Intelligence – a learnable skill

Summary:  Intelligence is viewed by most people as a fixed quantity, determined by genes and unchangeable.  What if that isn’t true?  What if, like any complex set of skills (such as swimming or driving), people can learn to improve it?  Read what the research shows.  And read also about which intellectual movement opposed such research. 

Even many of those who accept free will think that intelligence is not within the scope of what one is free to choose.  IQ testing and interpretation are based on the premise that there is a certain human capacity, called “g,” that represents an innate ability to deal with abstractions and complex mathematical and verbal relationships.  But is that true?

Research conducted within the educational community over many decades, directed to fixing deficiencies in student problem solving, has shed new light on this issue.  Intelligence has come to be viewed as trainable, like any complex skill.

An insightful book, Intelligence Can be Taught, by Arthur Whimbey, summarizes the research underlying the trainability of intelligence.  Whimbey first identifies the component skills involved in solving intelligence-test problems.  He uses this background to define “intelligence” as the capacity of paying careful skilled attention to the analysis of relations, whether verbal, spatial or mathematical.

The studies reviewed by Whimbey spanned the entire age range from preschool through college.  Interestingly, the conclusions found in the studies of younger students were the same as those in the older students:  Performance on intelligence tests was explained by a difference in the mental habits of the students.

Low-aptitude students had the following characteristics:

  1. They were one-shot thinkers: If they didn’t already know the answer to a question, they gave up and rushed to pick an answer rather than performing any analysis.
  2. They were quick – mentally careless and superficial. They glossed over detail – often writing down an answer in a fraction of the time necessary to absorb the data and construct an answer.  As a result of this habit, they missed the main point or based an answer on superficial clues. In preschool, the student would start answering the question before the questioner finished speaking.
  3. Their answers were often feeling based – when asked for the reason for an answer, they didn’t respond in terms of the problem description but in terms of some feeling or attitude that they, the solvers, possessed.
  4. They were not particularly concerned about having an accurate picture of the problem or of the words in the problem. In a manner very similar to that of “look-say” readers, they guessed at concepts rather than analyze and ultimately grasp them.

By contrast, high-aptitude students had the following characteristics:

  1. They were active and deliberate in attack on problems. If they didn’t already know the answer, they used analysis to reach one.
  2. They worked slowly enough to grasp and process the entire description of a problem. If they didn’t understand everything, they constructed the meaning based on what they did understand, carefully proceeding through a sequence of questions and steps to clarify the full meaning.
  3. They based their answers on analysis of the problem and other facts/relationships they knew, rather than what they felt.
  4. They were determined to get an accurate picture of the problem, including the meaning of every concept in the problem statement. They were determined to get an accurate solution.

The researchers found that the attributes of low-aptitude students were not innate and fixed – they were modifiable and within the power of a student’s ability to choose.  Dealing with abstract, complex material to solve a problem has definite subskills and activities that the students could be coached to adopt.  For example, students were taught not to rush but rather to take the time necessary to obtain an unambiguous picture of what the problem stated and what was requested.  They were taught to focus on the problem statement and facts as opposed to their feelings.  They were taught to ask a series of probing questions when material was initially unclear, paying careful attention to the exact meaning of each word, and using other available knowledge.  This training improved not only the students’ scores on standardized intelligence tests but also, and most importantly, their performance in further education.  The researchers concluded that it is within one’s power to raise intelligence by learning and automatizing a proper method.

The value of this kind of training was found to be proportional to its continuity, length, number of hours per week, and the starting age of trainees.  The earlier this kind of training started, the better.  The researchers found that in the home of the better preschool students such training was delivered as a natural part of the parent-child interaction – via consistent and intensive verbal interactions. In the home of the poor student, such verbal interactions were missing.  In contrast to the child who engaged in consistent verbal interactions, the “silent” home produced children who didn’t know the meaning of simple relations like either-neither, over-under and big-little.  The difference in the verbal interaction level develops later into a difference in ability with regard to complex patterns of thought – if-then, cause-effect, exclusion/inclusion and generalization.

