Intelligence: a dirty word?

The contention of this book (and we will provide evidence for this) is that there is such a thing as general intelligence, or general thinking, which underpins all individual cognitive (thinking) skills. The idea of intelligence, as in 10, has a rather bad press in educational circles. This is because it is associated with the idea of something fixed by inheritance that we cannot do much about. Intelligence is not like this. All modern psychological research into the nature of general intelligence points to it being remarkably plastic – modifiable by the environment provided by parents, carers and teachers.
Of the various characteristics recognised by cognitive psychologists as being central to the concept of intelligence, two are especially important for the promotion of better thinking:

1 Intelligence is general

It has an impact on all of our performance, whether it be in maths, language, music or football. The popular stereotype of the slow-witted sportsman is just that – a stereotype. While it may well be that some sports stars are under-educated, it is unlikely that anyone who can ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ could have any serious learning difficulties. But, you might say, I know some of my pupils are better at languages, while others are better at numbers. True, but our special aptitudes in one field or another are built on top of the general ability of the mind to think, to process information efficiently. No one can be brilliant in one field without having a pretty good general intelligence underlying his or her particular specialist abilities in, say, mathematics, language use or drawing. Of course, as one grows up with
a special skill such as football, more of one’s mental powers may be directed to psychomotor development than to cognitive development, but this is the result of specialisation not the cause of it.

2 Intelligence is plastic

From the moment of conception the child is subject to a myriad of influences that affect the development not only of physique, but also of the central nervous system, including the brain. There is clear evidence that connections are made and broken between nerve cells in the brain in response to intellectual stimulation. The brain does not simply unfold according to some pre-determined pattern laid down in the genes but, at every window of opportunity, is open to stimulation and nourishment, or to stunting and deformation.
If these two propositions are true, and we believe that they are, then it follows that one of the main functions of formal education should be to maximise the intellectual stimulation of children – to stimulate the development of general thinking power – as this will be by far the most efficient way of helping them to learn and understand the curriculum material. The pay-off will be there for all to see in standard examination results.

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Lets Think Handbook Copyright © by Alex Black. All Rights Reserved.

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