Breaking: Old dog learns new trick

In 1983 Howard Gardner published a groundbreaking book about intelligence entitled “Frames of Mind.” In it he challenged the long-held idea that we could definitively measure IQ. At the time, the book shook the field of psychology to its core, resulting in a complete paradigm shift. We no longer think of intelligence as a single static thing, but as nine things that are in constant flux.

Instead of one IQ, Gardner showed us that there are actually nine intelligences: Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalist, and Existential. Each of us has access to all of them, and despite what our schools teach, emphasize, and test for, each adds value to our economy, culture, and society in equal measure.

So that was a new idea. Here’s another: Regardless of age or aptitude we can strengthen any of the nine intelligences at any time. As evidence, I present the following true story.

As amazingly stimulating as it is, as a teacher, sometimes it’s tough to make ends meet. So a few years ago my wife and I both got second jobs. After school, I worked at a nursing home as a purchaser and Lisa delivered the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It was Lisa’s route, but I was terrified to learn that I would be her backup. To reach everyone, I’d have to drive through the early morning darkness, off the beaten path, through farmland, around lakes and cabins and into driveways set deep in the dark and misty backwoods. I’m not a morning person and I get lost easily so I strongly encouraged Lisa to not get sick. She, in turn, encouraged me to suck it up and get in the car.

Lisa took over from a very nice man who liked country music and taught her the route by talking through the whole thing. “This is the ugliest mailbox I’ve ever seen,” he’d say. Or, “I call this the ‘cow road’ because there are always cows along it.” Or, “My daughter thinks those bushes look like a bunny.” Lisa used these as mental cues and had the route down in no time.

I attribute this to the fact that she’s spatially intelligent. She uses these skills all the time. She grew up driving around the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Every spring and summer she searches back road garage sales for the jackets, jeans and shirts our kids will wear the following fall and winter. She’s also an amazing seamstress–it’s her profession actually. So she’s also got an uncanny knack for visualizing and estimating sizes, lengths, and angles. She’s using her spatial intelligence all the time.

I, on the other hand, am a bit spatially challenged—particularly when it comes to navigation. I can enter a new building, climb a flight of stairs, turn a corner or two, enter a room, and have absolutely no idea in which direction the parking lot is, or the nearest exit, or north.

So, understandably, the first few times I went on the route I often had absolutely no idea where I was. We’d turn right, then left, then left again and I’d be totally lost. I often wanted to turn right when we needed to turn left and vice versa. The route took me a long time to learn. But eventually, painfully, I did.

And then something interesting happened. I got better at spatially related tasks. Why just last Sunday, despite never having done it before, I drove from our house right to the front of Williams Arena on the U of M campus, pulled over to pick up Lisa, drove around the block once and then picked up my daughter, who had stayed behind to talk with a few of the Gopher volleyball players after their recent match against Illinois. This never would have happened a few years ago.

Which just goes to show that our intelligence is not this purely genetic unchangeable thing. They are many, and they stretch and change as we use them. Any measurement only reflects a snapshot at a certain point along an ever-changing timeline. Even as we age, we can still learn and grow–becoming more intelligent as we tackle new problems. So apparently, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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