A school teacher was on his way to a new teaching appointment in a far-away land, and he’d been traveling on foot all the way, and was getting quite exhausted from his journey, when unexpectedly he came to a river that he had to cross. As there was no bridge in sight, he hired a man who lived nearby who owned a boat who agreed to take him across the river for a small fee.
The school teacher was a very scholarly fellow and he had two bundles of possessions with him. One was a teeny little bundle that held his personal effects: his toothbrush, his dental floss, his jammies; that kind of thing. The other bundle was a huge bag of books, and when he got into the boat the first thing he did was reach into the huge bundle and took the thickest, heaviest book of them all out and began to read.
They were about a third of the way across the river when the school teacher looked at his watch and said to the boatman: ”My dear fellow, can you tell me when we might reach the other side?” The boatman hadn’t said anything up to this point. He was a salty sailor type of personality with a gnarly face and piercing eyes, and he said to the school teacher: “I ain’t got no idea!” This shocked the school teacher and he replied: ”My dear fellow! Have you never studied grammar?” The boatman shook his head in the negative, and the school teacher replied: ”In that case, half your life has been wasted!” This didn’t make much of an impression on the boatman, and he went back to his work getting that boat across the river.
They got about half-way across the river when a storm broke unexpectedly, and rain started pouring into the boat, the boat started rocking back and forth, the water level at the bottom of the boat started to rise, and just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse, the boatman looked up at the school teacher and said: “You know how to swim?” The school teacher, who was hanging on to the edge of the boat for dear life, responded in a shaky voice: ”No, I don’t know how to swim!”‘ And the boat replied: ”In that case, your whole life is wasted because we’re going down!”
At that moment in the middle of the river, all of the so-called intelligence of the school teacher, which worked very well for him in a traditional school setting, was of absolutely no use. And similarly, the so-called lack of intelligence of the boatman, which in a traditional school setting would mark him out as being ”at risk” for something or other, was of little consequence, because he had another way of knowing, another way of thinking, another way of being intelligent, that allowed him to save the day for the both of them.
The reason I tell this story is because we have children in our classrooms who have the intelligence of the school teacher. These are the kids who write the best essays, raise their hands with the most articulate responses teachers ask them, and get the highest scores on standardized tests. But there are also students who have the intelligence of the boatman; an intelligence which may not show itself in a traditional classroom setting, but which, transplanted out in the real world, may literally prove to save somebody’s life some day. And we also have students in our classrooms who have the intelligence of the musician, the intelligence of the architect, the intelligence of the plumber, the intelligence of the athlete, the intelligence of the politician (wait . . . no, that one’s an oxymoron). In fact, if we looked at all the ways in which people show their competencies, we might suggest that there are thousands of intelligences. But in the mid-1980’s, Harvard professor Howard Gardner came up with a enw idea: the theory of multiple intelligences. He suggested that there were seven basic intelligences (he added an eighth later on): word smart, number/logic smart, picture smart, body smart, nature smart, music smart, people smart, and self smart.
For information about the eight kinds of smart and how to develop teaching approaches which reach a diversity of learners, get my book, Thomas Armstrong, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Edition.