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The Intelligent Child: neuroscience and multiple intelligences
Hala B. Roumani (2002)

the brain is the "great synthesizer" of the many biological, psychological, and sociocultural phenomena that make us who we are. (OSG. 1999)

Through sophisticated modern imaging technologies, neuroscience revealed how early brain development interact with the environment to foster learning and further development. It is now known that the human brain is a collection of about 100 billion neurons. Each neuron is a cell that uses biochemical reactions to receive, process and transmit information. Neurons have specialized extensions called dendrites and axons. Dendrites bring information to the cell body (soma) and axons take information away from the cell body.

At birth, the human brain is still preparing for full operation. The brain's neurons exist mostly apart from one another. The brain's task for the first 3 years is to establish and reinforce connections between neurons. These connections are formed when impulses are sent and received between neurons. Axons send messages and dendrites receive them. These connections form synapses. This circuitry makes possible the development of sensory, perceptual, emotional, regulatory, motor and cognitive functions.

As a child develops, the synapses become more complex, like a tree with more branches and limbs growing. During the first 3 years of life, the number of neurons stays the same and the number of synapses increases as the brain creates more synapses than it needs.

The synapses that are used a lot become a permanent part of the brain, while the synapses that are not used frequently are eliminated, as a result, the brain contains more synapses at infancy than in adulthood. This synapse overproduction and loss, which continues until about the age of ten, is a fundamental mechanism that the brain uses to incorporate information from experiences. It explains why stimulation and experience in the early years play an important role in wiring a young child's brain.

Neuroscience research has also validated earlier observations made by educationalists (Montessori), and confirmed stipulations made by cognitive scientists (Piaget), about the existence of certain periods when the brain is most sensitive to learning specific tasks. Critical periods represent a narrow window of time during which a specific part of the body is most vulnerable to the absence of stimulation or to environmental influences. Vision is a good example: unless an infant sees light during the first 6 months, the nerves leading from the eye to the visual cortex of the brain that processes these signals will degenerate and die.

Sensitive periods are the broader windows of opportunity for certain types of learning. They represent a less precise and often longer period of time when the brain is particularly open to new experiences and especially able to take advantage of them. If these sensitive periods pass by without the brain receiving the stimulation for which it is primed, opportunities for various kinds of learning may be substantially reduced.

While it is certainly possible to develop basic skills later on, as new synapses are added in response to learning experiences and for memory storage, it becomes increasingly difficult. A good example is the difference between how children acquire language during the early years, and how adults 'learn' a second language later on in life.
The brain has remarkable capacities for self-protection and recovery. But the loving care and nurture children receive in their first years - or the lack of these critical experiences - leave lasting imprints on young minds.

How the social and physical environments respond to infants and toddlers plays a big part in the creation and elimination of synapses. Infants and toddlers learn about themselves and their world during interactions with their parents, caregivers and the surrounding environment. Brain connections that lead to later success grow out of nurturing, supportive and predictable care. This type of caregiving fosters child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence.
It is important to mention here that the brain creates synapses also in response to stressful situation, such as those caused by abuse and neglect. When children are vulnerable to these risks, problematic early experiences can lead to poor outcomes. The misfit between a child's temperament and the parent's attitude is a good example of situations where children's brains can wire in ways that may result in unsympathetic child behaviour. If the home environment teaches children to expect danger instead of security, then their brains will be wired to be hostile and fearful of the world around them.

Parents role in early brain development

Young children need safety, love, and a stimulating environment to develop and keep important synapses in the brain.

Parents need to remember that the brain takes in the external world through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. This means that infants and toddlers need a stimulating environment filled with sights, sounds, with motivating parents and caregivers.

Before children are able to talk, emotional expressions are the language of relationships. Research shows that infants' positive and negative emotions, and caregivers' sensitive responsiveness to them, can help early brain development. For example, shared positive emotion between a caregiver and an infant, such as laughter and smiling, engages brain activity in good ways and promotes feelings of security. Also, when interactions are accompanied by lots of emotion, they are more readily remembered and recalled.
Parents need to be:

  • Sensitive (to the child's needs and abilities)

  • Responsive (to the child's behaviours and communications)

  • Stimulating (to the child's senses and emotions)

Parent need to learn to read the physical and emotional cues of the infant. Recognise the individuality of each child and sensitively respond to these differences. They should accept their children's strong emotions as signs of their desire to communicate with the parent and the world. Respond quickly and appropriately to these communications; give meaning to these emotional communications. Parents need to find a balance between being overinvolved and being underinvolved; recognise the child's current developmental status and create opportunities for each child to reach beyond his/her abilities.

The eight intelligences (all children are intelligent; in their own way!)

