Life Learning Magazine

About         Articles         Quotes         Editor's Blog

What Really Matters
A Conversation Between David H. Albert & Joyce Reed

Parts is Parts
(how conventional measures of intelligence fall short)

The Quality of Intelligence
Photo © Deklofenak/Shutterstock

David: Cassie and Neal, eight-year-old twins, were driving home with mom from the homeschool camp-out weekend. (Actually, mom was driving the van.) They were both tired out and perhaps overly quiet and thoughtful, if there ever could be said to be such a thing.

“Mom,” said Cassie, in what appeared to be an outgrowth of a longer, silent thought process, “Kyle is really a whiz at math and he has never done any workbook pages.”

“Are you unhappy with your workbook?” asked Mom, ever-ready to consider changing their homeschooling routine.

“Oh, no, it’s not that,” replied Cassie, “I was just thinking it’s amazing how quickly he can multiply and divide all those numbers in his head.”

“Yeah,” said Neal, piping up from the transformer he was transforming with, “and Suzie, why, she could talk with horses and they really listened and she could tell us what they said back!”

“Oh,” said Mom, having no idea where this banter was going.

“The test of intelligence,” wrote John Holt in How Children Learn, “is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.”

“Wasn’t Mikey great on his violin in the talent show?” exclaimed Cassie, now getting more excited about the course the conversation was taking.

“Well, you could be good, too, if you practiced more,” replied Mom, unable to resist the opportunity to get a little dig in.

“Oh, yes,” said Cassie, not recognizing that this could be seen as acquiescing to more nagging on Mom’s part later, “but Mikey, he’s only six and he’s already much better than me. I mean I’m sure I could get better but I’ll never be as good as Mikey.”

“Well, you are such a good artist,” said Mom, worried, mistakenly, that the kids were comparing themselves with other children and might lose some self-esteem in the process.

“She is!” exclaimed Neal proudly, as if Mom had been referring to him. “And I can climb trees and run and swim faster than anybody and I don’t even have to practice!”

“He sure can,” said Cassie, taking equal pride in her brother’s accomplishments. “No one can ever catch him.”

She thumbed through her well-read copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, looking for a spell she hoped to try out on her calico cat Cleo when she got home.

“Mom,” she said in a very serious voice, glancing up from the page with the spell on it, “why are some people just good at some things and not so good at others, even when they try really hard?”

Well, you know,” Mom began slowly, trying not to say anything that would not be considered politically incorrect, even though the kids could have cared less and they just wanted a reasonable answer. “For some people, certain things just sort of come, well, …naturally.”

“Oh, I get it,” replied Cassie, quite satisfied with Mom’s answer and returning to Harry.

They pulled up to their house. Mom put the van in the garage. And without unpacking, Cassie and Neal went upstairs, brushed their teeth (truth be told, not very well) and got into bed. Cassie clutched Buddy, her faded yellow teddy bear who had only one eye, the book by the side of the pillow with a place mark on the page where the spell was to be found.

“I love you, Mom,” said Cassie, putting her arms around her mother’s neck when the latter came in to tuck her in.

“I love you, too, sweetie,” replied Mom, giving Cassie a kiss, still reflecting back on the conversation from the ride home and still wondering whether she’d said the right thing.

After Mom switched the light off, Cleo entered the bedroom with tail held high, looked around, leapt up on Cassie’s bed, lay down, arched her entire body like an archer’s bow, claws extended and dreamed.

* * * * *

Most homeschoolers I know are partial to Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences.” It is, after all, a celebration of the commonsensical. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is wonderful that someone even remotely connected with the arcane world of what passes for education these days recognizes something that is self-evident to any thinking, observant human being. That there are individuals with special gifts or simply partialities toward nature, mathematics, the world of the spirit, the intellect, music, the physical or compassion is something that might be easily recognized by any eight-year-old who hasn’t had to undergo the “dreary shower” directed toward demonstrating otherwise. Wide- eyed and idealistic future schoolteachers, not yet beaten down or cynical, enjoy writing papers about the obvious – there are so many examples from which to choose! – and, often not having had much in the way of opportunity to engage their multiple intelligences themselves when growing up, relish the idea of being able to do so with their future charges. Boy, are they in for some rude surprises.

"When you read him, Professor Howard Gardner comes across as a nice enough guy (we’ve never actually met). His theory (all right, I think it is actually a bit of a stretch to call it a theory, but it brings him a steady paycheck) grew out of his experience as a nerdy type who did well on IQ-type tests."

