Theories of Intelligence

OTEC Home Page Annotated Reference List Cognitive Science Theories of Intelligence We can become more intelligent through study and practice, through access to appropriate tools, and through learning to make effective use of these tools (Perkins, 1995). […]

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Annotated Reference List

Cognitive Science

Theories of Intelligence

We can become more intelligent through study and practice, through access to appropriate tools, and through learning to make effective use of these tools (Perkins, 1995).

Definition of Intelligence

Howard Gardner

David Perkins

Robert Sternberg


A Definition of Intelligence

Intelligence is a complex topic. An overview of some of this complexity is provided in Hunt (1995).

Howard Gardner, David Perkins, and Robert Sternberg have all been quite successful in helping spread knowledge about the meaning of “intelligence” and applications of this knowledge to education. The following material reflects the work of these three researchers and is quoted from Chapter 4 of the book:

Moursund, D.G. (1999). Project-based Learning Using Information Technology. Eugene, Oregon: ISTE.

The study and measurement of intelligence has been an important research topic for nearly 100 years IQ is a complex concept, and researchers in this field argue with each other about the various theories that have been developed. There is no clear agreement as to what constitutes IQ or how to measure it. There is an extensive and continually growing collection of research papers on the topic. Howard Gardner (1983, 1993), Robert Sternberg (1988, 1997), and David Perkins (1995) have written widely sold books that summarize the literature and present their own specific points of view.

The following definition is a composite from various authors. Intelligence is a combination of the ability to:

  1. Learn. This includes all kinds of informal and formal learning via any combination of experience, education, and training.
  2. Pose problems. This includes recognizing problem situations and transforming them into more clearly defined problems.
  3. Solve problems. This includes solving problems, accomplishing tasks, fashioning products, and doing complex projects.

This definition of intelligence is a very optimistic one. It says that each of us can become more intelligent. We can become more intelligent through study and practice, through access to appropriate tools, and through learning to make effective use of these tools (Perkins, 1995).

PBL can be used as a vehicle in which students can use and improve their intelligence. More detail on the work of Gardner, Sternberg, and Perkins is given in the next three subsections.

Howard Gardner

Some researchers in the field of intelligence have long argued that people have a variety of different intelligences. A person may be good at learning languages and terrible at learning music–or vice versa. A single number (a score on an IQ test) cannot adequately represent the complex and diverse capabilities of a human being.

Howard Gardner has proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. He originally identified seven components of intelligence (Gardner, 1983). He argues that these intelligences are relatively distinct from each other and that each person has some level of each of these seven intelligences. More recently, he has added an eighth intelligence to his list (Educational Leadership, 1997).

Many PBL-using teachers have studied the work of Howard Gardner and use some of his ideas in their teaching. For example, in creating a team of students to do a particular project, a teacher may select a team whose collective “highest” talents encompass most of the eight areas of intelligence identified by Gardner. The teacher may encourage a team to divide up specific tasks in line with specific high levels of talents found on a team. Alternatively, a teacher may encourage or require that team members not be allowed to work in their areas of highest ability in order to encourage their development of knowledge and skills in other areas.

The following table lists the eight intelligences identified by Howard Gardner. It provides some examples of the types of professionals who exhibit a high level of an intelligence. The eight intelligences are listed in alphabetical order.





Dancers, athletes, surgeons, crafts people

The ability to use one’s physical body well.


Sales people, teachers, clinicians, politicians, religious leaders

The ability to sense other’s feelings and be in tune with others.


People who have good insight into themselves and make effective use of their other intelligences

Self-awareness. The ability to know your own body and mind.


Poets, writers, orators, communicators

The ability to communicate well, perhaps both orally and in writing, perhaps in several languages.


Mathematicians, logicians

The ability to learn higher mathematics. The ability to handle complex logical arguments.


Musicians, composers

The ability to learn, perform, and compose music.


Biologists, naturalists

The ability to understand different species, recognize patterns in nature, classify natural objects.


Sailors navigating without modern navigational aids, surgeons, sculptors, painters

The ability to know where you are relative to fixed locations. The ability to accomplish tasks requiring three-dimensional visualization and placement of your hands or other parts of your body.

Table 4.1 Examples for each of the eight intelligences.

You might want to do some introspection. For each of the eight intelligences in the Howard Gardner list, think about your own level of talents and performance. For each intelligence, decide if you have an area of expertise that makes substantial use of the intelligence. For example, perhaps you are good at music. If so, is music the basis of your vocation?

