What’s intelligent, when it comes to education?

Raven's Progressive Matrices Example
Raven’s Progressive Matrices Example (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abstract of “What’s Intelligent”  By Erica Kleinknecht, PhD, 2012

Over the course of the last century, “education” and “intelligence” have had a long and involved relationship, and one that can be deemed unhealthy. Co-dependent comes to mind, as today, in the US in particular, testing controls much of public education (in no large part due to NCLB legislation, though high stakes testing was occurring before the legislation went into effect) and the tests rest on notions of intelligence. But a problem with this is that psychologists have yet to settle on just what intelligence is. Intelligence has an identity issue.

I’m working on an essay about this issue, where I discuss the fact that whether labeled as aptitude or achievement centered, and whether used as a means of determining the quality of teaching or the “giftedness” of students, the practice of using IQs or aptitude exam scores as a proxy for ability/intelligence/learning is risky. It’s risky for many reasons, and the one reason I evaluate centers on predictive validity and intelligence’s identity problem.

With an overview of 6 different theories of intelligence I illustrate why assessments of intelligence show little predictive validity when it comes to understanding the root causes of student success and failure. The utility and validity of the relations between education and intelligence depend upon the theory and theories vary wildly.

Most current assessment practices stem from trait theories and as a set, trait theories fall short in quality evaluations. Not only that, but the scores they yield (or qualities, as the case may be with Gardner’s theory) do not point to meaningful predictions of students’ behaviors. In contrast, skill theories earn high marks in quality evaluations and have much to offer education. The theories articulated by Piaget, Sternberg, and Premack liken intelligence to, for example, problem solving, flexibility, and self-control. Such skills do predict student outcomes, a point recently picked up in media in the wake of the release of Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed.” To add to the current national dialogue, I point to the Montessori approach to education as an example of how an emphasis on skills can yield high quality outcomes in terms of student achievement.

I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

  • What role do you think intelligence should play in shaping the education of children?
  • Do you think a shift in perspective about the nature of intelligence will help reform efforts gain traction?
  • Would you be interested in reading the full text version of my position (so far about 4000 words)?


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