Teaching Students With Existential Intelligence

The Ones Who Ask the Big Questions

Girl sitting on a rock contemplating life's big questions

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Existential intelligence is the label education researcher Howard Gardner gave to students who think philosophically. This existential intelligence is one of many multiple intelligences that Garner identified. Each of these labels for multiple intelligences...

"...documents the extent to which students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways," (1991).

Existential intelligence involves an individual's ability to use collective values and intuition to understand others and the world around them. People who excel in this intelligence typically are able to see the big picture. Philosophers, theologians and life coaches are among those that Gardner sees as having high existential intelligence.

The Big Picture

in his 2006 book, "Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice," Gardner gives the hypothetical example of "Jane," who runs a company called Hardwick/Davis. "Whereas her managers deal more with the day-to-day operational problems, Jane's job is to steer the whole ship," says Gardner. "She must maintain a longer-term outlook, take into account the conductions of the marketplace, set a general direction, align her resources and inspire her employees and customers to stay on board." In other words, Jane needs to see the big picture; she needs to envision the future -- the future needs of the company, customers, and marketplace -- and guide the organization in that direction. That ability to see the big picture may be a distinct intelligence -- the existential intelligence -- says Gardner.

Pondering the Most Fundamental Questions of Existence

Gardner, a developmental psychologist and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is actually a bit unsure about including the existential realm in his nine intelligences. It was not one of the original seven intelligences that Gardner listed in his seminal 1983 book, "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences." But, after an additional two decades of research, Gardner decided to include existential intelligence. "This candidate for intelligence is based on the human proclivity to ponder the most fundamental questions of existence. Why do we live? Why do we die? Where do we come from? What is going to happen to us?" Gardner asked in his later book. "I sometimes say that these are questions that transcend perception; they concern issues that are too big or small to be perceived by our five sensory systems."

Famous People With High Existential Intelligence

Not surprisingly, major figures in history are among those who may be said to have high existential intelligence, including:

  • Socrates: This famous Greek philosopher invented the "Socratic method," which involves asking ever-deeper questions in an attempt to come to an understanding of the truth -- or at least to disprove untruths.
  • Buddha: His name literally means "one who is awake," according to the Buddhist Centre. Born in Nepal, Buddha taught in India probably between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. He founded Buddhism, a religion that is based on seeking higher truths.
  • Jesus Christ. The founder of one of the world's major religions, Christ, pushed back against the status quo in first-century Jerusalem and put forward the belief in a higher being, God, who possesses the eternal truth.
  • St. Augustine: An early Christian theologian, St. Augustine based much of his philosophy on the teachings of Plato, a Greek philosopher who proposed the idea that there is an abstract truth that his higher and more complete than what we witness in the real, imperfect world. Life should be spent pursuing this abstract truth, both Plato and St. Augustine believed.

In addition to examining the big picture, common traits in those with existential intelligence include: an interest in questions about life, death and beyond; an ability to look beyond the senses to explain phenomena; and a desire to be an outsider while at the same time showing a strong interest in society and those around them.

Enhancing This Intelligence in the Classroom

Through this intelligence, in particular, may seem esoteric, there are ways that teachers and students can enhance and strengthen existential intelligence in the classroom, including:

  • Make connections between what is being learned and the world outside the classroom.
  • Provide students with overviews to support their desire to see the big picture.
  • Have students look at a topic from different points of view.
  • Have students summarize the information learned in a lesson.
  • Have students create lessons to teach their classmates information.

Gardner, himself, gives some direction as to how to harness existential intelligence, which he sees as a natural trait in most children. "In any society where questioning is tolerated, children raise these existential questions from an early age -- though they do not always listen closely to the answers." As a teacher, encourage students to continue asking those big questions -- and then help them to find the answers.

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Kelly, Melissa. "Teaching Students With Existential Intelligence." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/existential-intelligence-profile-8097. Kelly, Melissa. (2020, August 27). Teaching Students With Existential Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/existential-intelligence-profile-8097 Kelly, Melissa. "Teaching Students With Existential Intelligence." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/existential-intelligence-profile-8097 (accessed March 28, 2023).