The Need to Redefine Intelligence

Intelligence has become a word of heated debate over the last several years, and with good reason. Today, our old-school and outdated method of defining intelligence needs to be addressed and changed both within the education system, as well as outside. Our current definition is flawed. We need to address the existence of multiple intellects, rather than just one overall one.

Being a mother of four, I know this too well to be the truth. Several others have also written on this subject. I will be including most of my research from Mike Rose’s, “Blue-Collar Brilliance”, Alison Bechdel’s, “Compulsory Reading”, information from Ken Robinson’s, “Changing Education Paradigms”, and lastly Ulric Neisser et al.’s, “Intelligence”. Each of these documents touches upon the need for a redefinition of intellect in their own way, which we will discuss more throughout this article.

Intelligence defined in schools

Currently, within most education systems, intellect is widely defined as how well one does on tests and the grades received during your schooling. However, where does that leave those who are not good test takers, or those who have learning disabilities?

This begs to question how it is safe to say that the person who failed at reading but later goes on to become a brilliant mathematician is any less intelligent than the person who excelled in school yet later becomes a cashier at your local grocery store. Yet this method of measurement is still being used today to define intellect. The use of IQ analysis as well as standardized testing within schools is the standard for evaluating intelligence.

Standardized tests, for the “standard” student only

Mike Rose states, “We reinforce this notion by defining intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests” (279). Here, Rose is showing how it has become socially acceptable, as well as common, for our definition of intelligence to be based entirely off such testing. While this may work well for the “typical” person, this does not always fit every mold.

Neisser et al state, “A given person’s intellectual performance will vary on different occasions, in different domains, as judged by different criteria” (77). The authors are showing that people’s intellect differs depending on where they have studied, what their personal situation may be, as well as how their intelligence is being tested and/or determined.

So why then do we still determine this criterion based on testing and academic grades alone when other factors cannot be ignored. From my own personal experiences with my children specifically, test scores, and even as far as school grades, do not always equate to a person’s overall intelligence.

These standardized tests do not consider important variabilities from person to person. For example, when a person is not a well-written test taker, but perhaps performs perfectly when given that same test orally. On paper, that person or child is behind when in fact that may be farthest from the truth, so I have come to learn.

Changing the way we teach

Another key point is how we go about teaching our youth. Most times we are expecting students to learn a given set of material and regurgitate this information verbatim. Alison Bechdel touches upon this in her text, “Compulsory Reading”.

The basis of her analysis is how she was forced to read texts throughout school. This caused her to have, “[d]eveloped a severe aversion to reading anything anyone else told me to” (865). This method of teaching does not always work for every student. Today it is even more needed to understand that this method needs to be changed. Things such as, “hands-on knowledge” (277) as stated by Rose, needs to be considered just as crucial in the learning experience to students.

When greed takes over

Robert Arnove, author of “To What Ends: Educational Reform Around The World” touches upon how youth have begun to be viewed as dollar signs, rather than the students who are eager to learn. He states, “At the postsecondary level, there is a marketplace of competition for students, not only nationally but internationally (for example, private commercial enterprises, such as the University of Phoenix, recruiting students from around the globe for its virtual institution)” (82).

Continuing, he also explains how, “[s]tandardized and largely paper-and-pencil tests cover a narrow range of knowledge and talent” (85), expressing how such testing, now becoming more of a norm around the planet, cannot possibly encompass all a person’s true capacity and experience.

The need for a better term for intellect variations can be seen throughout each of these documents, seeing how cognitive ability varies even from culture to culture.

The tides of change are upon us

This change has begun, however, and schools are rapidly seeing the need for such a change in definition. Sir Ken Robinson states, “Every country on Earth, at the moment, is reforming public education” (Robinson).

Even within my children’s own school, I have seen the shift. Especially with the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act several years ago. This act attempted to help prevent children from slipping through the cracks of the education system. Instead, allowing them to flourish at their own pace. Each child was treated as an individual, rather than a conformed group of people. This allowed children with learning disabilities to learn the same materials as other children, in their own time, helping to gain self-confidence in the process.

Evidence for change

Over the last several years, there have been numerous studies conducted across the world. This further proves the needed change in educational planning as a globalized issue. Whether this change in education reform was started for economic reasons (Robinson) or for other reasons, this has been a much-needed shift for our youth.

In “Innovation and Change: Lessons from the Global Cities Education Network” by Christina Russell, she explains how this reformation can be seen across the globe. She states, “This global learning and perspective can bring valuable perspectives to local contexts, as has been the experience in Shanghai” (4).

Robinson also touches upon how globalization has played an important role in this reformation process as well. She expresses how people have a better understanding of cultural differences around the world (Robinson).

Arnove also documents studies that have been done in recent years on education reform. He states, “Case studies from around the world, from programs for female street children in Kenya to indigenous populations in the highlands of Peru, document the trajectory of a number of grassroots-initiated educational reforms” (87). Arnove’s statement shows how educational reformation has become a global revolution as opposed to solely being conducted within America.

Defining Intelligence in the home

While reformation in the school is an amazing first step towards a better understanding of alternate cognitive ability and intellect, this change needs to also be made outside of school. In a previous article, I stated,  “All too often we assume the waitress tending to our needs or the mechanic working on our vehicle must not be that intelligent to be working in a place like that” (Catala, 2018). Continuing I went on to use my father as an example, the hardworking mechanic who, in his own field, is a genius. I would never be able to compare my mechanical cognition with his own; however, given a math or science exam, he would most likely fail, where I would flourish.

Is that to say that I am more intelligent solely because I was, and have been, a better student than he was? Of course not! Therefore, we need to re-evaluate how we, as a society, define intelligence to include variations in intellectual ability.


A deeper look

Now let’s briefly look at this from a work perspective. As most of us have learned over recent years, a degree is not a guarantee of a job. Just the same, a lack of one is no guarantee of none. Rose states, “[m]ost people seem to move comfortably from that notion to a belief that work requiring less schooling requires less intelligence” (276). The statement made by Rose should be an eye-opening experience.

We should not be judging people’s intellect just on IQ tests and amount of time spent in school because as most of us in the working world have come to learn, there is nothing more beneficial than hands-on experience. Most companies won’t even give your resume a second glance without some form of prior experience, regardless of a degree.

Consider for a moment that your company is looking to hire a new employee. Among the interviewers is an older woman who’s spent the last 15 years working in your given field, however, has no college degree. The other is a younger woman who is just out of college, but with no prior experience. Who would you most likely hire for the position? For most of us, the answer is simple. The older woman would certainly be the better candidate for the job given her hands-on knowledge. This is something that cannot be taught in school. This is a clear example as to why we need to account for cognitive variations in judging overall intellect, especially in a world that changes as rapidly as ours does today.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, intelligence needs to be re-evaluated and redefined to include not just one generic intellect, but multiple forms of intelligence. As Rose states, “To acknowledge a broader range of intellectual capacity is to take seriously the concept of cognitive variability” (283).

Our definition range of intelligence, as Rose stated above, should not stop with IQ testing, but encompass all forms of intellect, including job-specific skills others would not have without prior experience.

I feel Christina Russell makes a great point in her text, stating, “Some of the best learning opportunities are when you step outside of your comfort zone and are exposed to new ways of doing things” (2).

I will leave you with something I am always saying to my own children to help them have a better understanding of cognitive variabilities; even Albert Einstein, a genius mathematician, was unable to tie his own shoes.


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