Other angles on “Intelligence”

The more general page is here.

Competing definitions History IQ The "Bell Curve"
Components The “g” factor Political issues Multiple Intelligences
Can intelligence be taught? Beliefs about intelligence (mindsets)
Fluid and crystallized intelligence Convergent and divergent thinking

Factors in Educational Achievement

Beliefs about intelligence (mindsets)

Increasingly, reading about intelligence in an educational context will lead you to the work of Carol Dweck, under the heading of "self-theories" or "mindsets".

Her research is not so much about intelligence itself, as people's beliefs about it--their own in particular. She focuses on two possible (usually implicit) theories or assumptions about the characteristics of intelligence; they are implicit in that people (particularly children, to whom she pays most attention) rarely talk about them directly, but they betray them in how they discuss challenges, problems, difficulties, opportunities, successes and failures.

She gets at these mindsets with a simple self-test. Which of the following do you most agree with?

1.  Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can't change very much.

2.  You can learn new things, but you can't really change how intelligent you are.

3.  No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.

4.  You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.

(from Dweck, 2006: 12)

To be fair, this may appear mind-bogglingly banal, but it is the simple bottom line of two decades or more of research: it is taken from Dweck's more recent book for a popular readership--you'll find it under "self-help" in the bookshop, rather than respectable psychology, as the title suggests: Mindset; how you can fulfil your potential London; Robinson, 2012.

Although the answers are arranged in a rough continuum, the first two represent what is currently referred to as a "fixed" mindset. (The labels have changed over the years, but I'll use the current versions.) The second two represent a "growth" mindset.

A little elaboration;



...leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to... ...leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to...
...avoid challenges ...embrace challenges
...get defensive or give up easily ...persist in the face of setbacks
...see effort as fruitless or worse ...see effort as the path to mastery
...ignore useful negative feedback ...learn from criticism
...feel threatened by the success of others ...find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
As a result may plateau early and achieve less
than full potential
As a result, reach ever-higher levels of achievement

(based on graphic in Dweck, 2006:245)

You may detect a note of scepticism in the above. My take on the 2006 work can be found here. There is only the most cursory acknowledgement of other debates in the field of intelligence, and how Dweck's work aligns with them, and the "fixed" vs. "growth" construct is treated in isolation from personality characteristics, social background and circumstances, and even Ericsson's work on practice which is potentially highly consistent with hers.

Nevertheless—the message is useful. Petty (2006: 45-49; and see briefly here) links Dweck's work with other theories of motivation and explores the practicalities of using it in class.

Here is Dweck's site based on the Mindset book.

Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence

The distinction between "fluid" (Gf) and "crystallized" (Gc) intelligence is probably mainly of interest to theorists, but it does also have some implications for teaching. The "G" in the abbreviated labels refers to Spearman's g factor, so this is not yet another attempt to deconstruct the possible components of intelligence. Instead, it draws attention to the interaction of what (very broadly and  roughly—I warned you!) we might call "native wit" and "experience" in the expression of intelligence in an individual. However, the theory does not suggest that fluid intelligence becomes "crystallized" with age; indeed, more recent work in the field suggests that the abilities associated with each type may be associated with different parts of the brain. The idea is particularly associated with Raymond Cattell and John L Horn, in a series of papers principally produced from the early 'sixties to the late 'seventies.

Fluid intelligence: Horn and Cattell (1967) defined it as "…the ability to perceive relationships independent of previous specific practice or instruction concerning those relationships." That is one of those definitions of limited use as we saw here. What appears to be more important is that it works through abstractions; it is through abstraction that we perceive the essences of objects and concepts and thus can compare them.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand draws on the stock of knowledge deposited in memory through experience.

Both work together, and in many practical situations, answers to problems can be arrived at with different mixes of the two. The research suggests that while both forms increase through childhood and adolescence, fluid intelligence peaks in adolescence and begins to decline from early middle age. Crystallized intelligence continues to grow as long as experience is accumulated and learned from.

Informally, it is possible to make connections with several other ideas:

  • It is often suggested that mathematicians and physicists (both working in complex and abstract field) do their best work before the age of 40 or even 30, although it is difficult to find decent research on this. Scholars in other areas, particularly the humanities, may however continue to grow in stature until they drop—their work draws much more on the sedimented knowledge of a lifetime.
  • There are parallels, too, with Bruner's "Cone of Experience"; fluid intelligence is required to engage with the "symbolic" abstract levels, and crystallized intelligence draws on that "enacted" history to work at that and the "iconic" levels.
  • But most obviously there are implications for teaching adults, and particularly older adults. They (OK—we) may not be so nimble with the concepts and the arguments, but what we already know (or think we do) may well more than make up for that. That is both an enormous resource for the teacher which we ignore at our peril, and a great challenge, because we may have to confront established "wisdom" (a.k.a. "common sense") to make progress:


up-dated 16 Oct 14

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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