David Perkins, the co-director of Harvard University's Project Zero, remembers the first time he thought up his own theory of intelligence.
It was a decade ago at one of the occasional seminars that the center, which specializes in cognitive development, held for its researchers. About seven of them were gathered around, and Howard Gardner, who directs the center with Perkins, was describing his emerging theory of multiple intelligences.
"I thought, 'How does intelligence look to me?"' Perkins recalls. "And it didn't look much like Howard's conceptions of intelligence."
To Perkins, it appeared that intelligence had three dimensions. The first part, he decided, was like a weightlifter, who, by dint of genetics, good nutrition, and exercise, worked efficiently.
To describe the second dimension, Perkins thought of a cook who provides the recipes that have been learned from years of experience. He imagined the third dimension as the general. That would be the manager of the intellectual system with the broad overview of how everything works together and the strategic knowledge to deploy resources where they are needed.
It wasn't until years later that Perkins gave more technical-sounding names to his three dimensions and wove them into a theory of how the mind works. Now, he's putting forth that theory in a new book called Outsmarting I.Q.: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence.
Published by the Free Press, Outsmarting I.Q. both tries to explain Perkins's theory as well as counter the more pessimistic view of intelligence put forth last fall by The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. (See Education Week, 10/26/94.)
Whereas the authors of The Bell Curve, the late Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, see intelligence as primarily genetically determined, Perkins contends that it is multifaceted. And, while Herrnstein and Murray say intelligence is immutable, Perkins contends that people can be taught to be smarter.
"There is no startling proposal here that porpoises or planaria or poplar trees can acquire intelligence," he writes. "The claim is much more modest: Human beings, manifestly the most intelligent life on the planet, can become even more so."
The Great Debate
In the world of intelligence research, theories on the nature of intelligence are plentiful. Some, however, achieve more prominence than others.
As controversial as they seemed, some of the views on intelligence that Herrnstein and Murray espoused in The Bell Curve come from a long line of traditional thinking in the field. Many studies support notions that general intelligence is a single entity that can be readily measured by I.Q. tests, that it is unchangeable, and that it is largely inherited. Some of these studies suggest, in fact, that up to 60 percent of intelligence is a prod~uct of genetics. Herrnstein and Murray drew their sharpest criticisms, however, for suggesting that certain groups of people, such as blacks, were intellectually inferior.
Almost diametrically opposed to this group are scientists such as Harvard's Gardner and Yale University's Robert J. Sternberg, among others. They believe intelligence is both multifaceted and teachable.
The two camps have been at odds for decades.
To Perkins, however, the whole debate conjures up the story of the six blind men and the elephant. As the story goes, the first man feels the animal's huge side and declares that an elephant is like a high, strong wall. The second grabs a tusk and decides the elephant is like a spear, and so it goes, with each man holding a different part of the elephant and deciding that his experience represents the whole animal.
"Of course, there are real disagreements in the field," the 53-year-old Perkins says in an interview. "But a large part of the clutter has to do with folks studying different aspects of intelligence and championing them as if they were all of intelligence."
Perkins's theory, on the other hand, incorporates all of these views. From the traditionalists like Herrnstein and Murray, he takes his first dimension, the weightlifter. That's what Perkins calls neural intelligence. It refers, in a sense, to the efficiency of the brain's hardwiring, and it is largely inherited.
From the theoreticians like Gardner who hold out the more optimistic view that intelligence is teachable, come the cook and the general. The cook, which Perkins calls experiential intelligence, is the contribution to intelligent behavior that comes from one's storehouse of personal experiences. The general represents what Perkins has dubbed reflective intelligence. This is the contribution made by knowledge, understanding, and attitudes about how to use one's mind well--how to deploy one's intellectual resources most strategically.
"You can 'know your way around' the good use of your mind in much the same way you can know your way around your neighborhood, the game of baseball, or the stock market," he writes.
Mindful of Thinking
Of the three dimensions, Perkins says, reflective intelligence may be the area with the most room for improvement. It is also the centerpiece of his theory.
If King George III had thought more reflectively when the American colonies rebelled, there might never have been a Revolutionary War, according to Perkins. He says a lack of reflective thinking may also be responsible for the wide range of common intellectual mishaps that occur when otherwise intelligent people seem to act in unintelligent ways. These include the tendency to think narrowly or to come to judgments hastily.
Yet, he says, reflective thinking is rarely addressed in schools in a "steady, informed, and intense" way. Even though it's important, Perkins says teachers have to do more than stimulate students to think critically. They must also begin to teach thinking skills in a much more explicit way.
"To do it well, you need to raise consciousness about the thinking patterns themselves," he says. "What's lacking, in other words, in some thoughtful classrooms, is explicit awareness of how the thinking game is played."
Perkins and his colleagues at Project Zero have already been trying their ideas out for several years in schools in Milelani Mauka, Hawaii, and in Watertown, Mass.
As evidence that teaching thinking works, however, he points to four programs that claim to have had a proven track record. One of the most well-known among them was Project Intelligence, a Venezuelan effort launched in 1978 to teach thinking skills on a widespread basis. When 450 of the Venezuelan 7th graders were tested on a range of intellectual skills in 1982 and 1983, they showed a consistent edge over students who had not been taught thinking strategies. Among the many cognitive scientists who worked on that project, however, were Herrnstein and Perkins. Ironically, Herrnstein later wrote disparagingly of the project in The Bell Curve.
Perkins does acknowledge, however, that over the years such projects have produced less than dramatic and, sometimes, short-term gains.
"What I hope to see is a clear pattern of evidence that efforts to cultivate people's thinking can make a difference," he says. "Like efforts on smoking, I hope there will be a steady accumulation of evidence that will help to shift the intellectual ground."
As for his co-director at Project Zero, Howard Gardner, Perkins says their ideas on thinking may well be compatible. Gardner has achieved a measure of fame for his theory that intelligence is made up of at least seven spheres or "frames of mind." They include: linguistic intelligence, the prominent domain of writers, announcers, and actors; musical intelligence, prominent in musicians and music critics; spatial intelligence, such as that of painters, sculptors, and architects; the logical-mathematical skills of mathematicians and scientists; bodily-kinesthetic skills of athletes and dancers; and the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, which refer to knowledge of others and of ourselves, respectively.
"I can argue for neural, experiential, and reflective intelligence and say at the same time it's perfectly possible the three are parsed along the lines Howard has proposed," Perkins says. Gardner, for his part, has praised Perkins for "moving beyond the tired debates within the I.Q. community."
In any case, the center, a modest think tank when Gardner and Perkins started there as graduate students 20 years ago, has room for both views. It employs about 50 researchers and is operating dozens of projects, many of which are going on in K-12 schools.
Nonetheless, Perkins expects that his ideas face an uphill battle for acceptance. Efforts to explicitly teach thinking in the past have met resistance from proponents of more back-to-basics approaches to schooling.
And reactions to his book have so far been mixed.
Yale's Sternberg, who espouses his own three-part view of intelligence, points out, for example, that Perkins includes feelings, beliefs, and values within the domain of intelligence.
"When we throw feelings, beliefs, and values into the notion of intelligence, we await only the kitchen sink," he writes in a review of the book for The Washington Post.
But he also says, not surprisingly, that Perkins offers "a more worthwhile and viable inquiry into the nature of intelligence than we got from Herrnstein and Murray and others who remain confined by the small box in which I.Q. has left us."
In The New York Times, however, Derek Bickerton, the author of several books on language, offered a more critical review: "The final effect of Outsmarting I.Q.--one its author probably didn't intend--may be a feeling that the I.Q. debate would most benefit from a 100-year moratorium."