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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Scientists and Artists Type Their Intelligence

Noted intellectuals make it clear that great minds rarely think alike.
Douglas Cruickshank

Editor's Note (2013): There is no scientific evidence, as of yet, that shows that people have specific, fixed learning styles or discrete intelligences, nor that students benefit when teachers target instruction to a specific learning style or intelligence. However, providing students with multiple ways to learn content has been shown to improve student learning (Hattie, 2011). Read more about the research on multiple intelligences and learning styles.

We contacted some big thinkers, from primate experts to a novelist to an astrophysicist, to learn about their particular brands of intelligence. As Howard Gardner, Harvard University professor and MI's visionary theorist, might have predicted, these folks indeed have their own ways of thinking about intelligence. Each was aware of a personal path to understanding, and each path was unique.

Take a look at these mini-interviews, then comment below about what you think. How would you describe your own intelligence? Was it recognized and encouraged in school?

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is one of the world's leading primatologists and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife, Research, Education, and Conservation. She is devoted to ensuring habitat conservation and the well-being of chimpanzees and other primates.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Greg Schaler

Jane Goodall: I'd say my intelligence is initially intuitive, and then requires me to spend time trying to deeply understand whatever problem I am trying to come to grips with.

My intelligence was recognized by those teachers who saw beyond bad spelling and bad writing! But that did not matter; my mother both recognized and encouraged my interests. She supported my interests when others laughed at them. She taught me that if someone differed from me in their thinking, first I should carefully listen and understand. Then I should think about what they said and see if it changed my mind; if not, I should have the courage of my convictions.

There was no television, and I spent hours reading books and in libraries. And I learned from nature. My bond with my dog -- my spontaneous learning about his intelligence -- greatly expanded my mind.

Robert M. Sapolsky

Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology, and a professor of neurology and neurological sciences and (by courtesy) neurosurgery, at Stanford University. He is also the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, and Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service

Robert M. Sapolsky: I think that I've been lucky in that I am pretty evenly balanced between plain old off-the-rack intelligence (the factoid world), working really hard (a necessity in science, where you have to mindlessly do the same thing over and over in order to get anything done), and creativity. In terms of learning best, I have a real penchant for learning from (and teaching with) metaphors.

In high school, [I] was wondrously fostered -- I went to this experimental, hippie neo-'60s high school based on John Dewey's philosophies. I had a spectacular time there.

Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz is the winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He is a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Lily Oei

Junot Díaz: I have a heightened sense of narrative structures, whether it's in a story or a court case or an argument. In other words, I have superb structure logic. I'm also able to synergize enormous amounts of disparate unrelated material. I am a gifted communicator, able to convey importance and enthusiasm and to translate complex abstractions into compelling, accessible (and sticky) narratives. I have a tremendous capacity for play.

I was placed in seventh grade into gifted-and-talented classes. But I was the only kid of color in that class, and the only kid from a poor background. By my last year of high school, I had basically failed out. I cultivated my mind primarily on my own, through dint of reading and force of will -- which explains its many deficiencies but also some of its striking original strengths. For this reason, libraries and access to other smart kids were fundamental to my development.

Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez is a professor of astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles and a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. She is focused on developing high-spatial-resolution imaging techniques to investigate star formation and the massive black hole posited to exist at the center of our galaxy.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez: My best attempt to characterize my intelligence is that I'm a problem solver. I love puzzles, and that is how I think of most of my research. I question assumptions. I'm not afraid of being separate from the pack in my approach to my work -- in fact, I like being separate from the pack.

I learn best on my own. I need to struggle through the new material so that I can see the connections to what I already know -- like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

I was fortunate enough to go to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which really focused on teaching students how to learn and think independently, without the restricting notion that there might be only one way. I think this allowed me, and many others, to find a personal mode of learning and questioning. It also taught me how to learn (as opposed to just knowing the facts.) I have become increasingly aware that this was a really magical school.

Douglas Cruickshank is the former editor of Edutopia.org.

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

mary kay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes! It is also important to note that intelligence is not finite!

Mr U's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I especially like the way Jane Goodall almost dismisses her formal education as being the driving force of her intellectual development. She cites her homelife - books, time out in nature and her dog, as the formative influences in her youth. I always bristle when I hear people talk about schools and teachers as being the number one factor in a child's cognitive development. The school as an institution is really an extention and reflection of the community from which it stems. The commonality I see in all of the interviews is the intrinsic motivation to work hard. At some point, American culture will recognize that education is not something done to students. It is something students must do; it takes hard work. I think it is less important that a teacher recognizes a students learning style and adjust their pedagogy to match. A teacher needs to help the student recognize their own learning style so the student can develop strategies to apply their strengths to novel learning situations, i.e. life. In short, use their strengths as the answer to the problem rather than a reason to have a teacher make a different lesson plan for each individual student so they fell good about themselves. The world rarely adapts to the individual. By expecting schools to adapt to students, I don't think we are fully preparing them for the realities of life beyond school. Check out ted.com for presentations by some of these folks.

Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hmmm, two of them went to schools based on Dewey's philosophies...

Margie Herberger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a lifelong teacher and learner, the importance of this article, for me, is that it should be used to inform educational policy makers, urging them to recognize the importance of independent choice as fuel for students' learning. As a bright elementary school student, I was quickly bored by the standard texts and spent my library time reading mythology, the lives of composers, etc. (Not your standard "Ted and Sally" reading.) I watched the same pattern develop in my son, who declared school reading pointless, yet read voraciously on biology topics that opened him to a career in science.

In this era of standardized testing and one-solution education, our teachers have lost the time and opportunity to foster creativity, being forced to prepare students for rote learning and test-taking.

Teachers, and parents as well, must use all of our influence to convince administrators of the importance of allowing students the time and ability to follow creative interests.

Mary Doumas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The "wondrous support" comment is the basic schematic element that played the key role in developing the types of intelligences that are displayed. Given the right stimulants everyone can begin to extract their specialty of intelligence. The problem is that most children and/or adults are not exposed to a large part of the world. I don't simply mean geographical context but more importantly significant experiencal events that allow you to develop and identify your strengths. The way most children in the US are taught to learn leaves no room for creativity, because rather its structure is based on passive learning; the format its guided by is will to extract the highest grade on a given exam. Education should be constructive and foster students' curiosity and enthusiasm to learn because once learning begins to get fun that when students take it to a more personal level.

Mary Doumas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The "wondrous support" comment is the basic schematic element that played the key role in developing the types of intelligences that are displayed. Given the right stimulants everyone can begin to extract their specialty of intelligence. The problem is that most children and/or adults are not exposed to a large part of the world. I don't simply mean geographical context but more importantly significant experiencal events that allow you to develop and identify your strengths. The way most children in the US are taught to learn leaves no room for creativity, because rather its structure is based on passive learning; the format its guided by is will to extract the highest grade on a given exam. Education should be constructive and foster students' curiosity and enthusiasm to learn because once learning begins to get fun that when students take it to a more personal level.

Christopher Sink's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although these bio-narratives are compelling and inspiring, please use extreme caution when drawing any conclusions about how to reinvent schooling based on these case studies.

The teaching-learning process is a very complicated and challenging enterprise. We want all students to flourish. The intellectual-cognitive realm (e.g., scientific thinking, writing, mathematics) is only one important dimension to human flourishing. Schools must educate for all forms of human excellence, including such areas as nourishing virtuous living, spirituality, leadership, visual arts, musical expression, mechanical and technical skills, and so on. Schools are charged with finding ways to enhance all students' aspirations and "intelligences", not just the gifted intellects.

Mila Asperin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is with great enthusiasm that I read the excerpts on different learnnig styles identified by a variety of people of remarkable achievements. As a career Counselor, that is precisely what i try to identify when I sit for intake interviews with my clients for it frames the scope and nature, depth, and possibilities for them. Quite surprisinlgy, most adults do not realize how this particular element in their "career tool box" plays out.

Personally, I am a learner drive by curiosity and practically additicted to a topic until its exhaustion in my searches. this may well explain how my local library may soon award me a medal for most frecuent used having checked out over 245 books last year! that is, I pick up a comment, a subject, a newspiece,etc. and dash- when captivated- to find out more about it. this may explain how I easily jump to conclusions in the minds of my listeners. The truth is more than likely "I have been there" long before our conversation sets it path. for this reason, I can confront, lead, and highlight a person's character, motives, and driving force in very little time. this is something they welcome for it adds credibility as well as expedites my services - and reduces their fees thereoff!

Your initiative in showcasing this topic with very credible types by examples is a great step to add credibility to your content and publication.
Keep up the good work!

Mila Asperin, M.Ed.,MCC-NCC
National Certified Career Counselor, California

Colleen Murphy's picture
Colleen Murphy
Substitute teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada

To any and all:
I am wondering about the brilliant folks who will develop the assessment instruments that will quickly, easily and difinitively identify the MI strength of each student in our classes, and identify the level of each intelligence; We will then identyify the appropriate level to be achieved at each grade level. The natural next step will be to develop the curriculum and educational programs that will most efficiently allow our teachers to address all intelligences simultaneously.
Oh wait. With the ability to clearly identify the levels, we can also utilize technology resources to individualize education for ALL students. Brilliant! The future of education is very exciting!

Bob the Chef's picture

I am smart too! I am special! I am misunderstood, and one day, Hollywood and the world shall recognize my greatness, how I hover smugly above the planet, and make a movie about me and my struggle with the mediocre masses of idiot filth. I know better, and I always knew better. It gives me meaning to think so.

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