The many definitions of intelligence

I will define intelligence as what you do with what you know – which to me is what matters most. Intelligence is not just the capacity to think well, neither it is a “genie in a bottle,” that makes a student top a math quiz. I will explain this progressively, but first, let’s go through the changing perspectives about intelligence.

  • General Intelligence theory (Charles Spearman) – argued that intelligence is a general cognitive construct that is measured numerically called factor g, that classify people according to levels of intelligence, such as low, average and genius
  • Primary mental abilities (Louis Thurstone) – argued that intelligence composed of seven primary mental abilities and not a single factor: verbal comprehension, reasoning, perceptual speed, numerical ability, word fluency, associated memory and spatial visualisation.
  • Successful intelligent (Robert Sternberg) – explained that people succeed because of the balance of “triarchic abilities:” analytical, creative and practical
  • Multiple Intelligence (Howard Gardner) – identified distinct intelligences that function in problem solving and creation of new products: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.
  • Mindware and metacurriculum (David Perkins) – believes in three mechanisms that underlie intelligence: neural or genetically determined, experiential and reflective which is the “good use of the mind” for self- managing, self- monitoring and self-modifying
  • Emotional intelligence (Daniel Goleman) – asserted that intellect and emotions are interwined. He also believed that the human brain is a “social brain,” with innate capacity to bond and empathize with others.
  • Moral Intelligence (Robert Coles) – believes that children can be more intelligent by developing their inner character.

Influences on the way intelligent person behave and learn

The explanations on how intelligent person behave and learn depend on the theory of intelligence that is embraced by social and education systems that a person live in.  It is interesting to note a research finding that the school is the originator of individual differences in intelligence and became the solution to it (Raty 1995).  While it sounds anomalous, the research admits that the issue is more on the practices and principles of the school that make the diversity among children.  As pointed out by Dewey  (cited in Practical Intelligence) education is a process of living and not a preparation for future. This is why my proposition above – doing well in school and life.  Students must learn how to use their intelligence while in school which has implications on their future life. A practical intelligence curriculum developed at Yale University that is based on the theory of human intelligence demonstrated how theories can be put into practice (Sternberg, Practical Intelligence For School Success).  It is very interesting to see in the curriculum how the intellectual domains from Gardner’s multiple intelligence are translated into mental processes, practical application and transfer to new situation, see example below:

Figure 1.  Intellectual Operations

Componential Contextual Experimental
Intellectual Domains (multiple intelligence) Examples of mental processes Practical application Translate to new situation
Linguistic Selecting the steps needed to solve a problem How to organize your thoughts in order to write a book Writing a history report, writing a letter, giving direction
Logical-mathematics Ordering the components of problem solving How to complete a math worksheet Figuring out the steps in balancing a budget
…….. ….. …. ….

It is known that how an intelligent person learns is influenced by genetics, culture, socio-economic status; the individual’s motivation and learning style; and the actual teaching-learning practice in the classroom.  I wish to point out how advanced economies like the USA, Canada and U.K. have integrated in their curriculum – social and emotional learning, which have been advocated by recent research researches as an effective learner-centered approach.  It is worth noting that students in these countries do well in international test, and that the human development index of these countries are also high.  This demonstrates the equal importance of non-cognitive skills to cognitive skills in a person’s success which then contributes to the country’s economic development.

Am I intelligent?

Following the moral intelligence proposition, I consider myself  “intelligent.”  The principle of the Golden Rule – “that do to others what you want others do to you,” lays the foundation of my own being.  While I have achieved remarkable educational attainment and success in my career, I do not consider these as the best indicator of being intelligent.  I continue to strive in using what I learn for the sake of others – specially the most disadvantaged children.  This explains my mantra for intelligence – doing well in school and life.

Thoughts and actions for the future

With the greater understanding of the historical and the changing perspectives on intelligence and learning theories, I am more convinced that we are all born “gifted” and “retarded” human beings.  Living in different context means different challenges on how the potentials for using our intelligences can be realised at the fullest.  As an education development worker, I will continue to contribute in:

  • making schools effective in nurturing the nature given educational potentials of learners
  • developing assessment innovations that focus less on I.Q, or cognitive skills but more on non-cognitive skills
  • advocating on the importance of strengthening early learning social and emotional skills
  • understanding gender issues – such as, why women got involved in the recent terrorism in France.


Raty, H. Snellman, L. (1995). On the Social Fabric of Intelligence. Papers on Social Representations, 4 ( 2 ). [pdf] Based on a paper presented at the Symposium of Social Representations in the Northern Context, 22 -26 August, 1995, Mustio, Finland.

Kearsley, G. (2014). Triarchic Theory (Robert Sternberg) In The Theory Into Practice Database. Retrieved from

Sternberg, Robert and Okagaki, Lyn (1999). Practical Intelligence for Success in School. Retrived in