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Why are some more successful as learners than others

In order to consider why some children are more successful as learners than others it is necessary to consider how success is to be defined. This is a particularly difficult question as a practitioner within an English secondary school, where two definitions currently persist. The National Curriculum (the statutory framework for education in England) defines successful learners as students who possess certain skills [i] (see appendix A).

This would imply that within English schools children are deemed to be successful learners depending upon whether they have developed the identified skills. The skills listed are not specific to any one subject and as such there is no requirement for learners to complete any traditional academic course. However, English schools are measured and judged by the standards set by successive governments. The current government has decided that a school’s success will be judged based upon their students’ performance in specified GCSE subjects [ii] (5 A*-C GCSE’s including English, Maths, Science, Modern Foreign Language and History or Geography). This clearly shifts the focus within English school from the skills of successful learning back towards performance in traditional academic subjects.

Within this assignment a successful learner shall be considered to be a student who achieves the English Baccalaureate. The author acknowledges that the government’s current definition of success is controversial, not least of all as a result of the inclusion or exclusion of specific courses of study. However this definition seems likely to be at the forefront of educational reform for the foreseeable future and as such is of specific interest to new practitioners.

This assignment seeks to critically examine the effect of theories of intelligence upon the success of a learner. It is acknowledged that intelligence research is a massive field and that therefore this assignment cannot evaluate the full scope of research. The focus of this assignment will remain firmly grounded in the implications of theories within education.

If intelligence, however defined, were the only determining factor upon the success of learners then a simple test should be able to accurately predict the educational outcomes for every child around the world. This is clearly not the case. Individual students interact with the world, and consequently, the education system in a variety of different ways. There are numerous factors impacting upon this interaction which fall outside of the scope of this assignment. Nevertheless it is important to remember that students’ ultimate success at school can be seriously affected by factors such as the student’s motivation, their cultural background and any Special Educational Needs. By definition, it is clear that the whether or not a student achieves the English Baccalaureate does not take into account the individual differences between learners.

There is no universally acknowledged definition of intelligence. A simple search in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals numerous definitions, supported by quotes within written English dating back as far as the 1300’s [iii] . The word itself holds a peculiar place within society, its importance is revered and yet its meaning cannot be easily defined.

So what is intelligence? At its most limited definition, “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure” [iv] . A person’s performance on a set on unrelated specified tasks. However in order to adopt this definition of intelligence it is necessary to know what it is that intelligence tests actually test. At the time that Boring made his statement (1932) his argument was truly circular, neither he nor anyone else at the time knew what the tests measured [v] .

In respect of the implications of intelligence theories on education tests began to be developed in France around 1904. Such tests were devised by psychologists such as Binet to predict ‘success’ within the Parisian School system, to the extent that he abandoned the use of any test which did not distinguish between the children irrespective of its compliance with his vague and traditional theory of intelligence. It would appear that Binet’s work was not based upon any novel theory of intelligence, merely the practical problem of sorting children into those who could and could not perform in a traditional school setting. Binet’s resulting test was weighted towards measuring verbal memory, verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, appreciation of logical sequences and an ability to state how one would solve the problems of daily living. An individual’s test score age was then compared to their actual age. This work formed the basis of Stern’s development of the “intelligence quotient”.

The success envisioned by Binet and the French Government at the time is very similar to the success required by the current UK government. Therefore such tests will continue to be a predictor of success today. Given Binet’s approach to the development of his test, it would appear that despite being credited as the creator of the first intelligence test he was in fact the creator of a standardised assessment test.

In recent years there has been increasing concerns over the impact of national tests. Standardised assessment tests have been dropped at Key Stage 3 altogether and reduced to only tests in English and Mathematics at Key Stage 2. In 2010 many primary schools took the additional step of boycotting the national tests, sending their students to secondary schools with Teacher Assessed Levels. Whilst many argue that teacher assessment leads to improved accuracy than tests for which students are extensively prepared, how then can it be the case that while many teachers are arguing against the use of SAT tests in UK schools, they continue to use the information provided from intelligence and cognitive ability tests.

The use of intelligence and cognitive intelligence testing within UK schools has increased dramatically within recent years. Within this field there are two main tests which a large number of students currently sit (CAT and MidYIS/YeLIS). These tests are often used to assist schools in the setting of target grades and ability grouping without the coaching previously experienced in preparation for SAT’s. Despite this being normal practice in many schools, it remains controversial. The use of such tests within schools strengthens the view of intelligence and intelligence-style tests as merely a method of determining success in school.

