The Language of Intelligence and Optimism

Some of the children we observed earlier this week were thinking about whether they would describe a glass as half full or half empty – about optimism and pessimism. Fiona Millar is a writer and a journalist specialising in education and parenting issues. She’s clearly a pessimist when it comes to the future of education, and given the particular direction that education has been driven in (in England) for so many years, it’s not hard to understand why. Her latest article on the Guardian website has this headline:

The dead hand of central government is weighing down on children and schools

(Interestingly, the title in the print version of the paper is: “Oh for the right to choose the intangible qualities of education“.)

Last month marked another milestone for me. Our last child did her last school exam. It is the end of an era for us and on balance I am glad our children grew up in the last 20 years rather than the next.

[My children] have achieved well, but their education has extended way beyond test and exam results because of the values of their schools, the relationships they made and the children they have been educated alongside.

A few more school types may have been invented, but now it is the dead hand of central government, league tables, Ofsted and the four or five data sets that determine institutional success that weigh heavily on all children.

Want your children to enjoy an early education dominated by creativity and play? Forget it. A secondary school without a uniform? No chance. Education for education’s sake? Dream on.

Soon it won’t really matter which school you “choose”. The same factory line will follow, as the accountability structure, designed honourably to help schools improve, increasingly constrains their ability to be creative or different.

Children are put into exam tracks at the end of primary school (the antithesis of parent choice) . . . [and experience] an excessive focus on exams over wider skills.

Dissenters are right to worry about the trade-off between high-stakes testing and creativity, individuality and wider skills for life.

I feel passionate about the need for all my local schools to be as good and rigorous as possible, but I also know my own children’s wider education was down to something beyond that which can be easily measured. Parents, and pupils, should have the right to choose those other intangible, but equally important, qualities as well.

Yes, Fiona – but what on earth are these “intangibles”, these “wider skills”, these “qualities”, these “values”?

It’s really not good enough to complain about the existing school system without using much more precise language that makes clear what it is that children need and indeed have a right to experience in schools.

It’s for this reason that 3Di developed a multiple-intelligence model that describes all the aspects of achievement that children are entitled to. We’re actually talking about different sorts of intelligence, and it does no-one any favours to reduce them to ‘intangibles’, ‘skills’, ‘qualities’ and ‘values’.

We’re talking about Social Intelligence, which includes relationship skills, the ability to empathise, the ability to work cooperatively and collaboratively. This intelligence includes  essential skills for life and for work. It’s the responsibility of every teacher to develop social intelligence – through their classroom organisation and practice – and to be aware of which of their pupils are lacking in this crucial intelligence.

We’re talking about Personal Intelligence and about children having opportunities and encouragement to really know themselves as well as they know history, science, maths and the rest. How can children even begin to address their weaknesses (and value their strengths) if they don’t even know what they are? And it’s not just academic weaknesses they need to address – it’s weaknesses in terms of attitudes, confidence, relationships, communication skills, and a long list of values and virtues, which we won’t go into here.

Spiritual Intelligence is a category that includes attitudes, values and virtues – and whether we are optimistic, pessimistic and/or realistic. Spiritual intelligence determines whether we are non-violent and whether we care about others, as well as ourselves.

We’re not going to reiterate the entire list of intelligences here. Readers can remind themselves of what they are elsewhere on this blog. All we’re saying is that language is important when we discuss aspects of achievement other than success in academic tests and exams, and it’s a mistake to give your opponents a chance to describe these other specific intellgences as mere “soft skills” or “qualities” or “intangibles”.

Please, can we all now refer to the qualities we value and recognise as essential for living in a complex world as INTELLIGENCES? We should do it even if for no other reason than to put an end to people believing that the word “intelligent” is synonymous with the word “intellect”, which is just one of our six essential intelligences.

We should also be clear that “emotional intelligence” is not a specific intelligence – it’s the product of all six of our intelligences working together to enable us to keep destructive emotions in check and manage them positively.

Let’s also be clear that creativity and imagination ought to be developed in every school, and that both of these are also the product of the six intelligences working cooperatively.


As for Fiona Millar’s pessimism about the future of the school system in England, let’s all try hard not to be so gloomy. For a start, it’s not true to say that if you want your children to enjoy “an early education dominated by creativity and play” you may as well forget it. There are many excellent early years classes in nurseries and schools where children learn through play and creative activity. More and more parents are becoming aware of the fact that in high-achieving countries like Finland and Denmark all children under the age of seven enjoy informal learning that’s based on developing all of their intelligences through play and creativity.

It’s not impossible for parents to develop more effective campaigns to insist on more enlightened practice – both locally and nationally. Whilst a lot of parents are brainwashed into believing that from a young age it’s essential for children to sit still, shut up, listen to teacher and fill in worksheets, lots more parents are capable of understanding the real needs of children – and not just the youngest. Children of all ages benefit from the type of education on offer in some of the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland, which is also being adopted by the high-achieving East Asian countries.

There’s a new learning revolution taking place throughout the world – one that’s been advocated by “progressives” from John Dewey and the early English exponents onward – through thinkers and activists such as Paolo Freire in South America and writers such as Dryden and Vos in New Zealand. China is also moving fast to embrace this new thinking, which is gathering pace through the Internet and through the availability of inexpensive IT that children learn to use at home regardless of what goes on at school. The rule of the reactionaries through ignorance and fear can’t last forever. 19th Century ideas about education have had a late blooming in places like England, thanks to certain government ministers of both parties who know little or nothing of children, or of learning, or of what goes on in other countries – but this situation can’t and won’t last forever.

What we need is the determination to campaign for more enlightened approaches, since all our children deserve that. We also need a language and a vocabulary to explain precisely what we need to do, and the reasons why. The truth and strength of these ideas is irrefutable.

They say the darkest hour is always before the dawn. There are, however, signs of the light breaking through – so chin up, Ms Millar, and start seeing that glass as half full. Our children can’t afford for us to be pessimists.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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