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A New Look at Intelligence

In the book, Intelligence and the Brain, Dr. Dennis Garlick argues that intelligence reflects a person’s ability to understand, not just to memorize, and suggests that there are key stages in a child’s development in which parents and teachers should cultivate understanding. Included: New research on how brains function.

In his book, Intelligence and the Brain: Solving the Mystery of Why People Differ in IQ and How a Child Can Be a Genius, Dr. Dennis Garlick, a post-doctoral researcher at UCLA, provides parents and educators with the latest science-backed findings on how human intelligence works, how it relates to IQ, and what really matters for a child's intelligence and success. Dr. Garlick also outlines what parents and educators can do to help children reach their greatest intellectual potential -- explaining the role of intelligence testing in education, what it means for children’s success as adults, and how such innovative thinkers as Bill Gates and Frank Lloyd Wright were able to develop their skills.

Garlick talked with Education World about his research and what it could mean for educators.

Dr. Dennis Garlick

Education World: How does your view of intelligence differ most from the usual approach?

Dr. Dennis Garlick: When people hear that someone has a high IQ, they typically think the person has something in his or her brain that enables that person to behave intelligently in many different situations. However, intelligence research has failed to identify what that characteristic may be, despite trying for 100 years or more. My book argues that human intelligence and IQ need to be looked at differently.

Successful performance on intelligence tests involves understanding various situations. Brain science tells us that simply having a well-functioning brain does not ensure that ability. Rather, the ability to understand develops gradually during childhood through experience. That doesn’t mean genetic factors don’t play a role, but rather that genetic factors mediate the effect of experience. That tells us that specific experiences play a much greater role in childhood development than is commonly appreciated.

EW: How can educators and educators-in-training best use that information?

Garlick: My book emphasizes that brain research shows at least two learning processes in the brain.

One learning process -- the one we’re all familiar with -- is responsible for memorization of facts and procedures. It’s active throughout one’s lifespan, and is responsible for much of our knowledge acquisition. Think, learning that the capital of France is Paris.

“For the most part, educational curricula has not been based on recent advances in the brain sciences. That means it is not appreciated that there are certain skills and abilities that people are more able to learn at particular ages."

The other, less well known, learning process is most active during childhood; it’s responsible for learning underlying representations or abstractions that can be used in later knowledge acquisition. Those representations are what enable later learning to be flexible, generalizing across situations. As adults, we tend to take those representations for granted. However, brain research reveals that those representations also are based on a learning process; a process that predominantly takes place during childhood; and that results in brain changes that are relatively more permanent than those involved in knowledge acquisition. All of which emphasizes that education sets up the potential for life-long learning and therefore should be focused.

EW: What effect would your perspective on intelligence -- that it has more to do with understanding abstractions than acquiring knowledge -- have on the nature of curriculum and the manner in which it is delivered?

Garlick: For the most part, educational curricula has not been based on recent advances in the brain sciences. That means it is not appreciated that there are certain skills and abilities that people are more able to learn at particular ages. Brain science also emphasizes that learning in childhood requires many repetitions or concrete examples. While the role of repetition is especially appreciated in some domains, such as mathematics, that is not always true of other domains. In some cases, the learning of abstractions is an incidental outcome of the educational process, when it should be a central effort.

EW: Do you think your work shows that differentiated instruction should be mandatory in all classrooms?

Garlick:Yes and no. On the one hand, adapting the curriculum to a child’s abilities and level of readiness is essential if every child is to learn as effectively as possible at school. However, it also is important to remember that psychology indicates that many skills and abilities can be improved through practice or experience. That means that instruction needs to focus, not just on short-term goals, but on long-term outcomes as well.

For example, a child might prefer to use diagrams, rather than an essay, to illustrate a concept. If the goal is simply to show mastery of the concept, then the child should be allowed to use diagrams to do that. In later life, however, communicating complicated concepts through essays is likely to be an extremely important skill, suggesting that in some situations, the child should be required to use essays to communicate his or her understanding. Although the child might find that requirement more frustrating in the short-term, it will enhance his or her skill set in the longer term. So, while it is important to recognize differences among children, children also should be encouraged to improve certain skills and abilities, no matter what their natural inclination.


“In some cases, the learning of abstractions is an incidental outcome of the educational process, when it should be a central effort."

EW: Can you explain how to nurture genius in children?

Garlick: Genius reflects the ability to produce novel solutions, and the ability to do that often is influenced by childhood experience. It is common to find that adults who are considered to be geniuses have had unusual childhoods. They tended to be interested in their domain or another relevant domain from a young age, which led them to think about the domain and develop a better understanding of it. That understanding helped them make significant contributions in later childhood and adulthood. That tells us it is essential to inform children of the importance of appropriate experiences in childhood, and also to make those experiences available to them.

EW: Why do you think many people, including educators, are reluctant to view intelligence as wired rather than acquired?

Garlick: We all agree it would be best if intelligence were as malleable as possible. The more malleable intelligence is, the more teachers and parents can influence it. That would enable more children to succeed at whatever they wanted to do. We need to be careful, however, that we don’t simply ignore evidence indicating the role of the genes. A long history of research shows that raising IQ is a huge challenge. To treat children who differ in IQ as being the same always will lead to non-optimal outcomes.

My book does not claim that IQ is easily manipulated, but rather questions just what it is that IQ tests measure. Since brain research indicates that IQ is not a direct property or characteristic of the brain, it indicates that IQ should not be taken as a direct indicator of a person’s ability in many situations. More accurate testing is required, and IQ testing is most helpful in identifying the range a person is likely to fall into. Using IQ to make specific estimates of a child’s ability in specific domains can lead to inaccurate assessments.

This e-interview with Dr. Dennis Garlick is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



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Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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Published 01/18/2011