First published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria Virginia in the March 1997 edition of Educational Leadership, and reprinted with approval.

What does it mean to be broadly intelligent? Our schools and communities need to develop this capacity in our young people as they face the complex challenges of life today. Research on the brain and its infinite complexity can help.

For several summer holidays, when my three sons were young, we had swapped our home just outside Cambridge, England, with friends in Virginia. To our children, America was a land of long summer days, plenty of ice cream, and visits to national parks and historical sites.

Late one evening back in England, we were driving home from a day in the country with the children. My wife played a Garrison Keillor tape – the one describing his fictitious one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota. “At one end of the room there was a portrait of George Washington and at the other end one of Abraham Lincoln, beaming down at us like two long-lost friends,” Keillor drawled in his best Lake Wobegon style.

“That’s silly,” piped up 7-year-old Tom. “They weren’t alive at the same time, so how could they have been friends?”

I asked Tom how he knew that. “Well,” he said, “when we went to Mount Vernon they said how sad it was that Washington didn’t live into the 19th century – and you once told me Lincoln was born after Admiral Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.” His logic, and the connections he had built, fascinated me.

Several years later, at a dinner party in Seattle, I recounted that story. “How I wish American elementary schools taught history as well as that!” mused our host, a professor of education.

“That’s silly,” said our adolescent Tom. “History lessons in school are boring. I just love everything to do with America!”

My wife interjected, “What’s your favourite subject?”

“It’s maths, because my teacher always gets us to think about connections and patterns. That’s really interesting; I can see how things come together.”

Patterns and relationships, emotions, the need to make sense, intrinsic interest, formal and informal learning, history dates, and mathematical formulas – these elements in Tom’s learning defy any logical structure. The process of learning is wondrously spectacular and messy, and it does not easily fit within a closely defined, classroom-based curriculum – particularly for adolescents.

Try as we might to accommodate children’s spontaneous questions, too often their natural enthusiasm is dulled by the needs of the system for order. Nevertheless, the capacity for self-organisation (“I want to think this out for myself”) is valued more and more highly in our society, which is changing so rapidly that today’s questions are answered almost overnight. Some people call such an ability wits. In the north of England, people use an old expression – nous, a level of common sense that goes beyond book learning. It’s what the brain is all about.

The Complex Workings of the Human Brain

Medical and cognitive sciences, new technologies, and pedagogic research are helping us appreciate how the brain works. The human brain is the most complex living organism on Earth. Coveney and Highfield (1995) call it the “Cathedral of Complexity.” Although it weighs only about three pounds, it contains billions of cells (neurons). The total length of the “wiring” between the neurons is about 100,000 kilometres (62,150 miles). To illustrate: The total number of neurons is estimated to be greater than all the trees, in all the forests, on the entire Earth’s surface. The number of synaptic connections between neurons may be more than all the leaves on those treas. Susan Greenfield, when lecturing a group of 14-year-olds at The Royal Society in London, compared the memory capability of all those neurons with that of 1,000 CD-ROMs, each one containing an entire Encarta Encyclopaedia. The brain is, literally, a mind-boggling thought. Every human – including the most difficult adolescent – has just such a brain.

Biologists can tell us much about brain chemistry; but for educational practice, the concept of complexity helps us understand the layers of organisation within the brain that act together, apparently miraculously, to handle not only memory, but also vision, learning, emotion, and consciousness.

The structures and processes of the brain are a direct response to the complexity of environmental factors faced by humans since our species appeared. Until about half a million years ago, the brain changed slowly through evolution. But our brains started to grow more rapidly as we learned to use language. Only within the last 30,000-60,000 years have we developed the capacity to be broadly intelligent.

What does broad intelligence mean? Archaeology and cultural anthropology show that humans developed many discrete skills over about a million years (social intelligence, technological intelligence, natural history intelligence, language intelligence); but only recently – say, in the past 30,000 years – have we been able to combine these skills to create the broad intelligence that now gives us our amazing versatility. The cave paintings discovered by M. Jean-Marie Chauvet in southern France in 1994 date from this period.1 Highly sophisticated, they bring social, technological, and natural history intelligences together. They seem to have leapt out of nothing – we know of no earlier primitive art. With the emergence of broad intelligence, modern man was created (Mithen 1996). Archaeology is starting to endorse Howard Gardner’s call to educators to work with all of children’s many forms of intelligence. That is what gives us our creativity.