24 Intelligence, Learning, and Schools

Intelligence, Learning, and Schools

The World of School

School becomes a very important component of children’s lives during middle childhood and one way to understand children is to look at the world of school. We have discussed educational policies that impact the curriculum in schools above. Now let’s focus on the school experience from the standpoint of the student, the teacher and parent relationship, and the cultural messages or hidden curriculum taught in school in the United States.

Parental Involvement in School

Parents vary in their level of involvement with their children’s schools. Teachers often complain that they have difficulty getting parents to participate in their child’s education and devise a variety of techniques to keep parents in touch with daily and overall progress. For example, parents may be required to sign a behavior chart each evening to be returned to school or may be given information about the school’s events through websites and newsletters. There are other factors that need to be considered when looking at parental involvement. To explore these, first ask yourself if all parents who enter the school with concerns about their child be received in the same way? If not, what would make a teacher or principal more likely to consider the parent’s concerns? What would make this less likely?

Lareau and Horvat (2004) found that teachers seek a particular type of involvement from particular types  of parents.

While teachers thought they were open and neutral in their responses to parental involvement, in reality teachers were most receptive to support, praise and agreement coming from parents who were most similar in race and social class with the teachers. Parents who criticized the school or its policies were less likely to be given voice. Parents who have higher levels of income, occupational status, and other qualities favored in society have family capital. This is a form of power that can be used to improve a child’s education. Parents who do not have these qualities may find it more difficult to be effectively involved. Lareau and Horvat (2004) offer three cases of African-American parents who were each concerned about discrimination in the schools. Despite evidence that such discrimination existed, their children’s white, middle-class teachers were reluctant to address the situation directly. Note the variation in approaches and outcomes for these three families:

The Irvings

A middle class, African-American couple was concerned that the school was discriminating against black students. They fought against it without using direct confrontation by staying actively involved in their daughter’s schooling and making frequent visits to the school to make sure that discrimination would not occur. They also talked with other African-American teachers and parents about their concerns.

The Masons

A working class, African-American couple, a minister and a beautician, voiced direct complaints about discrimination in the schools. Their claims were thought to undermine the authority of the school and as a result, their daughter was kept in a lower reading class. However, her grade was boosted to “avoid a scene” and the parents were not told of this grade change.

Ms. Caldron

A poor, single parent was concerned about discrimination in the school. She was a recovering drug addict receiving welfare. She did not discuss her concerns with other parents because she did not know the other parents and did not monitor her child’s progress or get involved with the school. She felt that her concerns would not receive attention. She requested spelling lists from the teacher on several occasions but did not receive them. The teacher complained that Ms. Caldron did not sign forms that were sent home for her signature.


Working within the system without direct confrontation seemed to yield better results for the Irvings, although the issue of discrimination in the school was not completely addressed. Ms. Caldron was the least involved and felt powerless in the school setting. Her lack of family wealth and lack of knowledge and confidence kept her from addressing her concerns with the teachers. What do you think would happen if she directly addressed the teachers and complained about discrimination? Chances are, she would be dismissed as undermining the authority of the school, just as the Masons, and might be thought to lack credibility because of her poverty and drug addiction. The authors of this study suggest that teachers closely examine their biases against parents. Schools may also need to examine their ability to dialogue with parents about school policies in more open ways. What happens when parents have concerns over school policy or view student problems as arising from flaws in the educational system? How are parents who are critical of the school treated? And are their children treated fairly even when the school is being criticized? Certainly, any efforts to improve effective parental involvement should address these concerns. (56)

Controversy over Testing In Schools

Children’s academic performance is often measured with the use of standardized tests. Achievement tests are used to measure what a child has already learned. Achievement tests are often used as measures of teaching effectiveness within a school setting and as a method to make schools that receive tax dollars (such as public schools, charter schools, and private schools that receive vouchers) accountable to the government for their performance. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed into effect the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act mandates that schools administer achievement tests to students and publish those results so that parents have an idea of their children’s performance and the government has information on the gaps in educational achievement between children from various social class, racial, and ethnic groups. Schools that show significant gaps in these levels of performance are to work toward narrowing these gaps. Educators have criticized the policy for focusing too much on testing as the only indication of performance levels.