The idea of ‘intelligence testing’ has been developed considerably in the United States since Binet’s original work and is now applied in a variety of different ways, often with terrifying results. The authors of The Bell Curve sparked massive controversy with their work considering the IQ scores of ethnic groups within the United States. Their work seamed to support the view that intelligence was innate, that it could not be altered and that people with low IQ’s caused the problems within society. This has caused massive concern around the world and the potential for this system to be used to justify social segregation or worse cannot be ignored.

Whilst it is outside the scope of this assignment to fully assess the on-going nature versus nurture debate, it is the author’s view that if a student can be ‘coached’ to improve their results on the SAT’s tests then it is conceivable that they could be ‘coached’ to improve their score on an IQ test.

In response to the publication of ‘The Bell Curve’ concern began to grow regarding the limited nature of intelligence, as measured by the ‘intelligence quotient’, and any cultural bias within the tests. What is valued within a particular culture has massive implications of the development of its people and its concept of intelligence. The original intelligence tests were devised with Western school success in mind and early examples contain clearly cultural and socio-economic based questions.

In light of this concerns regarding the US-centric intelligence research Stern berg sort to consider the implications of culture upon theories of intelligence. In his article Culture, instruction, and assessment Sternberg looked at his and other researchers work regarding the impact of culture. The research indicates that; the act of assessment itself can impact upon an individual’s performance as different cultures have different expectations of how they will be assessed, that individuals in different cultures may think about concepts and problems in different ways, that performance is improved when the material being assessed is familiar and meaningful to them, that academic skills are not equally valued in all cultures particularly where certain practical skills and knowledge help them survive in their environment. Whilst researching in Africa Sternberg found that many of the traditional views of intelligence, valued in western society, were often considered ‘stupid’ in different cultures i.e. it was not the case that they could not sort the items as required by the test but they thought that do so was a sign of stupidity. In response to this discovery Sternberg developed his theory of successful intelligence; however it is not the only theorist to critique the current system culturally-loaded approach. Gardner MI “placing logic and language on a pedestal reflects the values of our Western culture and the great premium placed on the familiar tests of intelligence.”

These cultural differences cannot be forgotten and may serve to highlight a failure on the part of the Bell Curve to investigate the reasons for the differences they identified. In a multicultural society how can we be sure that the tests are appropriate for the students sitting them? It is argued by the author that without extensive research into the cultural validity of tests such as CAT and MidYIS, their results may lead to students missing out on opportunities whilst could otherwise be open to them.

Whilst there has been increasing use of intelligence testing within schools in recent years for all pupils, it has often been used to diagnose learning disabilities. What implications for ADHD etc if a broad definition of intelligence had been accepted “adaption to the environment”. Such tests are often performed by educational psychologists using US-centric test systems. In response to the increasing desire to label individuals as ‘unintelligent’ due to their individual differences, theories began to expand the traditional view. Sternberg the “tendency to conflate scores on tests of intelligence with some kind of personal value” (2003b p13).

Many theorists have purported to adopt a wider approach to the meaning of intelligence, however few have actually sort to apply this to their own actions or tests. A classic example of this can be found in the works of Wechsler, who gives his name to a very traditional style intelligence test. Wechsler describes intelligence as “the aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to thin rationally and to deal effectively with his environment” (1958 p7). However his test does not reflect this view. This highlights the difficulty in devising tests which match broader theories of intelligence.

Given the problems associated with traditional theories of intelligence, which all too often focused only on skills which are valued in the particular parts of society, theorists sort to encourage a boarder view of intelligence. Sternberg “the time perhaps has come to expand our notion and everyone’s notion of what it means to be intelligent” (2003b p 69). This is an interesting choice of phrasing. It implies that it is not only theorists which need to expand their notion ‘of what it means to be intelliegent’ but the general public as well.