When you read him, Professor Gardner comes across as a nice enough guy (we’ve never actually met). His theory (all right, I think it is actually a bit of a stretch to call it a theory, but it brings him a steady paycheck) grew out of his experience as a nerdy type who did well on IQ-type tests. He then went on to Harvard where the general assumption among the developmental psychologists with whom he studied was that people with fully developed cognitive capacities would think like scientists (or at least like Harvard professors). Gardner bought it, except that music and the arts were important parts of his young life and he saw no reason not to deem the capacities of those in the arts “as fully cognitive – no less cognitive than the skills of mathematicians and scientists.” He writes (in Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century), “The standard definition of intelligence narrowly constricts our view by treating a certain form of scholastic performance as if it encompassed the range of human capacities and by engendering disdain for those who happen not to score well on a particular psychometric instrument.” He now accounts for eight-and-a-half intelligences – linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and about the half – spiritual – he is hedging his bets. He has no trouble with the idea that there may be more.

All’s well and good, except it should be emphasized that Gardner’s construct reflects a rhetorical strategy rather than a theoretical one. Much of the impact of his work comes from the labeling as “intelligences” capacities often considered outside the scope of intelligence. He ponders what might have happened had he called his first work “Seven Human Gifts” or “The Seven Faculties of the Human Mind” and he notes, “I have no objection if one speaks about eight or nine talents or abilities, but I do object when an analyst calls some abilities (like language) intelligences and others (like music) as “mere” talents. All should be called intelligences or talents; an unwarranted hierarchy among the capacities must be avoided.”

Thus rhetorically armed, Gardner girds his loins and takes up his sword to do battle with the windmills of the testocrats and the guardians of public education. Who can complain? What does he teach his graduate students and the schoolteachers at his workshops? Namely that the key educational imperative of multiple intelligences is “individually configured education.” (Thunderous applause!) Progressive-minded homeschoolers can stand up and cheer; school board members should make sure they have their nitro in their pockets to use at the first sign of a heart attack. He praises children’s museums because “children can proceed at their own pace and direct their energies wherever they like. There is no need to focus on language or logic and there is no explicit teacher or curriculum.” He favorably quotes the founder of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, “Nobody flunks museums,” and notes that the downside is that the lack of freedom, flexibility and fun experienced by children the rest of year means other institutions “cannot exploit the cognitive sparks set off by the museum experience….”

The main intent behind Gardner’s work is to democratize human proclivities. Like Don Quixote, there is something both profoundly noble and disturbingly naïve and even sad in the attempt. Having defined intelligence as “a bio- psychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems, or create products that are of value in a culture” (what a mouthful!), he certainly can’t be unaware that the culture has in fact “voted” as to which products it prefers, which intelligences upon which it purports to place emphasis, which values it attempts to enforce or reproduce in educational settings. (Sometimes I am almost glad. A recent proposal to include an “arts” section to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, to be required for high school graduation, makes me cringe!) Perhaps he believes in his progressive ideals of school reform based on multiple intelligences, or maybe he doesn’t really but can’t say so publicly without losing his platform, but he surely can’t miss the way the wind is blowing.

What is surprising, or at least disappointing, is that for all his good intentions, Professor Gardner can’t seem to get his head around the possibility of questioning the institution of school, especially of the compulsory variety, itself. But let’s be clear: He’s on the side of the angels and one often has to make compromises to further one’s agenda. And to be fair, we all have to pick our spots.

* * * * *

My wife is fond of quoting the late great chicken maven Frank Perdue. “Parts is parts,” he used to say and, having presided at the execution of tens of millions of domestic poultry, he ought to know. His frame, of course, was the realization of profit; cutting chickens up into parts (and charging a premium for them) was just a means to the end.

Professor Gardner has asserted that he can cut up the “biopsychosocial potential” of our kids into a larger number of parts and, by doing so, society as a whole will realize more human “profit” by adding value to the gizzards and giblets. It’s a valuable exercise, but at the end of it there is still no one who mistakes the revalued offal for the breasts and thighs. It’s useful as far as it goes (though Cassie and her brother Neal did about as well) but ultimately it doesn’t go very far.

