Scientific thinking about Intelligence, Piaget and Vygotsky.

Science and free speech has been recently  discussed by Steven Pinker. Do we have to be ashamed of discussing how we can increase the intelligence of our students without insult?

During the 1970’s Philip Adey and Michael Shayer launched a kind of “State of the Cognitive Union” in the UK. The details of this are to be found in Towards a Science to Science Teaching (1981).

Based on a huge sample of school students (aprox. 11000) they found that there was a mismatch bewteen the levels of cognitive development shown in this population and the formal abstract demands of the curriculum.  As diligent scientists would do, Adey and Shayer explored how applied Psychology, Educational Research and teaching methodologies could ameliorate this problem. This led to the C.A.S.E, C.A.M.E  and now Let’s Think programmes being developed and evaluated in many different contexts.

Reading this and their other publications was life changing for me as a just starting Science teacher.  A key feature of the whole project of cognitive acceleration, and its replcations that are still thankfully alive, was that “Intelligence is not fixed” and good teaching could play a role. Adey expressed this, to me at an ASE continuing professional development workshop, as letting the “Cognitive Phenotype express the Genotype as Piaget had predicted in his work”.  Shayer and Adey , as well as Andreas Demetriou @apdemetriou ‏ , always found the Piagetian theory compelling but were prepared to do the scientific slog work of putting it to rigorous testing.

Adey and Shayer used the analogy of the early periodic table proposed by Mendeelev and the later developments,  as a pragmatic way of looking at Piaget’s theory. I find this much more fruitful and consistent with what Kuhn, Lakatos and others have outlined as the Nature of Science than the comments I have often have heard at, so called Educational 

Professional Development   ” Did not X…… falsify Piaget? ”

Vygotsky is of course now the modal, but often unread, point of reference. His concept of ZPD, also life changing for me as a teacher, I often cringe at how it is explained and applied. I often find the idea of scaffolding to be far more offensive than the idea of using teacher led strategies to increase the intelligence of students. I really enjoyed the analysis S.J Gould developed in The Mismeasure of Man and appreciate that bad intentioned racists appropriated the concept of intelligence for a good while and that various unjust forms of selection were loosely based on IQ.

However a new science based, epigenetic, concept of intelligence may help us open up a new debate.

Richard Haier  @rjhaier ‏ explicitly points out the stigma that the word “intelligence” has unfortunately gained.


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