It’s time to update how we define and measure intelligence in our modern world

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When we think of measuring intelligence we could be forgiven for instantly referring to or thinking of IQ scores. An ‘intelligence quotient’ is derived by dividing a persons ‘mental age’ score, from a standardised IQ test, with their chronological age. IQ tests as we know them began back in 1904 – devised by Alfred Binet who was commissioned by the French Government to create an assessment that would differentiate between children who were intellectually ‘normal’ and those who weren’t. Variations of the ‘Binet-Scale’ are still used today to measure intelligence. An average IQ score is said to be about 100. This then gives us a consistent measure by which intelligence can be judged – or does it?

There seem to be a number of problems with the standardised tests that are used to calculate IQ, which in turn is associated with how intelligent an individual is deemed to be; in recent years they have been subject to criticism because they do not take into account age, experience, cultural background and ethnicity among many other things

‘Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ – Einstein

I have always been fascinated by intelligence and intelligent people; I remember seeing Bobby Fischer (the American Chess Grandmaster) for the first time on TV when I was a child in the 80s and being mesmerised by his quick thinking and ability to make such complex moves – most people watching were left stunned. I later found out that Fischer had a troubled childhood and was blighted with self doubt and erratic behaviours. Fischer has been described as both ‘a genius and a madman’ – a phrase I’d heard before. It would seem that perhaps there is a connection between intelligence and madness. This only fuelled my curiosity further.

‘No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness’ – Aristotle

On considering the possible correlation between genius and madness I was reminded of something I once read about the poet Lord Byron – regarded as one of the greatest and most influential of all British poets. In 1805 as a student at Trinity College Cambridge, he was so appalled at a rule that meant he was unable to keep his pet dog with him in his dorm, that he looked for a loophole in the system and decided to keep a tame bear instead, as there was no mention of not keeping bears in the rules! Was his decision a spark of genius or a glint of madness, or perhaps a little of both, and does it really matter?

Measuring intelligence is one thing, but the underlying important notion is how we define it (how can we possibly measure something if we don’t agree of how it is defined?) The confusion is evident from the beginning when researching intelligence in humans as there are many definitions out there and they all present something slightly different. Here are a few examples of ‘intelligence’ defined;

“The ability to use memory, knowledge, experience, understanding, reasoning, imagination and judgement in order to solve problems and adapt to new situations.” – AllWords Dictionary, 2006.

“. . . ability to adapt effectively to the environment, either by making a change in oneself or by changing the environment or finding a new one . . . intelligence is not a single mental process, but rather a combination of many mental processes directed toward effective adaptation to the environment.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“It seems to us that in intelligence there is a fundamental faculty, the alteration or the lack of which, is of the utmost importance for practical life. This faculty is judgement, otherwise called good sense, practical sense, initiative, the faculty of adapting ones self to circumstances.” A. Binet 

“Intelligence is what is measured by intelligence tests.” E. Boring

Boring’s (best surname ever) rather limited definition aside, all of the above seem to refer to some form of ‘adaptation to the environment’ and ability to use imagination, reasoning and good judgement. So why then does society seemingly continue to perpetuate the myth in our educational system that pupils capable in subjects such as Maths are more intelligent than those capable in subjects such as art?

Is ‘intelligence’ really reserved for those who get high grades in examinations in specific subjects and have a plethora of qualifications under their belt – please let their be more to it than that?!

My issue with the word ‘intelligence’ and how it is defined and, more to the point, how it is used, became clear during my time as a secondary school teacher. I taught Social Sciences, primarily Psychology. I remember on one occasion overhearing a conversation between a young couple as the young lady was about to enter my classroom for a lesson – her boyfriend was ribbing her for taking Psychology, claiming that it wasn’t a real subject and that anyone could do it easily. He was being pretty cocky, so I invited him to join us for the first part of the lesson and he agreed. My students were able to competently discuss various aspects of theories relating to forensic psychology and the appropriate statistical analysis that would be used to assess the pro’s and con’s of said theories. He was visibly dumbfounded and (sort of) admitted defeat. A small victory, but a victory nontheless.

During my time as a teacher I also observed that Intelligence was the word used for pupils who aced Maths tests or who performed consistently well in Chemistry, Physics and Biology, or those who were able to perfectly memorise great chunks of a text book in order to pass an exam with flying colours. There’s no denying it, these pupils are intelligent in the ‘traditional’ sense, but…Intelligence was not a word used for pupils who were able in subjects such as music, art, RS or sports (we only need to look at the cuts to arts funding in schools to see how important these subjects seem to be!!). Intelligence was not a word that was used when pupils had worked incredibly hard (often against the odds) to achieve an ‘average’ grade. Intelligence was not a word that was used to describe the pupils who held doors open for their peers and staff and noticed when a teacher was struggling to hold all their books and offered to help.

