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Educators need better intelligence about the importance of intelligence

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Friday, 7 May 2004

Of late, Canberra politicians have been preoccupied with calls for some form of national enquiry into intelligence. Australians might reap huge benefits were intelligence investigated in areas of life apart from Iraq and terrorism. And this year would be highly appropriate in the symbolic sense.

This is the centenary year of intelligence testing. In 1904 Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French Ministry of Education to develop a means of identifying those children who would benefit from special schooling. He devised a series of short tests related to problems of everyday life and placed them in ascending levels of difficulty, each corresponding to an age-level. Thus he measured an individual’s performance against the average performance of others of the same age. The test was steadily refined and its use spread. In the USA, Terman modified it in 1916 to produce the Stanford-Binet Test for use with adults as well as children. So was born the Intelligence Quotient, and the history of our civilisation took a new turn.

The influence of the IQ test has been immeasurable. Millions of young people in many countries have been channelled into particular educational paths on the basis of their IQ. Entry into countless jobs has been granted or denied on the basis of the IQ of applicants. Courts have accepted psychologists’ evidence based on defendants’ IQs. Mountains of research papers have rested on IQ scores.


Perhaps the most fundamental influence of the IQ test has been on the very concept of intelligence held by our society. We were persuaded that intelligence is a single, measurable attribute common to all humans but distributed in differing strengths or amounts. Despite the pretences of most of us, it has become a key criterion by which we allocate each other a rank in the pecking order – though nearly always we can only guess the other’s IQ. We have also taken this intelligence to be the capacity for abstract thought.

The psychologists have given a host of definitions down the decades. “The capacity to learn or profit by experience,” was the definition given by Dearborn in 1921. Jensen says intelligence is “a general factor that runs through all types of performance.” To Young it is “that faculty of mind by which order is perceived in a situation previously considered disordered.” Terman saw “the ability to carry out abstract thinking.” Taking a wider view, Weschler offers this description: “a global concept that involves an individual’s ability to act purposefully, think rationally, and deal effectively with the environment.” Little wonder that some, like Boring, resorted to saying that “intelligence is what is measured by intelligence tests”!

Mainstream psychologists now seem to agree that the IQ measures a mental factor that underlies performance in all areas of life. They point to this general factor, code-named g, as the contemporary definition of intelligence. Some characterise it as the ability to deal with cognitive complexity; they say it is an excellent predictor of success in education, job performance and other aspects of everyday life. They also tend to agree that g is largely determined by one’s genes, although for the few years of childhood the environment can have some influence.

The mainstream of psychology, however, is challenged by other quite substantial streams of thought. Ironically, when Binet constructed his tests in the early years of last century even he believed that intelligence could not be reduced to a single number and, furthermore, that it could be increased by education. Later the reductionists prevailed, and so we have g. But critics have levelled significant objections and alternative intelligence theories are now enjoying widespread acceptance in significant areas of society.

Some radicals, like British educational psychologist Professor Bob Burden, say that intelligence does not even exist. “It’s just a hypothetical construct psychologists have used to describe how people behave. How I would behave in the Amazon jungle is a lot less intelligently than I would in this job. And if something goes wrong with my car I open the bonnet and hope that someone will come and help me. It just depends on the context.” Prof. Burden says we would be better off without the word intelligence altogether.

Such semantic considerations are important. Twenty years ago when Howard Gardner posited that we have not one, but eight and possibly more types of intelligence which we all possess in various strengths, he deliberately used the word intelligences to provoke debate. And it worked. If he had used, say, competencies instead people would have yawned. Gardner explains: “But by calling them intelligences I’m saying that we’ve tended to put on a pedestal one variety called intelligence, and there’s actually a plurality of them, and some of them are things we’ve never thought of as being intelligence at all.”


Educators in Australia and other countries have adopted Multiple Intelligences theory with abundant enthusiasm he did not expect. But the scientific establishment’s criticism of Gardner’s theory continues nevertheless. Their central concern seems to be his insistence that tests cannot measure his various intelligences, and so the theory cannot be substantiated. There are similar stories about Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, which has also had a strong influence on education and training.

Looking at the debate between supporters of g on the one hand and MI on the other, there seem to be at least three sources of contention. One is a tendency to prefer either quantity or quality as the basis for sorting individuals: you can get a numerical measurement in the form of an IQ, or you can classify students according to the kind of intelligences in which they operate best. A second clash is between two views of society, the hierarchical and the egalitarian: the former likes to rank students on a vertical axis, while the latter prefers to help all students to cultivate their unique and equally valuable potentialities. Third, reductionists confront multi-causalists: the one aims to bring student differences down to a single factor, like g, while the latter are happier with an assessment based on a range of factors.

These divisions may well be intra-professional expressions of polarities occurring in society at large – differences in ideology and personality. But the bone of contention is the nature of intelligence, which is something central to education and a very important concept in our civilisation. Therefore it should worry us that the debate seems to be occurring in muted voices and isolated, narrow circles.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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