Students can also do this type of introspection, and it can become a routine component of PBL lessons. Students can come to understand that they are more naturally gifted in some areas than in others, but that they have some talent in all of the eight areas identified by Howard Gardner. Curriculum and instruction can be developed to help all students make progress in enhancing their talents in each of these eight areas of intelligence.

Robert Sternberg

Many teachers have provided testimonial evidence that PBL encourages participation on the part of their students who do not have a high level of “school smarts.” They report that some of their students who were not doing well in school have become actively engaged and experienced a high level of success in working on projects. These observations are consistent with and supportive of the research of Robert Sternberg.

As noted earlier in this chapter, different researchers have identified different components of intelligence. Sternberg (1988, 1997) focuses on just three main components:

  1. Practical intelligence–the ability to do well in informal and formal educational settings; adapting to and shaping one’s environment; street smarts.
  2. Experiential intelligence–the ability to deal with novel situations; the ability to effectively automate ways of dealing with novel situations so they are easily handled in the future; the ability to think in novel ways.
  3. Componential intelligence–the ability to process information effectively. This includes metacognitive, executive, performance, and knowledge-acquisition components that help to steer cognitive processes.

Sternberg provides examples of people who are quite talented in one of these areas but not so talented in the other two. In that sense, his approach to the field of intelligence is somewhat like Howard Gardner’s. However, you can see that Sternberg does not focus on specific components of intelligence that are aligned with various academic disciplines. He is far more concerned with helping people develop components of intelligence that will help them to perform well in whatever they chose to do.

Sternberg strongly believes that intelligence can be increased by study and practice. Quite a bit of his research focuses on such endeavors. Some of Sternberg’s work focuses specifically on “street smarts” versus “school smarts.” He notes that some people are particularly talented in one of these two areas, and not in the other. This observation is consistent with the work of Lev Vygotsky (Fosnot, 1996) who argues that the type of learning that goes on outside of school is distinctly different than the type of learning that goes on in school. While some students are talented in both informal and formal education, others are much more successful in one rather than the other. A teacher who is skillful in developing PBL can help students to design projects that are consistent with their learning abilities and interests.

David Perkins

In his 1992 book, Smart Schools, David Perkins analyzes a number of different educational theories and approaches to education. His analysis is strongly supportive of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Perkins’ book contains extensive research-based evidence that education can be considerably improved by more explicit and appropriate teaching for transfer, focusing on higher-order cognitive skills, and the use of project-based learning.

Perkins (1995) examines a large number of research studies both on the measurement of IQ and of programs of study designed to increase IQ. He presents detailed arguments that IQ has three major components or dimensions.

  1. Neural intelligence. This refers to the efficiency and precision of one’s neurological system.
  2. Experiential intelligence. This refers to one’s accumulated knowledge and experience in different areas. It can be thought of as the accumulation of all of one’s expertises.
  3. Reflective intelligence. This refers to one’s broad-based strategies for attacking problems, for learning, and for approaching intellectually challenging tasks. It includes attitudes that support persistence, systemization, and imagination. It includes self-monitoring and self-management.

There is substantial evidence to support the belief that a child’s neural intelligence can be adversely affected by the mother’s use of drugs such as alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy. Lead (such as from lead-based paint) can do severe neural damage to a person. Vitamins, or the lack thereof, can affect neural intelligence.

Moreover, there is general agreement that neural intelligence has a “use it or lose it” characteristic. It is clear that neural intelligence can be maintained and, indeed, increased, by use.

Experiential intelligence is based on years and years of accumulating knowledge and experience in both informal and formal learning environments. Such knowledge and experience can lead to a high level of expertise in one or more fields. People who live in “rich” learning environments have a significant intelligence advantage over people who grow up in less stimulating environments. Experiential intelligence can be increased by such environments.

Reflexive intelligence can be thought of as a control system that helps to make effective use of neural intelligence and experiential intelligence. A person can learn strategies that help to make more effective use of neural intelligence and experiential intelligence. The habits of mind included under reflexive intelligence can be learned and improved. Metacognition and other approaches to reflecting about one’s cognitive processes can help.

End of materials quoted from: Moursund, D.G. (1999). Project-based Learning Using Information Technology. Eugene, Oregon: ISTE.

