Intelligence is…

[797 words]

Week 2 of the “What future for education?” MOOC focuses on intelligence, a tricky and controversial topic. Here is the initial reflection prompt:

Reflect on:

  • What you already know about intelligence. How do you know if someone is intelligent or not?

  • Do you consider yourself to be intelligent? Why? What is your evidence for this?

  • Finish this sentence: Intelligence is … and post your idea on AnswerGarden here

I will start with the third bit, then move to the first and second bullet points. On “AnswerGarden” (an online app that creates a kind of word cloud) I gave three answers:

  • Intelligence is  complex
  • Intelligence is a complex set of skills and potential
  • Intelligence is like a garden

The first point is my own honest answer. The other two I entered mostly to “upvote” the two responses that I believed made the most sense. The largest term in the cloud (with 40 votes) was “making effective use of knowledge and skills.” For me, that has little to do with intelligence. That phrase is about competence or about self-management. But it’s not “intelligence” per se, unless you mean some kind of pragmatic, self-management-oriented version of intelligence, not generalized intelligence.

Let me explain my reasons for the responses I entered:

“Like a garden” = can be cultivated, can change with careful planning and systematic work, is productive, depends on circumstances (like climate, resources, sunshine, favorable conditions, etc.)

“a complex set of skills and potential” = intelligence is about intellectual capacity, the ability to interpret, make connections, discern, generate ideas, etc. So, yes, in a sense, it undergirds and informs skills. And it is about potential. (Again, intelligence can change over time and can rise to meet a challenge in some cases, so it’s a kind of potential and a kind of resource that informs skills.)

“Complex” = that is, it is not just one thing. It derives from a multitude of interconnecting cognitive processes and capacities. It fluctuates. Its functioning is not easily predictable.

About the third bullet point, I would say that, yes, I am intelligent. I say this for two reasons. First, I tested for an above-average Intelligence Quotient when I was young. That is, I have a good brain with good basic cognitive capabilities. But that’s not sufficient. Secondly, I would say that I also am able to use my cognitive abilities in a wide variety of circumstances. I am perceptive and discerning and I seize most information rapidly and easily. I process large quantities of data and complex thoughts without a problem. I am articulate, I read widely and exercise my brain regularly. I adapt to different circumstances and perform a wide variety of intellectual tasks well. I am reasonably creative. And, finally, many folks consider me to be intelligent. For all of those reasons, I would venture to say that, yes, I am intelligent. It’s all about my being able to exercise a wide range of highly adaptable cognitive skills and to process information rapidly and accurately. All of those things are measures of different forms of intelligence.

To that, I would add that I have a good level of so-called “emotional intelligence” or “social intelligence.” I read people reasonably well. I understand the feelings of others and am usually adept at interpreting their facial expressions and postures accurately to know the mood that they are in. I’m attuned to others.

Now, finally, how do I know if someone is intelligent or not? In general, the kind of intelligence that I am looking for is intellectual: speaking well, having a good range of vocabulary, possessing good basic knowledge, being perceptive and discerning, reasoning well, being able to engage in effective and productive dialogue, and so forth. I also tend to look for both creativity and social intelligence as indicators of a generalized intellectual intelligence, although I am acquainted with smart people who are social morons and socially adept, highly creative folks who are not very smart intellectually.

In the end, intelligence is about cognitive power, about a high cognitive potential for thinking, speaking, processing information and reasoning, about perception and about articulation of thoughts. But those are simply my definition of intelligence, not signs of intelligence per se. Like beauty, intelligence is in the interpretive scheme of the beholder, not inherent in brains themselves. What we call “intelligence” is an artificial construct that we simply use unthinkingly and without critical examination. In truth, though, intelligence derives from a complex amalgam of various cognitive abilities and potentials that we generally value and derive benefit from in our social and professional lives. Intelligence is not just one thing. There are myriad forms of intelligence and a multitude of nuanced manifestations of its capacities. So… the answer to the question about how I know whether or not someone is intelligent is… “It depends.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.