The main reason it doesn’t go very far is that, for all his high-sounding words, in paying homage to the obvious, Gardner doesn’t really question the concept of intelligence that he inherited from his childhood. His vision is quite limited and narrow – one could almost take his eight intelligences and replace them with eight periods in a school day (with the bodily-kinesthetic being PE, and there being nine periods if one goes to a religious school), and one wouldn’t be far off. But to be sure, there are other possibilities.

"Homeschooled kids know how to self-organize and trust their analytical abilities because they never 'failed' when they made mistakes; they just learned to self-correct and move on, fearlessly."

“The test of intelligence,” wrote John Holt in How Children Learn, “is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” And as I have watched my kids learn and grow, and exercise their various biopsychosocial potentials, I’ve come to the realization that there are entirely different behavioral phenomena that characterize their intelligence.

In contrast to Gardner’s eight-and-a-half intelligences, might I in their place offer nine “elements of intelligence,” nine behaviors and qualities that impact one’s ability to flourish in the face of the unknown? I think that if you were to observe how people generally considered to be intelligent behave, you would instantly recognize these characteristics to a lesser or greater extent:

  • Focus and centering – The capacity to clearly understand and conceptualize what is known and what is unknown, and to pare the latter down to its essentials is a mark of intelligence, as is the ability to center on the problem on hand rather than spinning our wheels.
  • Drive and perseverance – Whether we are attempting to learn a new violin sonata, master a difficult gymnastics move or solve a mathematical conundrum, success is unlikely without inner drive and a willingness to stick to it until the goal is attained, knowing that once that waystation is reached, there will be further mountains to climb.
  • Organization – Confronting the unknown requires the ability to organize intellectual, material and human resources in a concerted, articulated way. Some of those resources will come from past personal experience, others from our analytical and creative abilities (as below), still others by drawing upon the expertise and abilities of others.
  • Analytical ability – When we don’t know what to do, we often engage in a rollicking game of trial and error. In doing so we have to evaluate the results of our experience, narrowing the behavioral options from which we then can choose and making decisions as to whether more information is necessary before an intelligent choice can be made.
  • Intuition – In life, as in science (and contrary to what they taught us about the so-called “scientific meth- od” in junior high school), exploration doesn’t start with either observation or hypothesis. There are endless universes of objects and phenomena to be observed and scores of potential hypothesis for any situation. And the choice of which to explore, or which direction to proceed when faced with the unknown, is more often than not an act of intuition, built up as a result of increased experience.
  • Creativity – Creativity is, in essence, the capacity to organize that which is already known or experienced in application to new challenges. Critical is the ability to learn by analogy, to make connections among disparate phenomena that might not seem inherently obvious, in confronting what is yet to be unearthed, discovered, understood or created.
  • Capacity to learn from others – Sometimes when we don’t know what to do, the best way forward is to draw on the resources of others, not just their experience, but in joint application to the problem at hand. Teamwork, leadership skill, the ability to listen well, the initiative to seek out mentors and learn from them and the capacity to evaluate and make use of the best attributes of those around us enables us to solve problems with a far higher level of creativity that we might otherwise, in a synergistic pooling of intelligence.
  • Flexibility, humor and a sense of proportion – While we confront dangers in an uncertain world, the reality is that, in exercising our intelligence, we are rarely faced with life and death decisions. There are few lions in the forests, waiting to pounce as a result of a single misstep. The latitude for error – for learning – is usually quite wide. Intelligence requires that we pick up ourselves with a smile when we’ve gotten off track, ready and willing to seriously yet playfully exercise our capabilities in facing the next set of trials we find along the way.
  • Courage – Of all the components of intelligence – the ability to face off and tame the unknown – courage is likely the single most essential and, perhaps, the least appreciated. Without courage and a willingness to undertake risk, we draw back from new challenges or we fall back into ruts, using the other elements of our intelligence in the same old ways. We become competent, perhaps, but dull. Without courage, we are less likely to trust our intuition, less likely to analogize creativity from past experience and less likely to persevere.

There may be further elements of intelligence, but unlike Professor Gardner’s description of disparate fields upon which intelligence may operate, intelligence is integrative, a set or behaviors and inner resources and processes that can be brought to bear as we learn what to do in face of the unknown.