Sternberg proposed his theory of successful intelligence, backed by international research, to explain why some of the most successful individuals in the world are not considered to be traditionally intelligent. “A key aspect of the theory is that success is defined in terms of a person’s individual goals with the context in which that person lives, rather than in terms of more generalised goals that somehow are supposed to apply to everyone.” TFSI

“no matter how well traditional psychometric or cognitive theories account for performance on intelligence tests, they seem not to go much beyond the tests in terms of their ability to account for intelligence in the everyday world” p.317

“The triarchic theory is an attempt to account for, in a single theory, what in the past has been accounted for by multiple theories often perceived to be in conflict with each other.” P.325

“The point to be made, then is that intelligence is not a single thing; It comprises a very wide array of cognitive and other skills. Our aim in theory, research, and measurement ought to be to define what these skills are and to learn how best to assess and train them, not to figure out a way to combine them into a single, possibly meaningless number. “p. 327

p.335 beyond IQ “many existing theories of intelligence are incomplete rather than incorrect”

p.328 “each of the three subtheories of the triachic theory has received at least some empirical validation and elaboration, although more empirical research and theory development are clearly needed.”

p.334 “ Our research, like that of others, is hindered by the lack of wholly satisfactory exeternal criteria against which to validate our theories and measures.”

The difficulty with producing a wider theory of intelligence is at what point do you stop? What is included and what is not? Where is the line to be drawn? It would appear that Sternberg believes that within the US the widening of intelligence has gone too far. “In U.S. society, cognitive skills have become practically equated with intellectual skills- the mental bases of intelligence. This equation is a mistake.” (Sternberg, wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity synthesized 2003b)

On this point there is one theorist who has been heavily criticised for expanding this theory too far. Howard Gardner appears to have an ever growing list of ‘intelligences’ each one more vague and abstract that the next, many overlapping with his previous categories. The main objection which many people have of Gardner is his use of the word ‘intelligence’ to describe what many would prefer to be known as abilities, skills, talents or capacities. In response to such criticism Gardner explained that he realised, “that each of these words harboured pitfalls, I finally elected to take the bold step of appropriating a word from psychology and stretching it in new ways … I was proposing an expansion of the term intelligence so that it would encompass many capacities that had been considered outside its scope” (1999 p33,34).

“There is nothing magical about the word “intelligence”. I have purposely chosen it to join issue with those psychologists who consider logical reasoning or linguistic competence to be on a different plane that musical problem-solving or bodily-kinesthetic aptitude.” (Multiple intelligences) “To call some “talent” and some “intelligence” displays this bias. Call them all “talents” if you wish; or call the all “intelligences”.” “I think of an intelligence as a biopsychological potential. That is, all members of the species have the potential to exercise a set of intellectual faculties of which the species is capable.”

“When I wrote Frames of Mind, I was too promiscuous in the use of the term intelligence, and I applied it in areas where it would have been preferable to deploy other terminology.”

Validity of MI “it surveys a wide variety of independent research traditions: neurology, special populations, development, psychometrics, anthropology, evolution, and so on. The theory is a product of the synthesis of this survey.” “the contention that MI is not theory until the experiments are performed is unwarranted.”

“If other researches, looking at the same empirical data or at new empirical data, were to come up with a list of faculties that were better supported, the current versions of MI theory would be called into question. If there turned out to be a significant correlation among theses faculties, as measured by appropriate assessments, the supported independence of the faculties would be invalidated.

Moreover, the theory could be partially disconfirmed on any number of finer points. Perhaps one or more of the candidate intelligences will be found to be inadequately justified based on further review. Perhaps there are candidates that I have not considered. Or perhaps the intelligences are not nearly as independent as claimed. Each of these alternatives can be empirically verified and can provide means for disconfirming or reformulating the theory, although in the case of certain revision, there might still be some utility to the theory itself.”

The author would go as far to state that Howard Garner has not created a list of intelligences, but yet another list of learning styles. This assertion is supported by the plethora of articles and books written on the subject in the US and throughout the world. The application of the theory to the classroom setting reads just as any text on learning styles, talking about having an awareness of children’s individual pattern of intelligences, of teaching in such a way that all pupils have access to the information in their preferred way and of developing areas where children may show a weakness.

Sternberg’s work is also not immune from such criticism, in his work regarding teaching for successful intelligence also describes the theory in a very similar way to that of learning styles. “The theory of successful intelligence holds that some students who do not do well in conventional courses may, in fact, have the ability to succeed, if they are taught in a way that is a better fit to their patterns of abilities.” Teaching for successful intelligence. “One of the most useful things a teacher can do is to help a student figure out how to make the most of what he or she does well, and to find ways around what he or she does not do so well.”

Coffield’s work in this area has found that there are far too many explanations of learning styles.

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