The Teaching Intelligence: Clues from the Brain

Notes by Howard Gardner

In defining the original intelligences, I laid out a set of eight criteria, deliberately drawn from several research traditions. I evaluated intelligence candidates on the extent to which they fulfilled these eight criteria. Originally, I delineated seven intelligences that became the components of MI theory. Some years later, I became convinced that an eighth intelligence, a naturalist intelligence, warranted inclusion in the list, and I spoke and wrote somewhat whimsically of a possible ninth intelligence—existential intelligence: the intelligence of big questions.

Unless the situation changes, I am no longer in the process of identifying and evaluating candidate intelligences. It is more important that the plurality of intelligences be established than that I put forth the ultimate or final list.

That said, I have been speaking informally about the possibility of an additional intelligence. I’ve termed it the ‘pedagogical intelligence’ or, less formally, the ‘teaching intelligence.’ We all know that two individuals can be equally skilled or knowledgeable in an area, but only one of them proves able to teach it effectively to others. Probing a bit more deeply, we can classify individuals in terms of what they can teach, how they can teach it, and how flexibly they can deploy their pedagogical tricks, depending on the nature and degree of success of a particular occasion of learning.

But there are two factors that I find more compelling. First of all, there is the recent discovery that even very young children are able to teach. The demonstrations are quite compelling. An apparatus or game is presented to the child, and he is given the chance to master that entity. He is then asked to ‘teach’ that game or apparatus to children of two ages: one clearly younger, the other clearly older. Contrary to what many of us would have predicted, even a toddler is aware of the core requirements of teaching: adjusting your pedagogy to the knowledge and skill of the learner(s). We know this to be true because the toddler—say, a child of three or four—will provide far more detail and explanation to a younger child (say, a two year old) than to an older child (say, a five year old). This demonstration fulfills one of the requirements of an intelligence: its existence across all humans, and its variable strength across the human species.

The second factor, even more recent, are brain studies of individuals involved in the act of teaching/learning. This is work described by Lisa Holper and colleagues in their article “The Teaching and the Learning Brain.” Not only does teaching activate quite specific brain structures. More importantly, you can gain evidence on whether teaching is effective by noting the amount of activity in the pre-frontal regions of the cortex and, intriguingly, the consistency of neural patterns between the designated teacher and the designated learner (or, as the authors put it, “dancing at the same pace”). Presumably, an individual with high pedagogical intelligence will more readily adjust her teaching strategies, in light of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the current teaching strategy. In the future, the teacher may be able to draw on neural as well as behavioral evidence. To read this article in its entirety, click here.

Reference: Holper, L. et al. (2013). The teaching and the learning brain: A cortical hemodynamic marker of teacher-student interactions in the Socratic dialog. International Journal of Educational Research (59), pp. 1-10.