Aptitude tests are designed to measure a student’s ability to learn or to determine if a person has potential in a particular program. These are often used at the beginning of a course of study or as part of college entrance requirements. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) are perhaps the most familiar aptitude tests to students in grades 6 and above. Learning test taking skills and preparing for SATs has become part of the training that some students in these grades receive as part of their pre-college preparation. Other aptitude tests include the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). Intelligence tests are also a form of aptitude test, which are designed to measure a person’s ability to learn. (56)

Theories of Intelligence

Every year hundreds of grade school students converge on Washington, D.C., for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. The “bee” is an elite event in which children as young as 8 years old compete to spell words like “cymotrichous” and “appoggiatura.” Most people who watch the spelling bee think of these kids as being “smart.”

What makes a person intelligent? Is it heredity (two of the 2014 contestants in the National Spelling Bee have siblings who have previously won) (National Spelling Bee, 2014a)? Is it interest (the most frequently listed favorite subject among spelling bee competitors is math)(NSB, 2014b)?

In this section, we will cover these and other fascinating aspects of intelligence. By the end of the section, you should be able to define intelligence and discuss some common strategies for measuring intelligence. In addition, we will tackle the politically thorny issue of whether there are differences in intelligence between groups such as men and women. (57)

Defining and Measuring Intelligence

When you think of “smart people” you likely have an intuitive sense of the qualities that make them intelligent. Maybe you think they have a good memory, or that they can think quickly, or that they simply know a whole lot of information. Indeed, people who exhibit such qualities appear very intelligent. That said, it seems that intelligence must be more than simply knowing facts and being able to remember them. One point in favor of this argument is the idea of animal intelligence. It will come as no surprise to you that a dog, which can learn commands and tricks seems smarter than a snake that cannot. In fact, researchers and lay people generally agree with one another that primates—monkeys and apes (including humans)—are among the most intelligent animals. Apes such as chimpanzees are capable of complex problem solving and sophisticated communication (Kohler, 1924).

Scientists point to the social nature of primates as one evolutionary source of their intelligence. Primates live together in troops or family groups and are therefore, highly social creatures. As such, primates tend to have brains that are better developed for communication and long term thinking than most other animals. For instance, the complex social environment has led primates to develop deception, altruism, numerical concepts, and “theory of mind” (a sense of the self as a unique individual separate from others in the group; Gallup, 1982; Hauser, MacNeilage & Ware, 1996).

What constitutes intelligence?

The question of what constitutes human intelligence is one of the oldest inquiries in psychology. When we talk about intelligence we typically mean intellectual ability. This broadly encompasses the ability to learn, remember and use new information, to solve problems and to adapt to novel situations. An early scholar of intelligence, Charles Spearman, proposed the idea that intelligence was one thing, a ” general factor ” sometimes known as simply “ .” He based this conclusion on the observation that people who perform well in one intellectual area such as verbal ability also tend to perform well in other areas such as, logic and reasoning (Spearman, 1904).

A contemporary of Spearman’s named Francis Galton—himself a cousin of Charles Darwin– was among those who pioneered psychological measurement (Hunt, 2009). For three pence Galton would measure various physical characteristics such as grip strength but also some psychological attributes such as the ability to judge distance or discriminate between colors. This is an example of one of the earliest systematic measures of individual ability. Galton was particularly interested in intelligence, which he thought was heritable in much the same way that height and eye color are. He conceived of several rudimentary methods for assessing whether his hypothesis was true. For example, he carefully tracked the family tree of the top-scoring Cambridge students over the previous 40 years. Although he found specific families disproportionately produced top scholars, intellectual achievement could still be the product of economic status, family culture or other non-genetic factors. Galton was also, possibly, the first to popularize the idea that the heritability of psychological traits could be studied by looking at identical and fraternal twins. Although his methods were crude by modern standards, Galton established intelligence as a variable that could be measured (Hunt, 2009). (57)

