What is intelligence?

March 9, 2010 | By | Reply More

A few months ago, I collected many definitions of “intelligence.” One version of intelligence measures the ability to use language well.   It turns out that using language well can be affected greatly by practice.  David Shenk reports on this topic in an Atlantic article titled, “The 32-Million Word Gap“:

The differences were astounding. Children in professionals’ homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used. As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. “We were astonished at the differences the data revealed,” Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences. “The most impressive aspects [are] how different individual families and children are and how much and how important is children’s cumulative experience before age 3.”

How does one cultivate expertise in the use of language?  Shenk has gathered these strategies:

  • Speaking to children early and often.
  • Embracing failure. “Setbacks must be seen as learning tools rather than signs of permanent  built- in limitation.”
  • Reading early and often.
  • Nurturance and encouragement.
  • Setting high expectations.
  • Encouraging a “growth mindset.” “[T]he average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback; . . . a welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.”

I like the above advice.  I try to use these strategies with my own children.  I can’t help but think, though, that another important ingredient is necessary: the kind of character developed through overcoming adversity to attempt to help others in collaborative ways, where they are sometimes forced to fly on their own.

Lots of children are doted over by their parents, who immerse the children in intellectually rich environments from the minute they are born.  Many of those kids grow up and live unimpressive lives, or they use their well-honed intellects to serve only their own immediate needs.

When I see lists like the above, I am reminded that there is no way to meaningfully separate abstractly defined intelligence from emotional smarts.  I suspect that this is one of the main points made by Daniel Goleman, who termed this skill emotional intelligence (EQ): The “self-perceived ability, to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups.”

I’d recommend reading the entire article by Shenk, because it does construe intelligence to be much broader than an excellence in the use of words.


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Category: Education, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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