World View Comment

Reimagining intelligence in the classroom

Saikat Majumdar  

The recent surge of enthusiasm over Vedic mathematics — which some sceptics say is neither very Vedic nor particularly mathematical — says something about social perception of a field of knowledge that epitomises objectivity. It is a reminder that value placed on intellectual, spiritual, or emotional faculties is culturally constructed. If the ancient Greeks valued physical prowess, reason and virtue, the Romans privileged valour; Chinese culture, influenced by Confucianism, appreciated calligraphy, archery, drawing and poetry.

Models of intelligence

The Harvard cognitive scientist and educational thinker Howard Gardner points out that it is only in the last few centuries in the West that the category of the “intelligent person” has come to become a pervasive, if evolving ideal. In traditional schools, intelligence implied the ability to master classical languages and mathematics, whereas in business settings, it translated into the ability to balance commercial risks and opportunities, build an organisation and keep the books. During the heyday of colonialism, the intelligent person was one who could be sent to the farthest corners of the empire and who could execute orders competently.

One of the predominant models of an intelligent person to emerge at the turn of the twentieth century, according to Dr. Gardner, is the “symbol analyst”, a person who can sit for hours interpreting complex systems made of numbers, languages, and other codes and making projections based on them; the other is the “master of change”, one capable of acquiring new information and solving problems, forming “weak ties” with mobile and highly dispersed people, and adapting smoothly to changing circumstances.

A look at educational systems around the world tells us that Asian schools cultivate the intelligence of the symbol analyst with visible success. Journalist Fareed Zakaria points out that students from Shanghai schools emerged as the best performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, two years ahead of the best-performing U.S. schools in Massachusetts. One reason behind this, as the then U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued, is that Chinese students spend 25 to 30 per cent more time a year in school than their American counterparts. Even so, Mr. Zakaria warns the U.S. against emulating the Asian educational system, which, as he recounts from his own experience in India, still remains oriented around test-taking and memorisation.

The reason why even the Indian university system is structured around a similar preoccupation with test-taking and memorisation is simple: it valorises the kind of “intelligence” that was held to be of high value by those who set it up. That would be the British, who, in 1857, established the first modern Indian universities in the three Presidencies: Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The intelligence essential at that point in history was connected to the needs of imperial administration. The purpose of the university was to train and, more importantly, to validate the intelligence essential to the making of government servants in large numbers. Due to a range of social and political pressures, the fundamental character of Indian universities never really changed even decades after decolonisation.

Nurturing multiple intelligences

The West, in the meantime, has continued to debate and deconstruct its own theories of intelligence. The greatest uproar in recent decades was caused by the publication, in 1994, of The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that intelligence is best thought of as a single property distributed within the general population along a bell-shaped curve. The book ignited a range of debates over the racial and class implications of the theory of intelligence and their distribution in society, as well as the relative importance of nature versus nurture in the making of an “intelligent” person. The key point of contention underlying much of the rancour was in fact a perpetual puzzle plaguing intelligence theories: is intelligence singular or plural? Is it a monolithic quality, or are there multiple kinds of intelligences that defeat the purpose of IQ and standardised tests?

Dr. Gardner, in fact, is the most powerful contemporary proponent of the theory of multiple intelligences. He goes on to list seven fundamental intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal — a list to which he adds three more later: naturalist, spiritual and existential. He reminds us that educational systems, from the primary to the university, privilege the first two intelligences over all others. The mastery of various disciplines, as well as that of symbolic systems valorised in contemporary culture, essentially build on variations of these two kinds.

The wide influence of multiple intelligence theory has encouraged schools worldwide to re-envision their pedagogy and curricula in order to nurture other kinds of intelligence not accommodated by the traditional methods. It is far from a coincidence that business and corporate employers, especially those embedded in the new economies powered by digital culture, have started describing their ideal employee as a T-shaped individual, where the vertical bar represents deep knowledge or expertise and the horizontal stroke implies the ability of work across a variety of complex, sometimes mutually disparate subject areas.

The T-shaped individual replaces the older model of the I-shaped individual, with demonstrated and certified aptitude in a single subject, whatever that subject may be. For the vast majority of students preparing for today’s economy, a broad education in multiple, mutually incongruent fields based on a fragmented model of intelligence should ideally bolster a chosen field of expertise.

Saikat Majumdar is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.

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