The First “IQ” Test

A contemporary of Spearman’s named Francis Galton—himself a cousin of Charles Darwin– was among those who pioneered psychological measurement (Hunt, 2009). For three pence Galton would measure various physical characteristics such as grip strength but also some psychological attributes such as the ability to judge distance or discriminate between colors. This is an example of one of the earliest systematic measures of individual ability. Galton was particularly interested in intelligence, which he thought was heritable in much the same way that height and eye color are. He conceived of several rudimentary methods for assessing whether his hypothesis was true. For example, he carefully tracked the family tree of the top-scoring Cambridge students over the previous 40 years. Although he found specific families disproportionately produced top scholars, intellectual achievement could still be the product of economic status, family culture or other non-genetic factors. Galton was also, possibly, the first to popularize the idea that the heritability of psychological traits could be studied by looking at identical and fraternal twins. Although his methods were crude by modern standards, Galton established intelligence as a variable that could be measured (Hunt, 2009).

Along with his colleague Theodore Simon, Binet created a test of children’s intellectual capacity. They created individual test items that should be answerable by children of given ages. For instance, a child who is three should be able to point to her mouth and eyes, a child who is nine should be able to name the months of the year in order, and a twelve year old ought to be able to name sixty words in three minutes. Their assessment became the first “IQ test.” It was thought to assess some underlying ability to excel in a variety of cognitive domains, referred to as the g-factor (or general factor).

Four different types of items on an intelligence test.
Figure 6-3: Examples Intelligence Test Items by Noba Project is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 .


“IQ” or “intelligence quotient” is a name given to the score of the Binet-Simon test. The score is derived by dividing a child’s mental age (the score from the test) by their chronological age to create an overall quotient. These days, the phrase “IQ” does not apply specifically to the Binet-Simon test and is used to generally denote intelligence or a score on any intelligence test. In the early 1900s the Binet-Simon test was adapted by a Stanford professor named Lewis Terman to create what is, perhaps, the most famous intelligence test in the world, the Stanford-Binet (Terman, 1916). The major advantage of this new test was that it was standardized. Based on a large sample of children Terman was able to plot the scores in a normal distribution, shaped like a “bell curve.” To understand a normal distribution, think about the height of people. Most people are average in height with relatively fewer being tall or short, and fewer still being extremely tall or extremely short. Terman (1916) laid out intelligence scores in exactly the same way, allowing for easy and reliable categorizations and comparisons between individuals. (57)

Description in text.
Figure 6-4: Bell Curve- Normal Distribution IQ by Noba Project is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 .


Looking at another modern intelligence test—the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS)—can provide clues to a definition of intelligence itself. Motivated by several criticisms of the Stanford-Binet test, psychologist David Wechsler sought to create a superior measure of intelligence. He was critical of the way that the Stanford-Binet relied so heavily on verbal ability and was also suspicious of using a single score to capture all of intelligence. To address these issues Wechsler created a test that tapped a wide range of intellectual abilities. This understanding of intelligence—that it is made up of a pool of specific abilities—is a notable departure from Spearman’s concept of general intelligence. The WAIS assesses people’s ability to remember, compute, understand language, reason well, and process information quickly (Wechsler, 1955).

One interesting by-product of measuring intelligence for so many years is that we can chart changes over time. It might seem strange to you that intelligence can change over the decades but that appears to have happened over the last 80 years we have been measuring this topic. Here’s how we know: IQ tests have an average score of 100. When new waves of people are asked to take older tests they tend to outperform the original sample from years ago on which the test was normed. This gain is known as the “Flynn Effect,” named after James Flynn, the researcher who first identified it (Flynn, 1987). Several hypotheses have been put forth to explain the Flynn Effect including better nutrition (healthier brains!), greater familiarity with testing in general, and more exposure to visual stimuli. Today, there is no perfect agreement among psychological researchers with regards to the causes of increases in average scores on intelligence tests. (57)

What is considered smart?

