6 Ways to Be Smarter

What we learned in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Posted Oct 05, 2018

The idea that there is just one kind of intelligence was challenged with the publication of the book Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner (Gardner, 1983).  Instead of just one kind of intelligence for which one size fits all, Gardner argued that there was more than one way to be smart.  There were, according to Gardner, at least eight different intelligences or IQ’s and the list continues to grow. Similarly, it also can be argued that there is more than one way to be pattern smart. These possibilities include the skill of recognizing patterns in people, numbers, words, pictures, and nature. These smarts connect with Gardner’s multiple intelligences.

In practice, these different smarts or intelligences are not separate, but, are integrated in unique combinations that shape the spirit, mind, and body of each of us.  We recruit all of them daily to discover and interpret the world around us.  But, because of genetics and/or environmental reasons, each of us favors or excels at one or more smarts over the others.  Journalists excel at recognizing patterns in words, engineers see patterns in numbers, and psychologists see people patterns and so on.      

The ability to excel at one or more intelligences often emerges during the primary school years.  Math, for example, comes easy to some students, writing to others, and leadership to others.  Because Gardner was a psychologist by training, the intended audiences for Frames of Mind were psychologists (Gardner, Frames of Mind, 1983).  Educators, such as myself, saw a fit to their classrooms, and they too were interested in applying the theory. 

During an eighteen-day field trip with six students, I put the different smarts approach to work to study the rainforests of Costa Rica.  At the end of each day, the students and I held what we coined a “sponge” session to share the observations we had individually soaked up during the day.  Recognizing that the enormity of information was too much for any one person to absorb, we used the power of the group to learn from and teach each other.  By pooling our different intelligences, experiences, and interests to interpret, we discovered the fascinating ecology of the Costa Rican rainforests more deeply together than we could have alone. 

One student, Tracey, was surprised to find flowers that were used as ornamentals around the home growing wild in the rainforest.  Blooms that included poinsettias, hibiscus, and heliconia seemed strangely out of place in their native homes.  Tracey also noticed a common feature among many of the flowers in bloom.  Their petals were often colored red.  It didn’t take long to understand why.  Because of their special ability to see red, hummingbirds, which are the jungle’s chief pollinator, are wildly attracted to red.

Courtesy of Usplash
Hummingbird's attraction to red color.
Source: Courtesy of Usplash

During one sponge session, Rob was eager to share his experiences.  Rob was a former gymnast who favored experimental learning or learning by doing.  He shared that he used his kinesthetic skills to shimmy up a 100-foot herbaceous vine to reach the canopy of a Quercus tree.  When he stuck his head through the shade of the leaf layer into the sunshine, he was amazed to find a hot dry wind blowing briskly across the canopy top, a sharp contrast to the dark, damp, environment that existed just a few centimeters below the canopy.  He was intrigued to find that the canopy separated two sharply contrasting worlds that support the richest diversity of tropical wildlife in the world. 

Deb drew on her musical interest to record the noises of the rain forests.  Against the backdrop screeches, howls, and bird melodies and because of the dense foliage, it was impossible to identify the creatures producing the sound.  It was possible to extract ways the sound patterns changed in a rhythmic way over the day and night when animals were active.  We were entertained by the territorial songs of howler monkeys in the morning, the chatter of toucan birds fighting over fruit at mid-day and the courtship calls of tree frogs in the evening. 

Eric used his verbal skills to keep a comprehensive journal that recorded the history of each slide and transcripts of our sponge sessions.  Upon our return, he told our story to a variety of enthusiastic audiences.  Bob used his visual skills to document our journey on film.  He took hundreds of photos to get just a few that met his high standards.  He would spend up to an hour framing an image to achieve the ideal depth of focus and spatial coverage. 

Brian often used the sponge session as a forum to question environmental policy and responsibility for protecting a unique environment such as the rainforest.  He used his interpersonal strengths to enrich our sessions by sharing conversations he had with native Costa Ricans about their perspective on environmental issues.  Despite being sympathetic to the plight of the rainforests, most natives whose livelihood depended on harvesting the forest for wood or clearing it for farming repeatedly resented the fact that foreigners were advising them how to manage them.  It reminded us that occasionally we need to walk in the shoes of others to be aware of both sides of an issue. 

The samplings from our sponge session illustrate that each of the six students, although observing the same rainforest, saw different patterns and interpreted them differently.  All perspectives were unique, and when pieced together, created a mosaic of ecological knowledge more powerful than its parts.  We all became six times smarter. 


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books