Multiple intelligences: no; multiplying intelligence: yes

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Richard E. Nisbett's new book, Intelligence and How to Get It, is a good-natured treatment of the explosive topic of I.Q.

richard_nesbitt.jpg Nisbett, a University of Michigan psychology professor, has thrown a potential lifeline to the mainstream educational establishment, whose aversion to the very notion of intelligence differences has led it to embrace very fluffy notions of multiple intelligences (e.g, musical or bodily kinesthetic intelligence) that are of no use whatsoever in instruction and hold little credence externally. While the lifeline is mainly "conservative" in that it advocates for means of increasing intelligence as traditionally defined, it may be made more palatable to educators by the fact that Nisbett is a staunch adherent to the "liberal" belief that environment--rather than heredity--largely determines I.Q.

Among the arguments that Nisbett advances is that I.Q. test results demonstrate conclusively that everyone, worldwide, is getting smarter due to schooling and to exposure to intellectual challenges that have become part of our culture. (Did you know that recent McDonald's Happy Meal mazes have been tougher than the mazes in an I.Q. test for gifted children?) Unless schools foster a culture that discourages achievement or are substandard, he posits that more schooling should translate to more intelligence.

Ah, but there's the rub: a lot of schools are substandard. Nisbett's suggestions for improving schooling are an eclectic mix, but meet his standard of proven efficacy in reputable research. They include curriculum and instruction initiatives that are not beyond the reach of individual teachers. His endorsements are scattered throughout the book and include:

  • Computer-assisted instruction in mathematics and science in particular that customizes course material to the individual and provides substantial feedback on performance.
  • Cooperative learning at any grade level and for any subject, with the "structured dyad" method (one student does the tutoring of another, with roles switched periodically) having the most impressive positive effects.
  • Explicit instruction for secondary students in problem-solving skills that are not targeted to any particular subject matter and acquaint them with such things as constructing and evaluating complex arguments.
  • Effective one-on-one tutoring that encourages a sense of control, challenges, instills confidence, fosters curiosity and contextualizes tasks.
  • Project SEED, an add-on to any elementary mathematics curriculum that employs Socratic questioning techniques.
  • Most importantly, irrespective of curricula, Nisbett urges every teacher to teach children that they can build intelligence by working hard. As he writes: "Believing that our intelligence is substantially under our control won't make us smart by itself. But it's a good start."