Which child is smarter, your analytic daughter, who can unravel complicated math equations in a flash, or your adventurous son, who can skillfully leap rock to rock while twirling his light saber? If you guessed the math whiz, think again.
At least that’s the claim of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory. Gardner developed the theory in the early ’80s to explain why grade point averages, standardized tests and IQ assessments don’t always give the whole picture of intelligence and ability.
Gardner concluded that we’re all “smart” in at least one or two of the seven types of intelligences: logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, linguistic, musical, bodily/kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal. (He later added an eighth intelligence, naturalist.)
Thanks to Gardner and others who followed, instead of asking simply, “Is my child smart?” parents can now ask, “How is my child smart?”
Dr. Thomas Armstrong, an educator who popularized Gardner’s theory in several books, including 7 Kinds of Smart, uses the theory to inspire teachers, parents and kids to realize their potential. He values individuality and, as he explains in his book, Neurodiversity, he believes qualities we now think of as negative may have been viewed as assets in the past.
“As it turns out, people with ADHD are novelty seekers, something you’d want to have in your tribe, and people with autism have enhanced perceptual functioning, again, a plus in prehistoric times,” says Armstrong. “I think it’s important that we honor and celebrate diversity — neurodiversity — in all its many forms.”
Dr. John Medina, a Seattle developmental molecular biologist and author of the book Brain Rules, feels the multiple intelligence theory is too limited. He believes there may be millions, even billions of types of intelligence. “Every brain is wired differently from every other brain and learns in ways unique to that wiring,” says Medina.
But if that’s true, how can our school system possibly succeed in teaching so many different types of “brains”?
As Medina explains, “There is a need to take into account individual differences. That’s where education should be headed if it wishes to take the lessons of brain science seriously.”
Lisa BaughnSmith, a teacher at Kirkland’s Peter Kirk Elementary School, works hard to bring out her students’ individual abilities. She introduces them to the multiple intelligence theory early in the school year and tailors her lessons accordingly.
BaughnSmith finds that giving her students the freedom to approach assignments in different ways increases their confidence. “When students are given an opportunity to express themselves in a manner that emphasizes their strengths, you can get some pretty amazing outcomes,” she says.
But relying only on natural ability is sure to backfire eventually. Without some effort, even naturally gifted students won’t reach their full potential. In fact, a Stanford University study reports that praising the efforts of your child is significantly more important than praising their intellect. That’s because students who believe they are naturally good at a certain subject often feel they don’t need to work as hard.
Alternately, if a student believes he lacks ability in a subject, he may use that belief as a crutch. The study found that students respond better when taught that the brain, like a muscle, improves with use.
“The idea that something is challenging, therefore I must be ‘dumb’ is pervasive amongst students,” says BaughnSmith. “But learning will not necessarily come easily and quickly; it takes practice and repetition to master a new skill or concept.” Parents can help their children be successful learners by expecting them to be persistent, learn from their mistakes and make corrections, she says.
Carolyn Scott, an Eastside mother of two, says she wants her kids to realize that some subjects will simply come harder. “Using excuses isn’t a choice,” says Scott.
If your child is having difficulty meeting classroom requirements, dig deeper to make sure there isn’t more going on, says Dr. Amy Summers, a child psychologist in Ballard. “If a child is struggling in an academic area that is really important to functioning in school, work and society — such as math or reading — it is critically important to have the child evaluated to determine what the underlying problem is and what other instructional strategies might work,” she says.
Most of us will eventually learn ways to maximize our strengths and sidestep our weaknesses. How can you nudge your child in the right direction? According to Armstrong, you can do it by creating a welcoming atmosphere where kids are “free from criticism, comparison and pressure to succeed.” Rather than worrying about traditional measures of intelligence, parents should “awaken their child’s natural genius” and allow them to find their own path to success.
Chera Prideaux is a Seattle freelancer and creator of mamasknowbest.com.