential. That vacuous and unlimited thing that spirals towards the sky in a glittering arc. Or does it? Perhaps this is where our concept of intelligence comes unstuck again. Is potential really limitless? And is intelligence limitless in terms of its plasticity and potential to increase? Or is their a sneaky ‘glass ceiling’ up there that pupils like Orla will bump her head on every time she tries to do those sums with the brackets and the equals bit in them?

Against an isolated concept
I admit that intelligence is far too complex to isolate in 950 words, though I feel it is wise to close with some healthy scholarly perspectives on why an isolated concept is perhaps useless. When writing about eminence in gifted pupils, Renzulli argued that intelligence alone is not sufficient and must be accompanied by ‘creativity’ and ‘risk taking’. Indeed, Sternberg argued that ‘successful intelligence’ comprises of analytical, practical and creative components. He also stressed that intelligence does not always translate into ‘scholastic competence’.

So how would we rank our pupils? Indeed, will we rank them? Can each of the three not be schooled to follow the path that best suits their unique skill-set? Let’s not forget Vygotsky’s concept of intelligence as mediated by culture. Surely we can nurture a culture where abilities are valued and potential is developed without the need to place them in a line or limit them to a score? Somewhere between Spearman and Gardner lies a range of possibilities and it is our duty as educators to grapple with the needs and aspirations of the individuals we serve against the backdrop of the vast, unfathomable and colourful challenges of human capability.

Further reading

* Renzulli, JS (1986) ‘The Three-ring Conception of Giftedness: A Developmental Model for Creative Productivity’ in RJ Sternberg and JH Davison (eds) Conceptions of Giftedness (pp53-92), New York: Cambridge University Press.
* Smith, MK (2002) ‘Howard Gardner and Multiple Intelligences’, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education
* Spearman, C (1927) The Abilities of Man, London: Macmillan.
* Sternberg, RJ (2001) ‘Giftedness as Developing Expertise: A Theory of the Interface between High Abilities and Achieved Excellence’, High Ability Studies, 12:2.
* Vygotsky, L (1978) Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jo McShane examines the ‘sticky’ issue of the IQ and social class debate

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