The researchers encountered one serious methodological impediment to progress in this field:  opposition by the psychological theory of Behaviorism to introspection. Behaviorism’s claim was that introspection is not objective because it cannot be observed from the outside – Behaviorism’s view was that only external behavior, not thinking, is objective.  During the early part of the 20th century, intelligence researchers endured heavy criticism and lack of support for their focus on the patterns of thought engaged in by the students.  Yet, as they showed, those patterns of thought cannot only be identified by student introspection, they can be communicated by careful self-reporting of thought patterns.

Behaviorism lost its dominance of the psychological and educational fields, mostly because of the ascendancy of those cognitive theorists who re-asserted the importance of cognitive aspects of the mind.  By the end of the 20th century, more intellectuals were accepting of methods of research focusing on thought.

The objectivity and use of verbal self-reports of thinking is a legitimate issue for discussion even among those who do not dismiss cognition and the mind.  The basic question is: to what extent can psychologists and educators rely on verbal self-reports as a scientific or training database?  Since the mind is only visible to the individual, how is it possible to trust and verify the objectivity of what he says?

The answer, based on extensive investigation of the issue by Ericsson and Simon, is that it can be trusted if it a) is contemporaneous with the student’s actual thinking (rather than remembered), b) consists of simple reports rather than interpretations, c) is spontaneous rather than prompted (i.e. no leading questions or suggestions) and d) integrates with other knowledge the observer can glean about the thinking patterns of the student, such as what the student writes down on the blackboard.  Ericsson and Simon also provided an in-depth critique (as does Bandura 1) of the one paper most cited as proving verbal self-reports are nonobjective.

As a result of the successful defense of introspection, it was more widely accepted as a key source of data, and has been applied in areas as diverse as study methods, emotional harmony, and in Whimbey’s own area of training thinking methods.

Whimbey and the other researchers found the best strategy for improving intelligence:  The poor student should read aloud a thinking protocol of a model high-achieving student prior to attempting to solve problems.  The student, under teacher guidance, explains the process of the model student and then attempts to implement it in his own problem solving, reporting his own thinking as he proceeds.  The teacher identifies areas where the student is deficient in successfully implementing the model student’s thinking methods, and gradually tutors the poorer student to improve his thinking and problem-solving method.

The student chooses to adopt the new methodology and to make it a habit.  The teacher cannot force the student to adopt it, but can be an invaluable guide in showing the student where he might improve his method.  The previously poor student, who would walk away from problem-solving sessions with confusion and frustration, thinking he could never be successful, develops a new habitual method and confidence in his ability.

Unfortunately, in the early part of the 21st century the reality of thinking and the mind, and the choice to alter one’s thinking patterns, have again come under attack, this time by implication of ideas advocated by the anti-free-will movement.

This issue of whether intelligence is within the scope of one’s free will is not an academic issue – the future of a student’s academic performance and life success are at stake.  An important study showed that students who think intelligence can be trained are more willing to modify their thinking and exert effort.  Students who believed in free will had a positive trajectory in performance. Those who did not, had a negative trajectory.  Thus those free-will deniers, like Harris, who claim that people will continue to behave the same way whether or not they believe in free will, are dead wrong.  Accepting free will, in any area where it applies, is the first and most fundamental step in improving one’s success in that area, whatever one’s ultimate physical or mental capacity.

If there is one criticism one can level at this book, it is Whimbey’s unwarranted dismissal of ability to deal with abstractions as a definition of intelligence.  He seems to have an incorrect view of what is legitimately involved in forming abstractions, arguing that the careful, systematic analysis of relationships has no role in abstraction.  In fact, however, a proper theory of forming abstractions requires such a systematic approach.

That criticism aside, this is a valuable book.  It not only reviews research in training intelligence but also debunks much of the so-called research (especially separated-twin studies) purporting to show that intelligence is 80% hereditary, or (even worse) that it is racially determined.  To their great credit, Whimbey and his colleagues have added intelligence to the list of what a person can and does build.

  1. Bandura, A. (2008). The reconstrual of “free will” from the agentic perspective of social cognitive theory. In J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will (pp. 86-127). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1 comment to Intelligence – a learnable skill

  • Brian Phillips

    Fundamentally, attacks on introspection are an attack on thinking. If we can’t trust our own mind, then whose mind can we trust? The goal of those who deny the validity of introspection is for us to surrender our mind to them and their ilk.