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Howard Gardner

Quoting from Gardner [Online]:

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, and Co-Director of Harvard Project Zero. Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. He has been awarded eighteen honorary degrees–including degrees from Princeton University, McGill University and Tel Aviv University on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. In 1990, he was the first American to receive the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award in education. In 2000 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The author of eighteen books and several hundred articles, Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments. During the past fifteen years, he and colleagues at Project Zero have been working on the design of performance-based assessments, education for understanding, and the use of multiple intelligences to achieve more personalized curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Most recently, Gardner and his colleagues have launched the Good Work Project. “Good Work” is work that is both excellent in quality and also exhibits a sense of responsibility with respect to implications and applications. Researchers are examining how individuals who wish to carry out good work succeed in doing so during a time when conditions are changing very quickly, market forces are very powerful, and our sense of time and space is being radically altered by technologies, such as the web. Gardner is the author of eighteen books which have been translated into twenty languages. His two most recent books are The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts And Standardized Tests, The K-12 Education That Every Child Deserves (PenguinPutnam, 2000) and Intelligence Reframed (Basic Books, 2000).


David Perkins

Quoting from Perkins [Online]:

David Perkins received his Ph.D. in mathematics and artificial intelligence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970. As a graduate student he also was a founding member of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The project was initially concerned with the psychology and philosophy of education in the arts, and later broadened to encompass cognitive development and cognitive skills in both humanistic and scientific domains.

Since 1971, David Perkins has served as Co-Director of Project Zero. He has conducted long-term programs of research and development in the areas of teaching and learning for understanding, creativity, problem-solving and reasoning in the arts, sciences, and everyday life. He has also studied the role of educational technologies in teaching and learning, and has designed learning structures and strategies in organizations to facilitate personal and organizational understanding and intelligence. These inquiries reflect a conception of mind that emphasizes the interlocking relationships among thinking, learning, and understanding. The three depend deeply on one another. Meaningful learning aims at understanding and depends on thinking with and about what one is learning. Effective thinking in the subject matters and in general involves understanding the resources of the mind and learning to deploy them sensitively and systematically.

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Robert Sternberg

The following quote from Sternberg’s resume provides a good overview of his approach to the study of intelligence.

My research is motivated primarily by a theory of successful intelligence, which attempts to account for the intellectual sources of individual differences that enable people to achieve success in their lives, given the sociocultural context in which they live. Successfully intelligent people discern their strengths and weaknesses, and then figure out how to capitalize on their strengths, and to compensate for or remediate their weaknesses. Successfully intelligent individuals succeed in part because they achieve a functional balance among a “triarchy” of abilities: analytical abilities, which are used to analyze, evaluate, judge, compare and contrast; creative abilities, which are used to create, invent, discover, imagine; practical abilities, which are used to apply, utilize, implement, and activate. Successfully intelligent people are not necessarily high in all three of these abilities, but find a way effectively to exploit whatever pattern of abilities they may have. Moreover, all of these abilities can be further developed. A fundamental idea underlying this research is that conventional notions of intelligence and tests of intelligence miss important kinds of intellectual talent, and overweigh what are sometimes less important kinds of intellectual talent.

The article (Sternberg, Summer 1997) is particularly interesting to the field of IT and education, as it focuses on how technology (including calculators and computers,m but also other forms of technology such as radio and TV) has been increasing intelligence.


Carvin, Andy. Dr. Howard Gardner [Online]. Accessed 4/17/01:

Andy Carvin is a Senior Associate of the Benton Foundation. He writes about many and varied topics in the field of technology in education and in other areas.

Gardner, Howard [Online]. Accessed 4/18/01:

Harvard Project Zero [Online]. Accessed 4/17/01: Quoting from the Website:

Project Zero’s mission is to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels. Quoting from the Website, some of the goals of Project Zero include:

  • exploring how to teach for understanding–in other words, to help students learn to use knowledge to solve unexpected problems, rather than simply recite back facts;
  • designing strategies for creating a “culture of thinking” in the classroom that encourages students to think critically and creatively;
  • making assessment an ongoing and integral part of the curriculum, so that it reinforces instruction and guides students in reflecting upon their work;
  • developing and implementing in-school assessment criteria and procedures that can document the full range of student abilities;
  • marshaling the power of new technologies, especially computers, to advance learning and provide access to new realms of knowledge.

Hunt, Earl (July-August 1995). The Role of Intelligence in Modern Society [Online]. The American Scienctist. Accessed 4/19/01:
95articles/Hunt-full.html. Quoting from the article:

A central question in the debate is whether or not mental competence is a single ability, applicable in many settings, or whether competence is produced by specialized abilities, which a person may or may not possess independently. Almost equally important is the question of how cognitive skill, as evaluated by IQ tests, translates into everyday performance. Popular presentations on both sides of these questions leave the impression that these questions have simple answers. They do not. My goal in this essay is to discuss different theories of how intelligence is related to performance in modern society. The plural was chosen intentionally, Although we know a good deal about individual differences in human cognition, there is no monolithic, agreed-upon, all-purpose theory to organize these facts, nor is there likely to be one. There are a number of different theories that are neither right nor wrong, but are useful for different purposes.


