How do you know if someone is intelligent or not?

The question ‘ How do you know if someone is intelligent or not?’ was posed to me a week ago. Since then, I started to reflect on how frame a proper answer. As you can imagine I thought a lot. Moreover,  many of you know my beliefs on intelligence and how i frame it as a unique and complicated aspect of the human mind, very difficult to describe following a single test, assessment, inferred opinion or scale able to measure it.

Another possible, professional answer is that even if we might have some clues to interpret the available data, saying if a student is intelligent or not, there is no exact definition of what intelligence should be. Think on the many available definitions we have on Intelligence. As it is not a single thing or an entity, even the well-known developmental psychologist Howard Gardener identified eight forms of intelligence, just to add to this post some difficulties that we should properly frame within this topic.

From my experience, what I can say, is that if educators are generally aware of a student’s ability in a particular subject or a narrowing field, the latter along with selected criteria can hardly measure this ‘intelligence’ parameter.

Environmental factors have a huge impact on the peculiar individual ability of “doing” things. Reference for that is the fact that if a student fail to recognize the canticles of Dante’s La Divina Commedia due to lack of interest or a long term deprived non literary background, he/she can be phenomenal at arts or assembling complex circuits. Moreover, we can also have a child that, opening his mind to new windows and influences, is posing deep philosophical questions that are rarely discussed or mentioned to others. His/her inner sensitivity is so developed that is impossible to behave alternatively.

Everyone of us is good at something and very poor at other things.

For reference I am a poor driver, but I must underline that even if I had my driver license in time (after high-school) I do not drive as I do not have a car. Still, the first is a directed effect of the second. I have some organizational abilities but my desk is always full of books, papers, lists, objects. It looks like a war camp, very far from the order you’ll find in my documents. There is one thing I am good at: writing, along with analyzing and facilitating communications in working groups.

But I learned to develop the attention and the patience to see the bigger picture placed in front of me, managing how to make a proper and quick use of all the information coming in from the activities I was involved at, or organized by myself. It took me sometime to learn how to recognize the big patterns forming, the role of deep and natural emotions, along with facilitated communications in a society that is forced to respond to certain targets, measured by progressive and successful tests. This attitude is saw every time, everywhere, without postponement, balancing any possible conflict between data.

Gardner research can offer lot of tools and elements to reflect on multiple intelligence.

In his work Frames of Mind, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences he proposes how intelligence can be separated into diverse forms: naturalist, linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal and intra personal. Rather than a particular thing or an entity that can be saw by itself as psychologist tend to define technically, “weighting” it by IQ testing.


Intelligence is something so complex that it can be hardly reduced to a single number, and is something very different from the passion, the curiosity and the ability to understand what is learnt. Nowadays who is a teacher, an educator or a referent for students is almost completely overwhelmed, even obsessed with accurate tests, measures of achievements and standardized set that should be filled-up with numbers, along with the abilities and skills showed by their students. What is avoided here is the possibility (and interest) to test on innate abilities and understanding of the culture that they breath at home, as it define inner and direct first environmental influences.

Maybe the TED talk of Prof. Sugata Mitra Build a school in the cloud is able to offer some relevant content and additional reflections on what I just report.

Sugata is part of educational technology board at Newcastle University, and his cognitive, educational experiment is called an ‘ Hole in the Wall’. An applicable and well-done example of a minimally invasive education. In 1999 Sugata and colleagues installed an internet connected PC in a hole done in a wall and left it there, in a urban slum close to New Delhi. An hidden camera was filming everything in the area and surroundings. The astonishing thing is that they saw these kids, coming from the slum, playing with the computer alone, and learning by themselves how to use it. When someone of the group was learning and testing something new, recognizing its efficiency the immediate action was the transfer of this knowledge to peers.

Considering that everything on the Internet was in English, they learned the language with the help of a distance tutor (which in fact appears to be retired teachers who volunteer from their home desk, just in front of their PC camera) and try to keep going on the wonderful experience provided. When Prof. Sugata traveled back in India, asking these children their thoughts on this play and colored machine he was completely astonished when their first requests were a faster processor and a better mouse. For me, its not only hilarious, but simply amazing!

Maybe this one is one of the many examples that shows how we need to change our perception of intelligence. Predictive tests may frame where most students will be in five years, but these data derives from predetermined parameters and are not a result of practice. Marking and deciding some criteria in advance, without know the environment of the target and the proper reality to test in advance can give us a limited idea on one particular kind of intelligence. But, on the other hands schools need to run tests in various ways, trying to score their students intelligence and responsiveness to subjects and inputs proposed by their official curriculum.

The solution or an alternative proposal to this panorama is very hard to find. For the moment one of the most credit option is to concentrate on good and trusted communication about the topics that youth should know, trying to make the learning experience fully valuable for youth and for others that might be inspired from beautiful and passionate intelligent beings.



Leave a Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s