By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., author of Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them
There’s a lot of emphasis in contemporary culture on children’s achievement levels, starting in preschool, where studies contend that teaching math at that level will give kids a leg up in kindergarten and later schooling. What doesn’t usually get discussed, however, is children’s own perceptions of this increased stress on achievement, and in particular, their ideas of what it means to be intelligent (and thus in a position to achieve).
Instead, kids pick up notions of being smart on the fly, as it were, through comments heard at home (“Joey isn’t as smart as his sister Joan”), on the playground (“Stevie’s a dummy! Stevie’s a dummy!”), and even in school (“Now, kids, let’s be smart and do really well on today’s test”).
The result is that too many kids end up thinking about themselves as less than smart—and even as stupid. Such beliefs about themselves can seep into their sense of self and serve as formidable obstacles to their ability to both enjoy and succeed at learning.
One important development in counteracting these messages is the work being done at Stanford University around “mindset.” Studies suggest that students who have a “fixed mindset, believing that a person is born either smart or not smart and can’t do much about it, don’t do as well academically as children who have a “growth mindset,” believing that if a person works hard they can succeed.
An important supplement to this work on mindset is the research of Dr. Howard Gardner, who suggests that one can be intelligent in a variety of ways. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences suggests that there are at least eight different intelligences:
- word smart
- number/logic smart
- picture smart
- body smart
- music smart
- people smart
- self smart
- nature smart
In tune with the research on mindset, Gardner further suggests that one can develop each of these different kinds of smart through appropriate teaching and personal effort.
What makes this theory important for children is that it redefines the notion of what it means to be smart. Too often, informal use of the term smart (as noted above) can cause children to associate being smart with being good at schoolwork. This “schoolhouse smart” is really a limited version of only two of the intelligences in Gardner’s model: word smart and number/logic smart.
Children who show smarts in the other intelligences—as musicians, athletes, naturalists, and/or artists, for example—often don’t receive the same level of validation from their peers, parents, or teachers for these attainments or proclivities. At best, these smarts are relegated to the status of “talents.”
Thus, many kids go through school thinking of themselves as “not smart” because they don’t do as well as their peers in filling out worksheets or taking standardized tests, even though these children may sing really well, know everything there is to know about lizards and snakes, paint beautiful pictures, or run really fast.
We need to change this state of affairs by letting kids know from an early age that they are smart, and in not just one way, but many.
Parents and teachers need to become conscious of how they use the words intelligent and smart when speaking to children, and these adults need to make sure that they are inclusive in their definitions of these words, so that children can be seen in terms of things they do really well and know that such attainments rise to the level of “being smart.”
One of the best things about the theory of multiple intelligences (or MI theory) is how easy it is to explain to young children, using the terms I’ve employed above. Gardner’s terms are a little more academic (e.g., “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” for “body smart”). Sometimes, to teach kids the idea of “having smarts,” I’ve used a visual model of a circle divided into eight segments with each segment representing a different way of being smart.
Kids usually recognize themselves immediately in the descriptions of the multiple intelligences, and they also understand that there are smarts that don’t come as easily to them. But knowing that you’re “body smart” and “picture smart” more than you are “word smart” or “number/logic smart,” for example, is much better than thinking of yourself as either “smart” or “dumb.” There isn’t a lot of room for growth in an all-or-nothing characterization of intelligence.
And with the addition of a growth mindset ( “I can develop all the intelligences if I work hard”), MI theory provides a way of unpacking these simplistic notions of being smart or dumb and replacing them with a cutting-edge perspective that can give kids not just enhanced self-confidence but (if we believe the research on having a growth mindset) also better levels of achievement both inside and outside of school.
All children deserve to feel smart as they are growing up, and not simply as a “feel good” but as a way of better understanding the broad spectrum of their learning abilities and challenges.
Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and speaker with 40 years of teaching experience and over one million copies of his books in print. He has authored 15 books, including Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom; written numerous articles for Parenting, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and other periodicals; and appeared on several national and international television and radio programs, from NBC’s Today show to the BBC.
Thomas is the author of Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them
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