Chimpanzees, Multiple Intelligences, China

This week the world has been jarred by the news that chimpanzees are able to outperform college students on some pattern recognition/memory tasks, according to renowned primate researcher, Tetsuro Matsuzawa. While this news inevitably leads to all kinds of giggles about college students and fears of a run on bananas at exam time, it strikes me as excellent fodder to reflect more deeply on human intelligence.

With no intent to slight my hirsute and more stooped simian relations, I would like to point out an obvious scientific fact: our brains and cognitive skills, while sharing common traits, are different. Evolution has enabled human development in ways that primates can only dream of (?), including the advanced development of various intelligences which guide us in the creation of music, architecture, refined athletic skills, etc.

Of course it shouldn’t surprise us that chimps can outperform us in some cognitive ways, as Matsuzawa has discovered, we share common ancestry with them. Chimps are also devoted parents, yet they are better at climbing trees and more acutely attuned to approaching dangers, like hungry lions and pythons. If we were still jungle-bound then I’d wish I had more chimp-like traits, however, as they say, we moved on. We have developed and refined other important intelligences.

Science has confirmed this evolutionary advance, now it’s time for the educational world to catch up. Especially, it’s time for educational leaders and governments influencing educational direction to acknowledge and embrace our Multiple Intelligences and shape our education systems to reflect this reality. To stop designing standardized tests as if we were all chimps eagerly awaiting the next banana, and relying on the results of such tests to issue pronouncements on the intelligence of those tested.

“… where is it written that intelligence needs to be determined on the basis of tests? Were we incapable of making judgments about intellect before Alfred Binet and Francis Galton cobbled together the first set of psychometric items a century ago? If the dozens of IQ tests in use around the world were suddenly to disappear, would we no longer be able to make assessments of intellect?”
– Dr. Howard Gardner, ‘A Multiplicity of Intelligences’; 2004, Scientific American

It’s been 25 years since Harvard’s Dr. Howard Gardner posited his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and well past the time for conventional schooling to adopt its well-accepted tenets – namely that each of us, young and old, not only possesses a minimum of 8 intelligences but also that we invoke them in unique ways, sometimes with one providing us with near-gifted powers, sometimes with one or more intelligence deeply trailing the others.

This is our birthright, yet pretending that answering multiple choice or short-answer questions provides a reliable glimpse into our innate or potential intelligence is folly of the highest order.

Who’s figured this out? China has. It has embraced Howard Gardner and his Theory of MI with much enthusiasm, and adopted the foundations of his work to their nationwide education reforms.

Think I’ll peel a banana or two and ponder the implications of this.


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