Toward a New Understanding of Intelligence

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Toward a New Understanding of Intelligence

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“Based on current measures of intelligence, how many kids are falling through the cracks and not being identified as gifted?” That is a question posed by Dr. Scott Kaufman, a psychologist, author, and Co-Editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence,

The short answer is “a lot.”

When we think of intelligence, one of the first things that comes to mind is intelligence testing.  What we refer to today as intelligence testing wasn’t called that at all at the start.  While Alfred Binet is credited with the first intelligence test, that was far from his intent when he and his colleague developed the Binet-Simon scale in 1908. The purpose was not to predict future performance, but simply to identify students who were in need of alternative educational approaches.

Fast forward a century, and current intelligence tests all seem to test different things.  And, in fact, individuals may perform quite differently on different tests.  The concept of what matters and what does predict future performance is rapidly changing.

Kaufman points to data showing that measured IQ can vary 16 to 26 points, depending on which test is taken. And while there is a high level of reliability for many commonly used IQ tests in the short-term, the correlation between performance on these tests decreases as the time period between them lengthens. In one study, only half the students performing in the top 3% were still testing at that level a year later, and only 35 to 40% were scoring at that level a few years later.

Exceptional achievement (which giftedness has theoretically been predicting) has a variety of characteristics that don’t seem to have much to do with traditional views of intelligence, according to Kaufman. Love of work, persistence, having a purpose in life, deep thinking, tolerance of mistakes, being open to change, risk-taking, feeling comfortable as a minority of one and a future image of themselves are the things that seem to matter, with the last in the list – having a future image of themselves — being the most important.  When do we ask students whether they have a future image of themselves or help them develop one?

Research seems to be showing that it is the connection between the imagination network (the medial surface of the brain) and the executive network (the prefrontal cortex and associated areas) that seem to best predict extraordinary achievement. The new vision of intelligence, according to Kaufman, is that it is “the dynamic interplay of engagement and ability in the pursuit of personal goals.”

In this new vision, many more children can (and would) score in a gifted range, and there are many flavors of gifted. These include the traditional definition (often called fluid intelligence), but could show up in other flavors – spatial, verbal, creative, leadership, emotional/social, motivations, grit…  Unfortunately, there are few or no gifted programs that measure these abilities.

Moreover, potential is likely more a moving target than a fixed limit. As Carol Dweck’s work underscores, IQ can change and having a “growth mindset,” that is, believing that one’s IQ can change (and, therefore, pursuing effective learning strategies) is an important predictor of performance. The more we engage in something, the more our potential to excel in that thing grows

It’s time to throw out our old mental models of intelligence and start to embrace what David Shenk in his popular book of the same title, “the genius in all of us.”


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