Intelligence tests and psychological definitions of intelligence have been heavily criticized since the 1970s for being biased in favor of Anglo-American, middle-class respondents and for being inadequate tools for measuring non-academic types of intelligence or talent. Intelligence changes with experience and intelligence quotients or scores do not reflect that ability to change. What is considered smart varies culturally as well and most intelligence tests do not take this variation into account. For example, in the west, being smart is associated with being quick. A person who answers a question the fastest is seen as the smartest. But in some cultures, being smart is associated with considering an idea thoroughly before giving an answer. A well-thought out, contemplative answer is the best answer. (56)

Multiple Intelligences

Gardner (1983, 1998, 1999) suggests that there are not one, but nine domains of intelligence. The first three are skills that are measured by IQ tests:

  • Logical-mathematical : the ability to solve mathematical problems; problems of logic, numerical patterns
  • Linguistic : vocabulary, reading comprehension, function of language
  • Spatial : visual accuracy, ability to read maps, understand space and distance

The next six represent skills that are not measured in standard IQ tests but are talents or abilities that can also be important for success in a variety of fields: These are:

  • Musical : ability to understand patterns in music, hear pitches, recognize rhythms  and melodies
  • Bodily-kinesthetic : motor coordination, grace of movement, agility, strength
  • Naturalistic : knowledge of plants, animals, minerals, climate, weather
  • Interpersonal : understand the emotion, mood, motivation of others; able to communicate effectively
  • Intrapersonal : understanding of the self, mood, motivation, temperament, realistic knowledge of strengths, weaknesses
  • Existential : concern about and understanding of life’s larger questions, meaning of life, or spiritual matters

Gardner contends that these are also forms of intelligence. A high IQ does not always ensure success in life or necessarily indicate that a person has common sense, good interpersonal skills, or other abilities important for success. (56)

Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

Another alternative view of intelligence is presented by Sternberg (1997; 1999). Sternberg offers three types of intelligences. He described his frustration as a committee member charged with selecting graduate students for a program in psychology. He was concerned that there was too much emphasis placed on aptitude test scores and believed that there were other, less easily measured, qualities necessary for success in a graduate program and in the world of work. Aptitude test scores indicate the first type of intelligence-academic.

Sternberg noted that students who have high academic abilities might still not have what is required to be a successful graduate student or a competent professional. To do well as a graduate student, the person needs to be creative. The second type of intelligence emphasizes this quality.

A potential graduate student might be strong academically and have creative ideas, but still be lacking in the social skills required to work effectively with others or to practice good judgment in a variety of situations. This common sense is the third type of intelligence.

This type of intelligence helps a person know when problems need to be solved. Practical intelligence can help a person know how to act and what to wear for job interviews, when to get out of problematic relationships, how to get along with others at work, and when to make changes to reduce stress. (56)

Student Perspectives

Imagine being a 3rd-grader for one day in public school. What would the daily routine involve? To what extent would the institution dictate the activities of the day and how much of the day would you spend on those activities? Would always be ‘on task’? What would you say if someone asked you how your day went? Or “What happened in school today?” Chances are, you would be more inclined to talk about with whom you sat at lunch or who brought a puppy to class than to describe how fractions are added.

Ethnographer and Professor of Education Peter McLaren (1999) describes the student’s typical day as filled with constrictive and unnecessary ritual that has a damaging effect on the desire to learn. Students move between various states as they negotiate the demands of the school system and their own personal interests.

Student State

The majority of the day (298 minutes) takes place in the student state . This state is one in which the student focuses on a task or tries to stay focused on a task, is passive, compliant, and often frustrated. Long pauses before getting out the next book or finding materials sometimes indicate that frustration.

Street Corner State

The street corner state is one in which the child is playful, energetic, excited, and expresses personal opinions, feelings, and beliefs. About 66 minutes a day take place in this state. Children try to maximize this by going slowly to assemblies or when getting a hall pass-always eager to say ‘hello’ to a friend or to wave if one of their classmates is in another room. This is the state in which friends talk and play. In fact, teachers sometimes reward students with opportunities to move freely or to talk or to be themselves. But when students initiate the street corner state on their own, they risk losing recess time, getting extra homework, or being ridiculed in front of their peers.