I have a BIG problem with this. Is ‘intelligence’ really reserved for those who get high grades in examinations in specific subjects and have a plethora of qualifications under their belt – please let their be more to it than that?!

I keep thinking back to some of the most influential, wonderful and intelligent people I have either read about or met in my life. Is it a coincidence that bar one or two, most of them would be considered to be ‘unconventional’, shunning the education system and living outside accepted notions of  ‘the norm’ – perhaps even slightly ‘mad’ (whatever that word really means – that’s another conversation). I do believe that genius and madness often go hand in hand, but why? Does the madness occur as some sort of compensation for the genius? I would love to know more about this, but for now I would like to share with you some research that helped alleviate my frustration at the commonly held belief that intelligence means one thing only and can be measured by taking an IQ test – perhaps intelligence really could emcompass different types of ability…

My interest in this area finally lead me to finding the theory of ‘Multiple Intelligence’ – first proposed by Howard Gardner back in 1983. By no means exhaustive and being added to all the time, this theory suggests that rather than seeing intelligence as one type of general ability, perhaps there are different, specific modalities to intelligence and individuals can be gifted at one or a number of them. According to Gardner, Intelligence is –

“a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.”

He also suggested that labelling individuals as having intelligence linked to a specific modality was unhelpful and that this theory was aimed at ’empowering learners’; guiding them in recognising that intelligence does not necessarily have to mean one thing and that the word itself can be ascribed to individuals with different types of ability…

The image below shows the 9 modalities (domains) of intelligence that currently make up Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory – it is an organic, ever changing theory that is added to when research allows.

– Image by Mark Vital – Adioma –

What do you think – can you relate to one or more of these domains of intelligence?

Some argue that what Gardner suggests as types of intelligence would be better described as ‘talents’, but he argues against this…the controversy surrounding his proposed theory continues today. I for one buy into it. I believe that if our education system promoted an understanding of intelligence that included those individuals who were accomplished dancers and hard-working gymnasts, questioning future philosophers, skilled musicians and nature-lovers, as well as those who are capable mathematicians and scientists, perhaps the self-belief of the next generation would take a flying leap into a future of brilliant possibilities!

Feature Image by Tango Therapist.

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  • Love, Love, Love this article Camilla ! I so fundamentally agree with the points you have made here. In my professional life I work in psychology looking into some of the factors of why we behave the way that we do. However, I so often hear from colleagues or family members that, oh ‘so and so’ did well at school or so and so is academic. One of the most poignant examples I have in this space is my lived experience between me and my little sister. I myself did pretty well in academia, I was supported and enabled to flourish. I definitely found it hard, BUT I persisted because I had decided that’s what I wanted to do. I did (and still do) however find some of the practical things about life difficult, I suffer on occasion from anxiety and am terrified of little people, and am often bustled out the way when things like putting up a picture frame or mending the fence are required. My younger sister on the other hand, is beautiful, funny, so very practical, and has such an eye for colour and design, she has recently qualified as a Gardener and is absolutely living her best life out in the countryside surrounded by flowers. But you know what, she didn’t do well in school, didn’t thrive in that environment, wasn’t seen as ‘clever’ or intelligent in the academic sense. So when you meet the two of us, you’d be forgiven for thinking this loud, bubbly and bright girl was anything but un-intelligent. Which brings me to my point. I have long thought EQ and emotional intelligence, one’s abilities to visualise, create and do pretty much all the things you mention in your article are so equally valid definitions of ‘intelligent’, I think the main thing these all have in common is the individuals patience and ability to keep trying to become the thing they want to be. If only you had been my little sisters teacher at school, perhaps she wouldn’t have spent the past 15 years thinking she wasn’t as “intelligent” as me ! (utter tosh) xxx

    • Thank you so much for this comment Lucy – the example you give of the differences between you and your sister illustrates the point perfectly.

      Sadly our education system fails so many young people by instilling in them a sense of failure because they don’t fit into the ‘traditional’ idea of intelligent – and having practical skills is also very overlooked.

      Your sister sounds wonderful, and how lovely that you speak so proudly of her. I wish her the best of luck with her gardening career…sounds like she is already living her best life!

      I’d love to know more about what you do in the field of Psychology – this subject will always be my one true love 😉

      Thanks again


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