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Can we teach intelligence?

Intelligence on the curriculum. Lightbulb via denk creative/Shutterstock

Hardly any other psychological concept is as important to us as intelligence. We want to make intelligent choices, be able to keep up an intelligent conversation, and simply be intelligent people. Not surprisingly, scientists have investigated intelligent and less intelligent behaviour for decades. A wide array of different, sometimes even contradicting definitions of intelligence and tests of intelligence have emerged as result.

Despite much disagreement among scientists, there is agreement on one central argument: intelligence affects your life outcomes. Students with a higher level of intelligence perform better at school, they have also better chances of succeeding at work, and of climbing the social ladder during their careers. They even live longer.

This is good news for education. Just make students more intelligent and you make a huge contribution to society. But several costly programmes aimed at increasing students’ level of intelligence have yielded disappointing results: effects were either very limited in their nature or did not last over time. Take for example, the Head Start early years programme in the US, for which there is conflicting evidence about its long-term impact.

Bringing in problem solving

The central question remains whether it’s possible to teach intelligence. In a narrow sense of what we traditionally understand as intelligence – as efficient information processing made possible by some basic cognitive abilities – then it’s probably not possible.

But wider definitions of intelligence have begun to emerge. In this view, intelligence is not limited to a largely predefined set of basic cognitive abilities, but it also involves aspects of problem-solving and decision-making, of planning and strategic exploration, of testing hypotheses and adequately correcting them when they are wrong.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the convener of the world’s most important educational large-scale study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), has given high priority to such a broadened understanding of intelligence.

The PISA study runs in three-year cycles and tests 15-year-old students in more than 70 countries across the globe. For the first time ever, the 2012 PISA assessments captured broad aspects of intelligent behaviour and problem solving. Under the label of “creative problem solving” students were asked to solve a number of tasks on the computer to demonstrate their proficiency in acting as good problem solvers.

This included, for instance, a problem situation in which students had to learn how to operate an automatic vacuum cleaner by observing its behaviour, deriving ideas on its functionality, testing these assumptions, and, in a final step, programming it to automatically clean a room. Through a number of other tasks, the PISA tests investigated how students reacted when confronted with new problem situations and how proficient they were at showing cognitive flexibility in these situations.

Unlocking intelligence. Puzzle via valdis torms/Shutterstock

The set of cognitive skills targeted in the PISA problem-solving tests is broader than the traditional conception of intelligence. And the PISA research shows that cognitive problem-solving skills can be used in different settings, but that it’s clear these skills are markedly different from the traditional proficiency in maths, science and reading also tested by PISA.

Lessons for the classroom

Looking at the broader implications of this on our education systems, teaching and instruction in the 21st century should focus more on cognitive flexibility, on problem-solving and on those aspects of intelligence that are amenable to change. There are numerous ways to do this. These include teaching students strategies to increase self-monitoring and evaluation during problem-solving, or using teaching methods that facilitate deep rather than shallow understandings of the structure that underlies new problems.

All these methods boil down to the need to provide students with as many active problem-solving learning opportunities as possible. This will allow them to actively explore new problems and equip them with a flexible network of problem-solving strategies. So if we’re looking at a broader understanding of intelligence that also endorses cognitive flexibility and problem solving, it might be possible to teach it.

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