Tags: Classroom Teacher | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Bill Lucas argues that people can be intelligent in practical waysand that intelligence is definitely something that can be increased.

What does it mean to be smart these days? Is it about having a high IQ? Is it something to do with managing your emotions? Or being adaptable? Being able to have a good idea when you need one? Being able to transfer learning from one part of your life to another? Can you be intelligent in practical ways (working in groups and problem-solving, for example) but struggle with ‘academic’ disciplines? The answers to these questions are fundamental to what we do in schools.

I sense that there is a quiet revolution brewing about what it means to be smart or, if you prefer, what the best definition of intelligence is. For a long while now, although Intellectual Quotient (IQ) has been discredited, we have not yet found a robust enough replacement for it. Today’s discussions about intelligence seem to be largely polarised around whether intelligence is a single entity (like IQ) or whether it is multi-faceted, as has been suggested by Howard Gardner (1). As part of this tussle, there have also been some important related arguments about, for example, the relative importance and reliability of emotional intelligence.

But whether talking about multiple intelligences or about emotional intelligence (arguably largely derived from two of Gardner’s intelligences), while a world of opportunity may be opened up by the ideas presented, we are left with a dilemma as to how these alternative approaches can actually be measured.

The real revolution in the making is less about replacing IQ with another philosophical approach (for example the idea that the emotional component of what we do is more important than the thinking element) than developing a much more pragmatic view of what it actually means to be smart. I want to argue that people can be intelligent in practical ways and that intelligence is definitely something that can be increased.

In exploring these ideas, I will be particularly interested in seeing how they affect schools. But before I begin, a word or two about IQ, its more recent competitor MI, and the idea of multiple intelligences.

IQ: the great survivor!

Why has IQ lasted for nearly a hundred years when it is so obviously a flawed measure? By flawed, I mean that it is neither a reliable predictor of success in education, work or life, nor is a number (‘mental age’ divided by physical age x 100) a very subtle way of describing a thing as complex as human intelligence.

The inventor of IQ and the first scientist to try and measure intelligence, was French psychologist Alfred Binet (2) in 1908. Interestingly, Binet had a much more enlightened view of intelligence than he is given credit for. Far from being the rather limited set of mathematical and linguistic questions that you find in a contemporary IQ test, the original approach included a diverse set of relatively practical activities, such as:

  • describing a picture
  • finding three rhymes for a word within in a set time limit
  • arranging blocks according to their weight
  • being able to identify commonly used coins and so on.

Binet was clear that, while it was helpful to reduce intelligence to a simple number, intelligence itself was a complex mix or blend of abilities. As he said, ‘It matters very little what the tests are, so long as they are numerous.’

I suspect that there are three reasons why IQ has survived so long as a concept:

  1. it is simple to understand
  2. under the grammar school system, it was an easy way for schools to sort children into sheep and goats
  3. there has been no alternative measure of intelligence to challenge the primacy of IQ.

The impact of IQ on education can be in little doubt. It has underpinned most measures of intelligence for a century. It has led to the unhelpful assumption that intelligence is largely fixed. It has propped up a powerful sense that the teacher must always be right (that the teacher knows all the answers) and that life is a test in which making mistakes is seen as a bad thing to do. And, arguably, it has legitimised the crude numerical marking systems so widely used in schools today.

Multiple intelligences

Some 60 years later, J P Guilford (3) came up with an extraordinary idea. Using various statistical approaches, he suggested that there were a staggering number of different components to intelligence, 150 in all! Suffice it to say, his approach never took off, as it was found to be flawed. But, most importantly, it was just too complicated.

Then in the 1980s, Howard Gardner (1) came up with his theory of multiple intelligences. There are, he has argued, eight intelligences – linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and most recently, naturalist. Interestingly, a number of these hark back to some of the clusters in Guilford’s thinking.

