How We’re Smart

We’re all intelligent in multiple and varying ways, and we can grow those intelligences, too

October 12, 2017
An illustration of a silhouette of a person's head, in multiple shades of green

Project ZeroThe first in a yearlong series of articles exploring Project Zero’s 50 years of innovation in education. Project Zero kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration with a forum called Changes of Mind: Five Decades of Insights into Intelligence, Thinking, & Learning. You can watch the recorded event here.

Kids can be quick to label themselves and their peers as “smart” (correct answers, fast responses, good grades) or “not smart” (last to finish, “hates reading,” hides report card). But we know that intelligence is far more sophisticated than these two categories — and far less fixed.

Part of helping students succeed in school and in life is showing them that there are many ways to be intelligent, and that intelligence requires diligence and reflection. Over its 50 years, Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been central to the development of those foundational beliefs — honing theories and disseminating tangible guidance on how to help kids rethink the idea of being “smart.” The work has influenced educators around the globe, ushering in — and validating — our contemporary understanding that people learn in different ways.

People have a wide range of capacities. What if, instead of asking, “How smart am I?” we encouraged kids to ask, “How am I smart?”

Here, we provide an overview of that work on intelligence — along with ways that educators can bring these ideas into their own classrooms.

Intelligence is Multiple

What if, instead of asking, “How smart am I?” we encouraged kids to ask, “How am I smart?”

People have a wide range of capacities, and there are many ways to be smart. In his foundational work on multiple intelligence theory, educational psychologist and Project Zero pioneer Howard Gardner has identified eight distinct intelligences:

  • Verbal
  • Logical/mathematical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Spatial
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalistic

Everyone possess all of these intelligences, but we also each have unique strengths and weaknesses. Some people have strong verbal and musical intelligence but weak interpersonal intelligence; others may be adept at spatial recognition and math but have difficulty with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. And everyone is different; strength in one area does not predict strength in any other.

These intelligences can also work together. Different tasks and roles usually require more than one type of intelligence, even if one is more clearly highlighted.

Furthermore, we can exhibit our intelligences through our ideas, creations, and performances — but test scores do not necessarily measure any sort of intelligence.

For educators, the lesson here is that students learn differently, and express their strengths differently. “If we all had exactly the same kind of mind and there was only one kind of intelligence, then we could teach everybody the same thing in the same way and assess them in the same way and that would be fair,” Gardner has said. “But once we realize that people have very different kinds of minds, different kinds of strengths … then education, which treats everybody the same way, is actually the most unfair education.”

Intelligence is Learnable

These multiple intelligences are not fixed or innate. They’re partially the result of our neural system and biology, but they also develop through our experiences and through our ability to persist, imagine, and reflect.

Learning expert Shari Tishman and her Project Zero colleagues have highlighted seven key critical thinking mindsets that can set us up to effectively learn and think in today’s world:

  • Being broad and adventurous
  • Wondering, problem finding, and investigating
  • Building explanations and understandings
  • Making plans and being strategic
  • Being intellectually careful
  • Seeking and evaluating reasons
  • Being metacognitive

By embracing these mindsets, we can actually shape and cultivate our intelligences. For example, being open-minded and careful in our thinking, as opposed to being closed-minded and careless, can be predictive of flexing and growing our intelligences.

Learn More

Ten Tools to Build a Culture of Thinking at Your School — from trying a schoolwide thinking routine to surveying your students to launching a "What If...Week."

For educators, the lesson here is that effective teaching embraces this idea that intelligence is learnable and depends on our attitudes. Teachers can increase intelligence by creating opportunities for students to find and solve problems — especially problems which require us to think creatively, carefully, and strategically. They can essentially teach children how to think better.

“Everyday contexts present a wilderness of vaguely marked and ill-defined occasions for thoughtful engagement. Opportunities for investing one’s intelligence must be detected,” writes Project Zero co-founder David Perkins in an article published with Shari Tishman, Ron Ritchhart, Kiki Donis, and Al Andrade. And the decision about whether to make that investment is not strictly based on ability, they add — just as intelligent behavior itself is not explained solely by ability. “Passions, motivations, sensitivities, and values all seem likely to play a role in intelligence. To define intelligence as a matter of ability without also honoring the other elements that enliven it is to fail to capture its human spark.”

This article features contributions from Flossie Chua and Daniel Wilson.

Professional Development from Project Zero

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.