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Let's Be Intelligent About Intelligence

by Carolyn Callahan, Ph.D., The President's Column, June 1997

In the scholarly publications of psychology and education and in the popular press, intelligence has once again become a hot topic. Discussions of the origins of intelli­gence flooded newspapers and magazines following the publication of the The Bell Curve. And now we hear of intelligences ranging from the “traditional” (such as high general, verbal, or math­ematical ability) to “natural intelligence” and “emotional intelligence.”

The work of Howard Gardner, which suggests that there are eight primary intelligences that account for eminence, has led to new strategies for identifying talent and to many classroom programs claiming to enhance the development of these intelli­gences. The triarchic theory of intelligence that Robert Sternberg writes about in this issue of PHP(see page 8) has led to innova­tions in instruction that enhance children’s performance by building on their learning strengths.

While cognitive psychologists are not yet sure which of the theories of intelligence is the most viable, there are some general understandings about intelligence that provide useful guidance in interpreting the meaning of information you are given about your child’s intelligence. Here are five of those understandings.

1) Intelligence is only partially assessed by the traditional IQ test.

The IQ tests given in most schools and by most psycholo­gists are fairly good — but not perfect predictors of school performance. They are measures of verbal skills and some of logical-reasoning abilities. A child with a high IQ may learn to read at an early age, may have an advanced vocabulary, and will be likely to learn the traditional school curriculum more rapidly and with greater ease than other learners.

While a high IQ is usually predictive of good grades and exceptional school performance, there are many exceptions. There are children with very high IQ scores who do not succeed in school because they may have learning disabilities, have difficulty with perfectionism or others’ expectations, or lack the motivation to achieve. On the other hand, some students with average or only slightly above-average intelligence may do exceptionally well in school.

More importantly, success in “real world” endeavors is not nearly as accurately predicted by traditional intelligence tests as is success in schoolwork. Many persons of above-average (but not exceptional) intelligence succeed in creating extraordinary and creative products ranging from mechanical inventions to profound literary works.

If your child scores high on a traditional test of intelligence, he or she may be identified as gifted if your child’s school has a program for gifted students. This score may indicate that your child is likely to need adjustments in his or her academic program to provide for an increased pace of learning, opportunity to “test out” of already-learned content, and/or opportunity for more complex, in-depth, and abstract learning.

It is important to remember that intelligence tests identify many but not all gifted children. The limitations of such brief and focused assessments result in our overlooking some children who are gifted, but who may not exhibit their abilities in traditional ways or according to the values of the dominant culture reflected by these tests.

2) Intelligence Test Scores are estimates.  

As with any other test score, an intelligence test score is an imperfect measure. Just as the scale in your bathroom may vary in the weight it reports on one person from day to day because of variation in the instru­ment and that person’s eating patterns, one intelligence test on a child may report scores influenced by such factors as luck, the particular way a child feels on a given day, the skills of the examiner, and/or the nature of the test.

Different intelligence tests are more or less accurate and reliable depending on their quality. Teachers and parents should consider patterns of performance on aptitude assessments over time and always realize the predictive limitations of all such instruments.

3) Intelligence is an interaction between inherited possibilities and environmental contributions.

Not all children can be molded into gifted learners no matter how effective we might be in creating a stimulating, enriching environment. However, there is considerable evidence that much potential is lost when a child is not provided with an environment rich in language, rich in exploration of the physical world, rich in sounds and music, and so forth. It is essential for parents to understand that such an enriched environment is created through exploration — not pressure or drill and practice. Reading to your child, providing interactive and manipulative toys, sharing music and dance experiences, and providing opportunity to explore the physical world in safety are more important than flashcards at breakfast.

4) Intelligence is multi -faceted.

While some children may be multi-talented and exhibit outstanding performance across several domains, it is quite possible that your child may have special talents in only one area. That area may not be tapped by the intelligence tests administered in your child’s school. Aptitudes in art, music, drama, and leadership, for example, are not assessed appropriately with tests. Newer concepts of intelligence such as those proposed by Gardner and Sternberg have alerted many educators to other possibilities and other means of identifying and nurturing potential.

Parents need to be alert and responsive to individual talents as well as generalized abilities. Educator and researcher Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues have documented the importance of early family recognition and support of talent to the success of highly able individuals. It is also important for you to encourage your child’s school to recognize individual talents and provide programs and experiences that will enhance individual talents.

5) A great potential will not automatically translate into adult giftedness.

While educators must carefully attend to the educational needs of children with high aptitudes, highly able children also need to develop a variety of cognitive skills such as creativity, personality traits such as task commitment, and other learning-enhancing characteristics such as flexibility and willing­ness to hear and incorporate constructive criticism. Study after study and story after story document the successes of those who have combined talents in particular disciplines with these learning-enhancement traits. At the same time, there are many sad stories of highly able individuals who fail to realize their potential because they have relied on an IQ score alone to see them through. Parents of talented children who have “grown into their potential” as adults recognize it is important to nurture a child’s abilities first, then advocate for an appropriate school response.

In the end, fully developing any talent, no matter the theoretical lens through which we see it, rests on the appropriate educational challenge and also on the development of attitudes and values that translate potential into real-world results.


Callahan, C. (1997, June). President's column: Let's be intelligent about intelligence. Parenting for High Potential, 1, 6-7.