Get Smart

October 01, 1995 5 min read
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David Perkins, co-director of Harvard University’s Proj-ect 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 then-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. One was like a weight lifter, who, by dint of genetics, good nutrition, and exercise, worked efficiently. Another was like a cook who provides the recipes that have been learned from years of experience. The third was like an army general who has a 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 IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence.

Published by the Free Press, Outsmarting IQ both tries to explain Perkins’ theory as well as counter the more pessimistic view of intelligence published last fall in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein.

Whereas Herrnstein and Murray depicted 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.’'

In the world of research, theories on the nature of intelligence are plentiful. Some, however, have achieved more prominence than others.

As controversial as they seem, 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 IQ 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 product 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 Sternberg, who 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. “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’ theory, on the other hand, incorporates all of these views. From the traditionalists like Herrnstein and Murray, he takes his first dimension, the weight lifter. That’s what Perkins now 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 Perkins’ cook and general analogies. 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,’' Perkins writes in his book.

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, Perkins points out, there might never have been a Revolutionary War. A lack of reflective thinking, he says, 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. Teachers have to do more than encourage students to think critically; they also must 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, is explicit awareness of how the thinking game is played.’'

As evidence that teaching thinking works, he points to four programs that claim to have had a proven track record. One of the most well-known 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 were Herrnstein and Perkins. Ironically, Herrnstein later wrote disparagingly of the project in The Bell Curve.

Perkins acknowledges that over the years such educational 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 shift the intellectual ground.’'

--Debra Viadero

The “Research’’ section is being underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Get Smart

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