Intelligence is a strange, strange word. Just stop for a moment and try to define what intelligence is. Perhaps you thought of an IQ test, a chalky blackboard, or perhaps the classic Einstein-with-crazy-hair may come to mind. But is it really so easy to define, and more importantly to me as an educator, what do I need to know about intelligence?
Howard Gardner had some interesting things to say on this matter. Rather than seeing intelligence as being a singular linear scale, he broke things down into seven distinct intelligences:
Gardner explains that we are all a blend of these seven intelligences, and these combine to make us who we are; a complex combination of different skills and abilities. David Beckham may not hold post-graduate qualifications in Physics, but his innate spatial awareness and bodily kinaesthetic intelligence combined with years of training to do something that very few humans are capable of.
By looking at our own competencies across these seven areas, I think we can all recognise that we are stronger in some than in others. Despite many attempts, I will never be a naturally-gifted linguist. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, however, but that I should instead look to develop this weakness through areas where I am relatively strong. Recently I have been making inroads with the excellent Michel Thomas courses, which (for me) present language in a more logical way than I found at school. (Using these courses I was recently able to learn Mandarin Chinese to a basic conversational level inside a month; compare this to spending three years learning animal names or the contents of my pencil case in German or French and I trust you get my point).
I don’t tutor so much these days as I’m too busy helping out in the Owl office, but when I am working as a Maths tutor, one my hardest jobs is getting to know a new student. Often I will only be working with a child for a short period of time, and as such it is vital that I get to know them quickly. How do they like to learn? What methods will they (and more importantly won’t) respond best to? Do they like to be taught a new topic by playing a game, working something out for themselves or by having me explain it to them? This test is not, and is not intended to be, anything more than a tool for me to quickly get to know a new student. This saves valuable time and lets us cut straight to the chase.
Recently I was tutoring a young man who at first glance appeared shy and withdrawn. His profile revealed particular strengths in the Interpersonal and Kinaesthetic intelligence types, so I took a chance and based the second session around these. The five minutes I spent preparing a simple game based on fractions were paid back manifold when he took to it with delight. His homework activity was to peer teach someone in his family what we had done in the session; upon going back for our next lesson I was amused to find he had taught his entire family how to convert between fractions, decimals and percentages.
If Gardner’s approach teaches us anything, it is that if we are to help someone build upon their weaknesses, it is best to do so using their strengths. There is nothing wrong with the traditional “chalk-and-talk” method, so long as it is well-tailored to how a student actually likes to learn. However, in my experience this only tends to work with a minority of students (myself certainly not included in this!). As a tutor I am privileged to be able to focus my attention 100% on one student, and as such see that student make incredibly rapid progress. In return, I owe it to that student to make sure that new content is presented in as clear and appropriate a way as possible.