MI was welcomed by many educationalists on the grounds that it made sense of what teachers intuitively know – that young people have a range of talents. In terms of MI’s validity, proponents of it cite the way that it draws from two strands of evidence – from studies of the ways in which the brain functions and from study of the ways in which context-specific expertise is developed in areas that are socially useful.

But the theory of multiple intelligences has not been without its critics. There is the fact that, as Gardner has changed his mind about the number of intelligences (first there were seven, then he added ‘naturalist’), there might be a certain haphazardness about his research processes. And, of course, the main charge is the lack of any obvious way of assessing the different intelligences consistently (while grade examinations can reduce musical ability to a raw score, the same cannot easily or equivalently be undertaken for, say, interpersonal intelligence).

Teachers have latched on to Gardner’s ideas in a number of different ways. Some have seen his approach as a rallying cry to loosen the restrictive yoke of IQ by extending the areas of pupil ability, which might deserve serious attention from the sort of subjects covered by IQ. Others have gone a stage further and used the eight intelligences to provide a focus for reflective practice within certain domains. Some educational publishers have had a field day publishing books full of baffling pseudo-assessment materials, while others have produced resources aimed at developing individual intelligences.

But for me the most profound shift that a belief in MI brings, is in the mind-set of the teacher and the pupil. For with IQ (and all its derivatives), the attention must necessarily be on how smart a particular pupil is. Whereas with MI, the emphasis is on discovering how a pupil is smart. This deceptively minor shift in the order of a few words is not to be underestimated. For in an MI universe the teacher’s role becomes one of skilled coach and talent scout, working with the pupil to enable him or her to discover their hidden or undeveloped abilities and, once these are discovered, to develop as much confidence and expertise in them as possible.

A recipe for being smart

What if we stopped worrying about the idea of intelligence as an abstract concept and concentrated on what it actually might look like in real life or at school? It seems to me that the struggle to find an alternative measure for IQ is a futile one. Although IQ exerts a considerable influence over much that is done in schools today, it actually has very limited currency generally. It does not even function as a reliable predictor of academic success, as universities, currently thinking about how to supplement the ‘A’ level data they receive from schools, have acknowledged. And we are unlikely to be able to quell the tendency of human beings to want to rank themselves and, like wild animals, see where they sit in the pecking order.

Instead, let’s accept that being smart is an amalgam of attributes (or capabilities), skills and knowledge. Some of this will be measurable in conventional educational terms (with scores or specific descriptive words) while others will not. Much of what is really critical to being intelligent will not be measurable in simple terms. Success in some of these ingredients will be best judged by the individual, while others will lend themselves to external corroboration.

Here are six potential ingredients of what it means to be smart today, along with one magic special ‘sauce’ that, when stirred in with the rest, adds its distinctive flavour and makes the dish really exciting.

1. Maintain a positive mind-set

Ever since Martin Seligman (4) coined the phrase ‘learned optimism’, psychologists have begun to see the many ways in which a positive outlook has an impact. Of paramount importance is your explanatory style, the way you account for the stuff that happens to you.The more that you can see set-backs as nothing personal, just temporary problems and very specific to one area of your life, the smarter you will be. By the same token, the more you are able to feel in control of your life, the better. As Julian Rotter (5) first explained with his theory of the ‘focus of control’ (1966), we either have an external or an internal focus. Those with an external focus tend to blame fate, luck or other people when things go wrong, while those who are internally focused look no further than their own behaviour or capabilities. It’s definitely smart to cultivate an internal focus, as you can begin to take responsibility for those things that you can influence and ignore the things that are beyond your control.

2. Learn from experience

Isn’t it funny how people who are good at extracting the learning from their mistakes are so often the same people who always get better at things? Having a range of ways of reflecting on events and distilling the meaning from complex experiences, helps you to constantly improve and realise your personal best.

