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On Intelligence

Someone asked me once whether I felt a certain child we both knew had intelligence. Not a question I get asked every day. Not a question I appreciate, to be honest.  Needless to say, this question was alarming to me on many levels, not the least of which was that it was asked of me by another educator, another teacher. Someone who should know better than to ask. A person that should have known: intelligence is only part of the picture. One piece of the puzzle.  And thus known that there are many, many intelligences to consider when discussing intellect. Truth be told: a child’s intelligence is not a topic two professional educators should be discussing when there are hosts of other issues more deserving of their time and thought. More deserving of their endeavors.  For each student who shows up in our classrooms is capable and intelligent. And each has an intellect, having been endowed with God-given gifts, talent and ability.

Call that what you may; I call it intelligence. Because every child is able.  Every child CAN. And every child has capacity- ability, clarity and certain aptitudes- certain leanings toward learning and understanding. And every child has an interest in varying topics and knowledge that serves their particular intellect. When teachers make judgments about students in this way- as we often do when comparing one student to another student for purposes of understanding, assessment and evaluation, we quite often fail to see the best in these individuals. And thus fail to see these same students’ potential. The possibility that lies in their ability. Because here’s what we miss in these situations: the fact that everyone has intelligence- it’s just that we’ve been given different kinds.

Intelligence is obviously not the same in everyone.  Thank goodness for that.  What a boring world this would be.

Because intelligence has traditionally been measured by narrowly defined standards- standards that accept commonly accepted academic goals in subject areas like language and math as being the most important criteria by which to measure a person’s smarts, we often don’t recognize intelligence as being varied.  And by that, I should add: we don’t appreciate and value those variations. We do recognize intelligence as being widely interpreted, but we only favor certain interpretations. For the standards that prepare students for the workforce are what we typically equate with intelligence- those academic pursuits associated with our school system. These are the standards that prepare students for a life of employment and labour. Standards which are measured and compared and found wanting, but nevertheless- still pursued.  That’s the intelligence we value.  Not the wide breadth and depth and extent of what intelligence CAN be.

It’s time we saw intelligence for what it truly is: diverse and wholly worthy in it’s variation.  It’s time we remembered that everyone has intelligence.

That student with the blank stare in your history class- they are a gifted sketch artist.

That child who is only approaching math expectations on the standardized test you just issued- she is a brilliant gymnast.

That boy who never answers a question in class and seems to fade into the woodwork- he’s a fabulous piano player.

And that bubbly girl who talks unceasingly every time you turn your back- she’s someday going to blow your mind with how she’ll end up changing the world.

We can’t believe fully in our students and simultaneously feel pity for them. Care is not pity. It isn’t weak-spined, sympathy that reaches out to the less-thans- the weak and deficient. No, that’s not care. Care is strong enough to surmount the odds. Care calls us to believe in the best each child has to offer- and it requires of us a new way of thinking.  And care knows better than to feel sorry for anyone when believing in them is so much better.

It’s time for a renewal of sorts.

We must care enough for our students to see their ingrained intelligences, whatever form those intelligences might take. We must care enough to care to change our own narrow forms of thinking.  And care enough to be open-minded, gracious, loving and hopeful in our perspectives.  We simply must care enough.  The rest will take care of itself.

After all, when we believe that all children are intelligent, we offer hope and future to our students beyond the narrowly-defined futures that await them within traditional understandings about intelligence.  All students have intelligence. It’s up to us to help them discover how.

And it’s up to them to use their varying gifts and talents, knowledge and understanding…to make this world a better place.

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