Home State

The home state occurs when parents or siblings visit the school. Children in this state may enjoy special privileges such as going home early or being exempt from certain school rules in the mother’s presence. Or it can be difficult if the parent is there to discuss trouble at school with a staff member. The sanctity state is a time in which the child is contemplative, quiet, or prayerful and is a very brief part of the day.

Since students seem to have so much enthusiasm and energy in street corner states, what would happen if the student and street corner states could be combined? Would it be possible? Many educators feel concern about the level of stress children experience in school. Some stress can be attributed to problems in friendship. And some can be a result of the emphasis on testing and grades, as reflected in a Newsweek article entitled “The New First Grade: Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast Too Soon?” (Tyre, 2006). This article reports concerns of a principal who worries that students begin to burn out as early as 3rd grade. In the book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, Kohn (2006) argues that neither research nor experience support claims that homework reinforces learning and builds responsibility. Why do schools assign homework so frequently? A look at cultural influences on education may provide some answers. (56)

Cultural Influences

Another way to examine the world of school is to look at the cultural values, concepts, behaviors and roles that are part of the school experience but are not part of the formal curriculum. These are part of the hidden curriculum but are nevertheless very powerful messages. The hidden curriculum includes ideas of patriotism, gender roles, the ranking of occupations and classes, competition, and other values. Teachers, counselors, and other students specify and make known what is considered appropriate for girls and boys. The gender curriculum continues into high school, college, and professional school. Students learn a ranking system of occupations and social classes as well. Students in gifted programs or those moving toward college preparation classes may be viewed as superior to those who are receiving tutoring.

Gracy (2004) suggests that cultural training occurs early. Kindergarten is an “academic boot camp” in which students are prepared for their future student role-that of complying with an adult imposed structure and routine designed to produce docile, obedient, children who do not question meaningless tasks that will become so much of their future lives as students. A typical day is filled with structure, ritual, and routine that allows for little creativity or direct, hands-on contact. “Kindergarten, therefore, can be seen as preparing children not only for participation in the bureaucratic organization of large modern school systems, but also for the large-scale occupational bureaucracies of modern society” (Gracy, 2004, p. 148). (56)

What do you think?

Let’s examine a kindergarten class schedule.

8:35 — 9 Morning routines, breakfast, morning work, interventions.
9 — 9:20 Calendar and shared reading
9:20 — 9:35 Word work
9:35 — 10:15 Reading workshop
10:15 — 10:30 Recess
10:30 — 11 Guided reading
11 — 11:30 Writing workshop
11:30 — 12:30 Lunch and Recess
12:30 — 12:50 Read Aloud
12:50 — 1:30 Science or Social Studies
1:30 — 2 Specials (gym, Spanish, music, art, or library)
2 — 3 Math Workshop (small groups)
3 — 3:30 Snack and Free Choice (1)

To what extent do you think that students are being prepared for their future student role? What are the pros and cons of such preparation? Look at the curriculum for kindergarten and the first few grades in your own school district. Emphasizing math and reading in preschool and kindergarten classes is becoming more common in some school districts. It is not without controversy, however. Some suggest that emphasis is warranted in order to help students learn math and reading skills that will be needed throughout school and in the world of work. This will also help school districts improve their accountability through test performance. Others argue that learning is becoming too structured to be enjoyable or effective and that students are being taught only to focus on performance and test taking.

Students learn student incivility or lack of sincere concern for politeness and consideration of others is taught in kindergarten through 12th grades through the “what is on the test” mentality modeled by teachers. Students are taught to accept routinized, meaningless information in order to perform well on tests. And they are experiencing the stress felt by teachers and school districts focused on test scores and taught that their worth comes from their test scores. Genuine interest, an appreciation of the process of learning, and valuing others are important components of success in the workplace that are not part of the hidden curriculum in today’s schools. (56)


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