Old-school thinking about intelligence, in which I include Gardner’s work, however noble his intentions, focuses unhealthily on potential and product. This is not at all surprising, as it betrays its origins in late 19th /early 20th century education as a tool for industrial business interests. It also leads to strained and circular reasoning regarding “underachievement” – whereby a child is said to produce products of lesser value than of which she is “capable,” despite having never produced products of superior value in the past – or (one of my favorites) “overachievement,” whereby a child produces products of greater value than she is capable of (say what?).

The other poll underlying modern elaborations of antiquated thinking about intelligence is its reliance upon 19th century Social Darwinism in which nature is destiny. More contemporary approaches look at nature and nurture as fluid and inseparable, co-creating each other. This is a subject for another essay, Joyce, and I will restrain myself here! Intelligence is not a potential, but a process of navigating into new waters, and becoming more adept at steering the boat. As we successfully bring the elements of intelligence to bear upon our experience, intelligence builds upon itself. Rather than a passive set of genetic possibilities, intelligence is the evolving result of our meaningful and transformative engagement with the world.

Last summer, I was driving in the car with my older daughter Aliyah, the budding musicologist. We were listening to some Baroque music on the radio and she commented on several unusual key changes (naming the keys in the process).

“Aliyah,” I asked, “How did you do that?” knowing that, unlike her younger sister, she grew up without any evidence of having “perfect pitch” (the ability to identify by name musical pitches as they are being played, also known “absolute pitch”). “You don’t have perfect pitch.”

“Do now,” she replied laconically.

“But how did you do that?” I asked further, interrupting her rapt attention to the music.

“Taught myself,” she said, “though not entirely consciously, at least at the beginning. It took me four or five months. But I knew I was going to need it.”

“But,” I stammered, “Every book I’ve ever read says you’re either born with it or you are not.”

“Wrong, aren’t they?” she replied, and went back to listening.

"There is now a school of thought among developmental psychologists that argues that everyone is born with perfect pitch, but a shift in cognitive processing that occurs as a child develops and a lack of reinforcement causes it to be unlearned."

Except now I know that there are major theorists who suggest another possibility. There is now a school of thought among developmental psychologists that argues that everyone is born with perfect pitch, but a shift in cognitive processing that occurs as a child develops and a lack of reinforcement (as it is a product not particular valued by anyone except musicians and, even among young musicians, it is relative, not absolute, pitch that is reinforced) causes it to be unlearned. I suspect that eventually we will find that to be true with virtually every other kind of intelligence cataloged by Professor Gardner as well.

And perhaps, deep in our hearts, we already know this. We knew it, deeply we knew it and understood it, the very first time we looked into our children’s eyes. Perhaps we would educate our children more intelligently if we were to act upon that which we saw.

Probably, we’d homeschool ‘em!


Dear David … definitely, we’d homeschool them … and they, us!

This is a very important essay, David, and I thank you for formulating and illustrating the key elements of intelligence so clearly. Intelligence is an integrative process, not merely a potential and, as such, it can and does build upon itself as it is used, experienced and honed. Surely, “in the real world,” we all know this and observe it daily! How is it we allow ourselves to be talked/written into beliefs that verily contradict what we know from experience?

I love your nine elements of intelligence and I really don’t see why they cannot be considered intrinsic to the very concept of intelligence. Because what is intelligence in a vacuum, unexplored, unapplied? Intelligence exists in individuals only in relation to problems/issues and resolutions. Intelligence is a responsive capacity. Can one really separate intelligence and behavior? As your Cassie and Neal are well aware, that seems like such nonsense.

When my copy of Life Learning Magazine arrives, what do I read first? Well, first I look at the pictures of all the beautiful children and at the faces of the dear, courageous parents. Love them! Then I read the articles by parents first, honoring their anxieties (Nathanael Schildbach) and their glorious successes (Ann Leadbetter’s wonderful article: “Kate and Molly Go to College”). And I treasure the frank and forthright interviews and Peter Kowalke’s reports on unschooled adults. In every Life Learning Magazine issue, we see the examples of your nine elements – Aliyah’s focus and drive in learning to develop perfect pitch; Nathanael’s flexibility, humor and courage as he accepts his son’s fascination with sports; Gea D’Marea Bassett’s insistence that (as A.S. Neill had said in Summerhill long ago) a child’s happiness is to be valued over someone else’s estimation of the child’s success.

Homeschooling is so honest. It has to be. I am still discomfited at times by how well my kids know me. There is absolutely no fooling your kids about what you think or value. After all, they have laid there in your arms, or inside you, listening to every slight shift in heartbeat or tone of voice, every little tightening and relaxation, and they know just what it means, probably better than you do.

