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The Science of Smarts

How we measure intelligence — and what it means


was five years out of school when Mrs. Schwartz called me for shidduch information about my good friend Miriam. I extolled her virtues — smart, pretty, chesed powerhouse, etc.— and asked Mrs. Schwartz if there was anything else she wanted to know.

“How did she do in school?”

“In school?” I asked, nonplussed. High school was years ago, and Miriam had risen to manager in the office where she worked.

“Yes, in school. How were her grades?”

“Great. Miriam was a straight-A student,” I answered, though in truth I had no idea. I certainly wasn’t going to ruin a shidduch based on something as inane as grades. Besides, as I told Mrs. Schwartz, “But we’re not in school anymore, and she’s still smart.”

Look, I’m not denying that academics are important. Yet I was surprised to hear Mrs. Schwartz so focused on book smarts. Aren’t street smarts what really matter in life? We were in the real world now, and Miriam’s street smarts were what carried her — and how.

Then I wondered: If I were to analyze this from a psychological perspective, would I be right or wrong?

The Birth of IQ Tests

Wrong — at least according to many early psychologists.

Charles Spearman was the first psychologist to offer a psychometrically sound definition of intelligence. He published his theory of intelligence in 1904, positing that intelligence is a single entity within the brain that drives a person’s ability to be proficient overall in areas such as language mastery, math, reading comprehension, power of recall, and more.

The idea of a single entity that determines intelligence appealed to other psychologists of his era, but until Spearman, nobody proved this hypothesis. It was Spearman who noted that people who did well on one type of mental test generally did well on others — and he took this as evidence of general intelligence.

Spearman’s work was elaborated upon by his student Raymond Bernard Cattell, and later by Cattell’s student John Horn. The Cattell-Horn Theory (1967) — which forms the basis of today’s IQ testing — posits that there are two types of intelligence that make up general intelligence. Fluid intelligence (street smarts) gives a person the ability to think and act quickly and to use prior knowledge when faced with a novel problem. Crystallized intelligence (book smarts) is learned intelligence, such as mathematics or linguistics.

According to this definition of intelligence, having both book smarts and street smarts indicates the level of someone’s general intelligence. In other words, I shouldn’t have dismissed Mrs. Schwartz’s shidduch query.

Unless, of course, you don’t view intelligence as a single entity.

Nine Types of Intelligence

In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner proposed the theory of multiple intelligences. He suggests that there are more kinds of intelligence than simply the academic, linguistic, and analytical intelligences that are measured on standard IQ tests.

Gardner broke down intelligence into seven parts (later updated to include nine types of intelligence), and maintained that while you may be more dominant in one intelligence, each person possesses a conglomeration of all intelligences — and to be considered intelligent, one must have all parts working in tandem “to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.”

The nine types of intelligence include naturalist (being able to read and understand nature), musical (the ability to perceive sound and rhythm), logical-mathematical (having analytical skills), existential (thinking about life and why we’re here), interpersonal (people smart), bodily-kinesthetic (having mind-body coordination), linguistic (being good with words and language), intra-personal (understanding yourself), and spatial (“picture smart” or being able to think in 3-D; understanding how things fit in space).

Of course, the first thing I do is take an online test that measures which type of intelligence I possess. When the results come in, I discover that my dominant intelligence is linguistic. No shock there; I write for a living. It turns out that I have more musical intelligence than naturalist intelligence, which surprises me, because I’m the last person you’d call musical, and I care about the environment.

How does Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence translate to real life? For starters, it’s important to note that this is a theory of cognitive function, not personality typing. That means that to be considered intelligent, one must be able to use their conglomeration of intelligences to solve problems in the real world.

For example, writes Thomas Armstrong in his book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, cooking supper requires you to utilize interpersonal intelligence to create a menu that will have everyone eating at least one thing. Reading the recipe involves linguistic intelligence, doubling it would call for logical-mathematical intelligence, and chopping the onions falls under the kinesthetic intelligence category.

