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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.

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Janelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely enjoyed this article. I was a miss labeled kid myself. My brother's intelligence was recognized early on because he is a writer and learned best in the more traditional manner. I was labeled at risk early in my career, (special ed resource kid for most elementary years.) Lucky for me a six grade teacher recognized that I learned differently. He took the time to adjust the way he taught so that year I went from being labeled at a 3 grade reader, to talented and tested at a highschool reading level. {Talk about a person being bored with the same old reading book, year after year.)

I never "got" the label gifted in highschool, but I was ussually the only one in my class who got Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton, Twain, C.S. Lewis, and others. But in college my professors recognized my intelligence. Because of my difficulty in spelling, auditory processing and speaking unfamiliar words outloud, it takes longer for me to complete my studies. Much to the surprise of anyone who taught me as a child, I am an honor graduate theology student, whose writing and understanding of theology (reading lexile +1900 level) is beyond the average person. I am a teacher and by taking very high level theological concepts and truths I can teach and communicate to others from age 3 to 99 at their level the truths of my faith. But of course I give God credit for the intelligence that I have which is a sign of deep intelligence too!

venhi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a wonderful group of contributors for this article. Indeed I have admired these brilliant minds for some time. Even though they work in highly specialized fields, their responses (and work) demonstrate a broad background in the arts and sciences. Cross functional teaching and learning go hand-in-hand with open source tools. Implemented correctly, they hold the potential to unlock the doors for the next generation of great thinkers so they may positively impact human civilization.

Mary k's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the underlying theme of this article is the "wondrous support" these individuals received, either from external (teachers, parents, colleagues, and libraries) or internal (innate curiosity and pleasure). The question becomes, how can we ensure all children have access to these and the ability to develop them?

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