Anyone who has spent so many months gazing up your nose and watching the muscles around your mouth with the intensity of a baby knows you. They know you are just a teeny bit anxious because they haven’t been one bit interested in reading – anything! – for the past month or two, but are spending all their time doodling around with wires and electrodes and things out in the garage. Without a word from you, they know you’d like them to write the thank-you note to their grandmother, even though they’ve been busy all day, all week, building that amazing tree house out behind the chicken coop.

Even though we personally totally believe in the principles and the outcomes of child-directed learning, David, we know that society, in general, does not. And we cannot help be a little anxious as our children grow up from the three- or ten-year-olds we are happy to trust, and can truly try to guard from unwonted expectations – those of others and our own. But come those teen years and the snake in the garden raises his head. What is she going to be when she grows up? How is he going to sustain a family, or even a self, in today’s world? Where and how does some kind of preparation for work, including dreaming up what one wants to do, begin?

"Ultimately, it comes down to this, I think. Are we willing to let our kids have the time and opportunity to discover themselves and to build their capacity to explore and impact their world (thereby building their intelligence), from home to globe? From body to spirit."

And that’s where your nine elements of intelligence come in. Homeschooled kids have them in spades. They know how to self-organize and trust their analytical abilities because they never “failed” when they made mistakes; they just learned to self-correct and move on, fearlessly. They trust their intuition because they trust themselves, because their environment/home has trusted their choices. Above all, they are relaxed and delightfully creative in their endeavors, again because they have not been judged/evaluated and graded by someone who probably couldn’t have accomplished what they did in any case.

David, you included in your elements the capacity to learn from others, and I personally think this is absolutely key to intelligence and to homeschooling. There comes a time when every child wants to understand something and will turn to someone else, peer or often adult (if trustworthy), and ask for more – more information, guidance – just more. Intuitively, we know that the pool of knowledge on which we draw is larger than our puddle and we get thirsty. Many (though certainly not all) homeschooled kids tend to read voraciously. Sometimes they make friends with magnificent minds that way. Other times, they do so by seeking out mentors in their community. In contrast, schooled kids rarely, if ever, really know their teachers’ minds.

Ultimately, it comes down to this, I think. Are we willing to let our kids have the time and opportunity to discover themselves and to build their capacity to explore and impact their world (thereby building their intelligence), from home to globe? From body to spirit?

What a magnificent opportunity it is to homeschool, for parents and for children! I think it almost always involves a choice that many in our culture would see as an economic sacrifice. Personally, I felt richer than a queen and constantly reminded my kids that they had privileges that only royalty (and probably not even them!) could possibly afford, with regards to the opportunity to make choices and decisions about themselves, their time and space. But there are consequences for every choice and, yes, some choices mean shopping at thrift stores, or traveling for months. What a choice/chance!

As a life-long educator as well as a homeschool/nonschool mom of many years, I choose to help kids open doors and peek behind facades wherever they are, wherever they can go. I am particularly pleased with the homeschooled young people’s sense of responsibility for the planet as well as for their own lives, and pleased with the courage so many of them have to step forward and make a difference in their communities... because they see something that needs to be done, not because they would get credit for required community service work!

So, courage, homeschooling families! My five kids testify their homeschooling experience still totally impacts their lives, their children, their spouses, their friendships, their work in very positive ways. David’s elements of intelligence are simple, practical and applicable, and you hold the keys to enhancing them and giving them room to express themselves. Homeschooling leaves your children (and you!) plenty of time to consider and participate in the important things in life, to build a strong base of experiences and capacity and to expand the range of intelligence.

And that’s what really matters.

David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer and speaker. He is the author of a number of books, including And the Skylark Sings with Me, Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery and Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love. He lives, works, and writes in Olympia, Washington.

Joyce Reed is the parent of five successful home educated college grads. She served for 14 years as Associate Dean of The College at Brown University where she reached out to homeschooled teens. After retiring, she began consulting with primarily international and homeschooling families seeking to attend college.

This article was included in the book What Really Matters by David Albert and Joyce Reed.

Copyright © 2002 - 2023 Life Media

Privacy Policy

Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz Life Learning - the book Beyond School by Wendy Priesnitz

Natural Life Magazine Child's Play Magazine Natural Child Magazine

 Life Learning Magazine