Similarly, imagine a child playing baseball. Moishe uses kinesthetic intelligence to hit, run, and catch the ball. His spatial intelligence orients him on the field and helps keep him safe in the face of a fly ball. And if the players begin to argue, they’ll need to use linguistic and interpersonal intelligence to work it out.

Gardner’s other important distinction is that the dominance of one type of intelligence is not necessarily better than another: An intelligence’s value depends largely on culture. While the modern world seems to value book smarts, in an agrarian society, for example, naturalist intelligence may have more worth. And finally — most people can develop each intelligence to a certain degree (see sidebar).

In a 2011 introduction to Gardner’s book Frames of Mind, he explains how he came up with his theory: “Probably the most truthful answer is ‘I don’t know.’ However, such an answer satisfies neither the questioner nor, to be frank, me. With the benefit of hindsight, I would mention several factors, some more remote, some directly feeding into my discoveries.”

As a PhD student and for 20 years afterward, Gardner worked with people who suffered brain damage. He observed that people could retain one type of intelligence (reading comprehension), even after suffering the loss of another (mathematical skills). This highlighted the idea that intelligence is not a unitary entity, but consists of independent faculties.

“I don’t remember when it happened,” Gardner writes, “but at a certain moment, I decided to call these faculties ‘multiple intelligences’ rather than ‘assorted abilities’ or ‘sundry gifts.’ This seemingly minor lexical substitution proved very important; I am quite confident that if I had written a book called ‘Seven Talents,’ it would not have received the attention that Frames of Mind received....

“The selection of the word ‘intelligence’ propelled me into direct confrontation with the psychological establishment that has long cherished and continues to cherish IQ tests.”

In the Classroom

Gardner wrote the book as a psychologist, not an educator. But as he conducted his research, he realized that the ramifications for education were huge.

“It’s a theory that was developed to document the fact that human beings have very different kinds of intellectual strengths and that these strengths are very, very important in how kids learn and how people represent things in their minds,” Gardner said in a 1997 interview.

Frames of Mind circulated across the educational framework, taking on a life of its own as teachers tried to modify techniques and long-held biases after coming across Gardner’s seminal work.

Suddenly, Danny isn’t mathematically challenged, he’s musically intelligent in a society that values math over music.

Based on this, many educators moved from a single type of instruction to multiple modalities. They gave out assignments that were meant to reach kids in all intelligences.

For example, when teaching about the Boston Tea Party, a teacher might introduce the lesson traditionally, using a textbook. But afterward, students would be able to pick from a number of activities to reinforce or expand their knowledge. A student could make up a song that incorporates key points, including names and dates (linguistic and musical intelligence); perform a skit about this important historical event (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence); create a diorama of the Tea Party (spatial intelligence); put themselves in the place of a Tea Party member by penning a letter explaining his role in the event (linguistic and interpersonal intelligence); or write a journal entry about the Tea Party and how he feels about it (linguistic and intrapersonal intelligence).

Gardner believes that educators should keep in mind that not all students possess what he calls the “Law Professor” mind — seemingly valued above all else in the school setting. He believes teachers should provide resources that will excite a student via his or her dominant intelligence. But, he says, it’s important that we not confuse intelligence with learning style.

Think of intelligence like a computer. Learning styles, then, are the computer program. A more powerful computer will hold more data — that’s intelligence. But how does a computer analyze the data? That’s style. In other words, you may use your dominant intelligence to help you solve problems (style), but you’ll do it more or less quickly depending on your computing power (overall level of intelligence).

To me, all this seems to point to street smarts. If it’s all about how we solve real world problems, well then, Miriam solved hers by proving capable of managing a busy office.

Does IQ Matter?

The problem with Gardner’s theory is that it’s just that — a theory. “He never tested his theory across populations to see if it was statistically accurate,” says Dr. Bracha Schnaidman, a school psychologist in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Well, there goes the test I took.

In her practice, Dr. Schnaidman uses the Wechsler IQ test or the Woodcock Johnson IQ test to evaluate students. These tests, she explains, assess various aspects of cognitive ability. For example, the Wechsler tests measure verbal comprehension, visual spatial, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed.