3. Be adaptable

Charles Darwin’s discovery of the power of evolution and adaptation is arguably one of the greatest discoveries of the nineteenth century. Its implication for us is clear. Intelligent people reflect on their experience and adapt their behaviour accordingly. Consequently, using feedback from others, along with our own ability to notice what is going on, is an essential ingredient.

4. Be ever resourceful

When Jean Piaget described intelligence as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’, he might have been thinking of the resourcefulness that is the hallmark of a smart person. Contestants on the TV show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ opt for ‘going 50-50’, ‘phoning a friend’ or ‘asking the audience’. These are good resourceful approaches. The smart learner has not three but 300 possible approaches up their sleeve to deploy as the situation demands.

And, of course, you can get better at the way in which you use your mind through practice, as I and many others have argued. An essential aspect of resourcefulness is the ability to work in groups, picking up both the emotional and intellectual signals from those around you.

5. Be resilient

Everyone gets stuck from time to time, but the smart person knows how to deal with feelings of difficulty and is comfortable with ambiguous or complex issues. Knowing enough about yourself and how best to deal with different kinds of difficulty is the key here. In the long term, expecting highs and lows in your learning life and knowing how to deal with the moments when your self-confidence seems temporarily low, is an essential part of staying motivated.

6. Pace yourself

When do you need to go faster and when is it smart to slow down? The more intelligent you become, the more it will be clear to you when it is best to take your time and refuse to be rushed. By the same token, pacing involves tough decisions about the amount of time you want to spend socially (picking up lots of good ideas), as opposed to the all-important moments when you process the hunches, inklings and intuitions bubbling around inside you.

The ingredient that acts as the magic sauce is your capacity to see the ‘bigger picture’ and enjoy exploring how you learn and how you think, some-times called meta-learning.This involves a continuing interest in the process of learning.

When it comes to being smart today, there is clearly much more than IQ involved. But rather than focus on any of IQ’s obvious competitors, I wonder whether we would not be much better donning our chef’s hat and working out what the really practical ingredients in intelligence are.

And the good news is that by practising different methods and approaches, you really can learn how to behave more intelligently. TEX

Practical tips for teachers

Here are a few tips that follow from my recipe for intelligent behaviour.

1. Maintain a positive mind-set

Teach pupils how to explain an event in ways that ensure that they stay positive by using Seligman’s 3 Ps:

  • Personalisation
  • Permanence
  • Pervasiveness.

2. Learn from experience

At an early age, get pupils started on learning logs that use words and pictures.

3. Be adaptable

Encourage pupils to try new things and always have a Plan B method for everything that you teach.

4. Be ever resourceful

Create a wall chart with a list of methods down the left-hand side and a list of situations where each method is really useful on the right hand side and get pupils to contribute ideas to it regularly.

5. Be resilient

Encourage pupils to develop and display ‘stuck posters’, as Guy Claxton6 has shown, so that they start to become more consciously aware of the ways in which they can stick with things when they get difficult.

6. Pace yourself

Ensure that your pupils have quiet, as well as noisy, thinking time.


  1. Gardner, H. Frames of Mind, New York: Basic Books 1983
  2. Binet, A. Le developpement de l’intelligence chez les enfants.L’Annee psychologique, 14, 1-94; Binet, A. (1911). Nouvelles recherches sur la mesure du niveau intellectuel chez les enfants d’d’ecole. L’Annee psychologique, 17, 145-201, 1908
  3. Guilford, JP. The Nature of Human Intelligence, New York:McGraw-Hill 1967 Further reading
  4. Seligman, M. Learned Optimism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Boost Your Mind Power1991 Week by Week,
  5. Rotter, J. Locus of Control, 1966 Bill Lucas, London:
  6. Claxton, G. Building Learning Power, Bristol: TLO Ltd, 2002 Duncan Baird, 2006

Bill Lucas is a best-selling author, motivational speaker and Chairman of the Talent Foundation. A growing number of schools and local authorities are adopting his ideas. His latest book, for BBC Active, is ‘Happy Families; how to make one, how to keep one’.

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