Skipping over some details, human intellectual competence appears to divide along three dimensions. Following Raymond Cattell (1971) and John Horn (1985), I shall refer to these dimensions as fluid intelligence (Gf), crystallized intelligence (Gc), and visual-spatial reasoning (Gv). Cattell and Horn describe them as follows:

Fluid intelligence is the ability to develop techniques for solving problems that are new and unusual, from the perspective of the problem solver.

Crystallized intelligence is the ability to bring previously acquired, often culturally defined, problem-solving methods to bear on the current problem. Note that this implies both that the problem solver knows the methods and recognizes that they are relevant in the current situation.

Visual-spatial reasoning is a somewhat specialized ability to use visual images and visual relationships in problem solving–for instance, to construct in your mind a picture of the sort of mental space that I described above in discussing factor-analytic studies. Interestingly, visual-spatial reasoning appears to be an important part of understanding mathematics.

Learning and Intelligence [Online]. Accessed 4/18/01: Quoting from the Website:

There is little agreement on a general definition of intelligence, but most people would agree that it involves, at least, the ability to learn and apply what has been learned. Appropriate to our time, Robert Sternberg adds further that it involves the ability to adapt to the environment, or modify the environment, or seek out and create new environments.

 It is clear that there is little correlation between assessed l.Q. and what people are able to learn and do in the real world. Many cognitive researchers are proving that intelligence is, in fact, an open, dynamic system, modifiable at any age and ability level. For example, over 750 research studies based on the work of Reuven Feuerstein support his theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability.

Most intriguing is the work of researchers like Howard Gardner, David Perkins, Robert Sternberg, and others who are looking beyond conventional definitions of intelligence. Their work has profound implications schools and training programs , curriculum development and assessment, and even design of learning environments.

Perkins, David [Online]. Accessed 4/17/01:

Sternberg, Robert J. (Summer 1997). Technology Changes Intelligence: Societal Implications and Soaring IQs. TechnosQuarterly [Online]. Accessed 4/17/01:
volume6/2sternbe.htm. Quoting from the article:

( Brief Abstract) Technology is changing society in many ways–some quite unexpected. It’s been credited with much of the dramatic rise in IQ scores over the past 30 years. But while technology’s effects on human intelligence measurement may be positive, there are some distressing and potentially negative repercussions. Are there inevitable social tradeoffs for higher IQs?

(First Paragraph) With all the moaning and groaning we constantly hear about the way schools educate our children, we often lose sight of an important and startling fact: intelligence, as measured by so-called intelligence quotients, or IQs, has been increasing over the past 30 years, and the increases are larg–about 20 points of IQ per generation for tests of fluid intelligence such as the Raven Progressive Matrices, which require flexible thinking with relatively abstract and novel kinds of problems.

Sternberg, Robert J. Personal Resume [Online]. Accessed 4/17/01:

Sternberg is the author of a huge number of books and articles. See, for example:

Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing Inc.

Thiagarajan Sivasailam. Thiagi’s Thinking on Experiential Learning (and its benefits) [Online]. Accessed 10/30/01:

This relatively short article gives a brief introduction to seven principles of experiential learning. Quoting from the article, they are:

  1. LAW OF REINFORCEMENT: Participants learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.
  2. LAW OF EMOTIONAL LEARNING: Events that are accompanied by intense emotions result in long-lasting learning.
  3. LAW OF ACTIVE LEARNING: Active responding produces more effective learning than passive listening or reading.
  4. LAW OF PRACTICE AND FEEDBACK: Learners cannot master skills without repeated practice and relevant feedback.
  5. LAW OF PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: New learning should be linked to (and build upon) the experiences of the learner.
  6. LAW OF INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES: Different people learn in different ways.
  7. LAW OF RELEVANCE: Effective learning is relevant to the learner’s life and work.

Yekovich, Frank R.(1994). Current Issues in Research on Intelligence. ERIC/AE Digest [Online]. Accessed 10/30/01:
ERIC_Digests/ed385605.html. Quotinf from the Website:

Intelligence has been defined and studied under a number of different rubrics, among them individual differences, cognitive abilities, and aptitudes. Probably the most influential developments in our recent understanding of these concepts have come from educational and psychological researchers associated with cognitive psychology. Three of those individuals, Robert Sternberg, Howard Gardner, and John Horn serve as a representative sample of researchers who have made significant gains in our current conceptions of intelligence. In the following paragraphs I briefly summarize each one’s conceptualization of intellectual abilities.

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