I take an online Wechsler IQ test (which Dr. Schnaidman clarifies isn’t the research-based test that’s used professionally), and immediately I can see the difference between the two. One asks you to evaluate yourself in the style of personality tests, and one asks objective computing questions. (“I understand mathematical concepts easily” versus “Find the average of these numbers.”) One gives you unlimited time to figure out how you want to portray yourself; the other assesses how quickly and accurately you get through the test.

Does that totally negate Gardner’s theory, then? I liked it; it aligns so well with how we’re conditioned to think in the 21st century. “Just because she wasn’t an alef student doesn’t mean she won’t make an excellent wife and mother.” “He was wild in school, but look where his talents took him! He’s the CEO of XYZ company.” From a scientific perspective, does IQ matter?

“Yes,” says Dr. Schnaidman. “However, even though IQ scores are highly predictive of success, there are other important factors as well. Skills such social-emotional intelligence, executive functioning, self-regulated learning, and grit can have a tremendous impact on student success. While IQ is important, these other factors are certainly important too.” (Phew!)

So I guess I have to admit that Mrs. Schwartz and I are both right,. IQ scores are scientifically proven to correlate with academic or occupational achievement, according to Dr. Schnaidman. If Mrs. Schwartz was interested in Miriam’s “intelligence quotient,” she was asking all the right questions.

But my point — that academics may not necessarily be an accurate measure of overall skills — is equally valid. Just because science hasn’t tested for it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I’ll end with this: It was Mrs. Schwartz’s loss when she passed up a really smart girl for an intelligent one.

Increasing Intelligence

Gardner and other psychologists suggest that you can develop intelligence throughout life. It may come as no surprise that the formula is practice, practice, practice. Here’s a look at Gardner’s intelligences and what you can do to increase your own:

Word Smart

Increase your verbal-linguistic intelligence by reading; telling stories; writing stories and journals; and playing word games, such as Boggle, Scrabble, and others.

Number/Logic Smart

To become more logically and mathematically intelligent, do puzzles; play strategy games like chess, Othello, and Risk; solve brain teasers; or take Gardner’s advice: Do more math.

Picture Smart

People who have strong visual-spatial intelligence are able to easily picture how things appear. Say the word “cube” and they immediately picture an object with three sides. Artists, sculptors, and architects are all thought to have high levels of visual-spatial intelligence. To strengthen your or your child’s visual-spatial intelligence, draw; play LEGO or Clics, which involves building to a model (either imaginative or through pictorial instructions); play strategy games like chess, which require you to think about how the board will change with different moves; and use spatial language to describe objects and where they are in space (e.g., Is the round/big ball inside or outside the box?).

Body Smart

Sensory activities and exercises are a great way for kids to increase bodily and kinesthetic intelligence. Have kids roll down the hill, sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair, walk on their tiptoes, build things to increase hand-mind coordination, and be generally physically active.

Music Smart

Musical intelligence isn’t only about music; it’s about how we perceive sound and rhythm. Start to expand your musical intelligence by singing. You can also listen to music or poetry, learn to play an instrument, listen to birdcalls and other nature sounds, and do other activities that incorporate sound and rhythm.

People Smart

People with interpersonal intelligence are considered to be socially aware and to possess good communication skills. Strengthen your interpersonal intelligence by people watching, connecting with others through a mutual hobby, listening closely to others, volunteering to help people in need, and doing other activities that get you close to people.

Self Smart

To develop intrapersonal intelligence, set aside time to be alone with yourself (no phones!), develop a hobby, spend time with people who have strong intrapersonal intelligence and a strong and healthy sense of self, talk positively to and about yourself, and journal daily.

Nature Smart

Improve your naturalist intelligence by paying attention to changes in nature, keeping a nature journal, gardening, caring for a pet, and more.

Existential intelligence relates to thinking about why we’re here, and our purpose in this world. For frum Jews, this one’s easy: Pick up a Mesillas Yesharim, or any other hashkafah sefer.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 660)

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