What Howard Gardner offered us in his theory of 'Multiple Intelligences' is not just another theory of cognitive development. I believe that he offered us a cure from the persisting complex caused by the daunting questions of 'What is your IQ?', 'What is your child's IQ?' and the continuous worry about branding our children with an IQ number.

This test that, for years now, have been judging people's intelligence on the basis of a discriminatory set of one-dimensional questions in a specific area of human abilities.

For those of us who suspect that intelligence is too complex a phenomenon to be measured by the single number of I.Q. derived from an 'intelligence test', Gardner's book is a refreshing experience and an open door into a whole new way of looking at human beings
(Isaac Asimov, quoted in Gardner, 1993: back cover)

Modern IQ tests were originally developed in France around 1904 by Alfred Binet and Theophile Simon as a measure of potential for success in school. The tests originally focused on a narrowly defined set of abilities in school aged children. Many controversies surrounding IQ tests arise from attaching meanings or accuracies the tests never had. Even advocates of these tests admit that these tests are less accurate and more difficult to perform with small children who may not be motivated to answer IQ test questions, or may lack some of the verbal skills required.

Howard Gardner rejected the prevailing scientific view of intelligence as a single, general faculty of mind that can be measured, for example, by an IQ score. Rather, he emphasized that 'what is important is not how intelligent are you but rather how are you intelligent', and that 'children should be evaluated by what they can do, not what they cannot do'. By ignoring the full potential of the human brain, schools have denied students the ability to utilize all of their aptitudes and innate abilities, often resulting in reduced student satisfaction, learning frustration and even discipline problems. In addition, failing to recognise a student's full potential may result in an escalating cycle of sub-par student performance and lessened self esteem.

In his 'Multiple Intelligences' or MI theory (1983), Gardner redefined intelligence as 'the human ability to solve problems, or to make something that is valued in one or more cultures'. The theory elaborately sets out eight criteria for qualification as an intelligence and consequently identified seven different types of intelligences, to which Gardner added in 1997 an eighth one, while still evaluating the possibility of qualifying more domains as types of intelligence.

Although one may agree or disagree with the use of term 'intelligence' to describe what others may call 'talent', it is, according to Gardener, merely a question of terminology:

In delineating a narrow definition of intelligence, however, one usually devalues those capacities that are not within the definition's preview: thus, dancers or chess players may be talented but they are not smart. In my view, it is fine to call music or spatial ability a talent, so long as one calls language or logic a talent as well. But I balk at the unwarranted assumption that certain human abilities can be arbitrarily singled out as qualifying as intelligence while others cannot.

(Gardner, 1993)

The eight types of intelligences identified by Gardner are:

  • Linguistic intelligence: to communicate and make sense of the world through language. a sensitivity to the meaning and order of words.

  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: ability in mathematics and other complex logical systems.

  • Musical intelligence: the ability to understand and create music. Musicians, composers and dancers show a heightened musical intelligence.

  • Spatial intelligence: the ability to "think in pictures," to perceive the visual world accurately, and recreate (or alter) it in the mind or on paper. Spatial intelligence is highly developed in artists, architects, designers and sculptors.

  • Bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence: the ability to use one's body in a skilled way, for self-expression or toward a goal. Mimes, dancers, basketball players, and actors are among those who display bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence.

  • Interpersonal intelligence: an ability to perceive and understand other individuals -- their moods, desires, and motivations. Political and religious leaders, skilled parents and teachers, and therapists use this intelligence.

  • Intrapersonal intelligence: an understanding of one's own emotions. Some novelists and or counsellors use their own experience to guide others.

  • Naturalist intelligence: the ability to recognise and classify plants, minerals, animals, stars, and other things in nature, and generally recognition and classification of objects in the environment. Librarians, botanists and collectors are examples of people with developed naturalist intelligence.

Parents role in nurturing children's multiple intelligences

Gardner suggests that virtually everyone has the capacity to develop all eight intelligences to a reasonably high level of performance, if given appropriate encouragement, enrichment and instruction. Multiple Intelligences is a theory that values nurture, as much as, and probably more than, nature, in accounting for the development of intelligences.

During socialization, intercourse occurs principally between the individual and the domains of the culture. But once one achieves a certain competence, the field becomes very important. The field -a sociological construct- includes the people, institutions, award mechanisms, and so forth that render judgments about the qualities of individual performances. To the extent that one is judged competent by the field, one is likely to become a successful practitioner; on the other hand, should the field prove incapable of judging work, or should it judge the work as being deficient, then one's opportunity for achievement will be radically curtailed.
(Gardner, 1993: p.xvii)

Parents in the early years are the 'field'. They should recognise their role in discovering their child's patterns of strengths and weaknesses, creating learning environments responsive to these traits, encouraging them to explore this environment, providing the right instructions that match their strengths, and most importantly, recognizing their achievements no matter how small.

© 2010 Gulf Montessori

Working for the best interest of the child