Intelligence: analytical, creative, and practical

“To be successfully intelligent is to think well in three ways: analytically, creatively, and practically” (Sternberg, as cited in Merriam, Cafarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).

This quote caught my attention because it addressed a long-standing question in my own mind: how should we define ‘intelligence’? Having gone through a number of ‘intelligence tests’ as a child myself, I had come to the conclusion that most people thought of ‘intelligence’ as ‘knowing facts’, rather than referencing cognitive skills like critical and analytical thinking, problem solving, or being able to adapt to different situations. As I advanced in my own education, I discovered that people do seem to tend to define intelligence as the latter (“adaptability” or “problem solving”) rather than the former (“knowing facts”), but still seemed to evaluate it in a way that reflects only the former. Having different aspects of intelligence as I see it laid out as Sternberg does suggests that we can actually evaluate each of these independently of each other, rather than trying to evaluate “intelligence” as a single measurable unit. Each of the aspects that Sternberg lists may also lend themselves to evaluation in a way that “intelligence” as a whole may not. Rather than think of ‘intelligence’ as a single unit, I would argue that we should actually think of each of Sternberg’s aspects – analysis, creation, and concrete practice – as relatively independent of each other, each with their own intrinsic value.

As I reflected on this quote, I realized that in my own teaching I do have a tendency to emphasize the ‘analysis’ aspect of thinking, perhaps at the expense of the other two. I have recently been trying to include practical aspects into my teaching, but tying the material I’m presenting (in an intro biology class) to current controversies or human health concerns. However, I realized I have perhaps been neglecting the ‘creative’ aspect, that may discourage some students who, for example, might have the potential become excellent experimental biologists.

Seeing different aspects of intelligence laid out in a way that can be tied to underlying cognitive processes struck me as being more in line with my own understanding of what might constitute ‘intelligence’ than others who have separated aspects of intelligence along perceptual lines (e.g. “verbal intelligence”) or based on external context (e.g. “social intelligence”). I also noted in my own teaching practices that I don’t always address the different aspects nearly as much as I’d like to think. However, the division suggested here allows me to redirect my efforts in what I hope will be a more productive way. Rather than focusing on addressing different perceptual modalities or just giving up on students who have more ‘social’ than ‘academic’ intelligence, it provides me with cognitive aspects that can be addressed within any subject.

This quote suggests to me that I may need to pay more attention to the opportunities for more creative thinking that are likely found in the material I’m presenting and expecting students to learn, especially since I’m also asking and expecting students engage with the material. I aim to consciously incorporate more creative tasks in my teaching, for example giving students the opportunity to design and try different experimental procedures rather than merely following those prescribed in a course manual. For safety’s sake in introductory courses this could be as simple as providing a list of steps that the students must assemble into a sensible order. But on the whole I do want to help my students to improve their cognitive abilities in as well-rounded a way as I can manage, and that will include trying to address each aspect of what might be considered “intelligence”.


Merriam, S. B., Cafarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


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