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April 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 7

The Thinking-Learning Connection / Learning Your Way Around Thinking

    Instructional StrategiesInstructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
      Students who “see the connections” are more likely to understand and remember what they learn. In this column, David Perkins explores “learnable intelligence.”
      Is learnable intelligence an oxymoron? Is it one of those schizophrenic, self-contradicting figures of speech like a “thunderous silence,” a “lead balloon,” or a “cold war”? Can intelligence really be learned?
      Suppose by the word intelligence, we mean IQ. In that case, the issue of whether instruction can augment IQ becomes a complicated technical question, to which the answer is something like “some, but not a lot.”
      If, however, we define intelligence as how well people handle various kinds of thinking, then intelligence most certainly can be learned. People learn to function more intelligently all the time.
      For example, reading is one area where students can learn to funtcion more intelligently. In a 1988 issue of Educational Researcher (volume 17, number 5), Haller, Child, and Walberg synthesized results from a number of efforts to teach students to read strategically. On a variety of measures, students achieved average gains of 70 percent of a standard deviation—a very substantial impact. Among the more potent reading strategies were searching backward and forward in texts to clarify obscure points and self-questioning strategies to gauge progress and redirect attention.
      In a favorite example from our own research, a 4th grader explains another effective reading strategy to determine meaning from context: If, for example, I can't understand a word, I read the title and think about what the title means. Then I would read the sentence before it and after it twice. Next I would read that sentence and replace the word with a word that might fit in its place.
      You might say that this 4th grader “knows her way around reading”; she certainly knows how to figure out unfamiliar words. The value of knowing your way around is not confined to the subject of reading. We have good indications that people can learn their way around other areas of thinking as well.
      “Knowing your way around” is a suggestive phrase. It reminds us that understanding, decision making, and other intellectual challenges involve more than just thinking skills and strategies. For instance, understanding discursive writing involves skills, but also concepts, like claims, theories, reasons, conclusions, and biases; beliefs, such as the idea that achieving understanding sometimes requires great effort for a long time (unlike the belief that “you either get it or you don't”); feelings, such as curiosity and intellectual confidence; and sensitivities, such as knowing the style of reading that is appropriate for a particular kind of text.
      If intelligence is in good part a matter of knowing your way around thinking, then acquiring that intelligence must be a matter of learning your way around thinking. How can that be done?
      Think about learning your way around a region like Manhattan, a sport like baseball, or a topic like early American literature. These challenges would involve skills, but also a wide range of experience, knowledge, beliefs, and values.
      • teach key concepts and vocabulary in an experiential way so that learners can develop a true sense of them;
      • consider learners' prior knowledge about the kind of thinking in question;
      • encourage students to explore and test their beliefs (many can be counter-productive, as when students feel bound to read every word of a text, even when doing so will poorly serve reading for understanding);
      • cultivate thinking dispositions, that is, the motives and attitudes that determine how fully students invest themselves in learning (for more on this subject, see my column in the November 1993 issue of Educational Leadership);
      • develop conditionalized know-how, or knowing when to do what (when, for example, it is advisable to think carefully through to a decision and when it is better to make a snap judgment);
      • introduce layers of complexity for dealing with different levels of challenge (one might ask, for instance, about ways that a decision can prove difficult and how to deal with each difficulty);
      • emphasize ways to use other people's help in various kinds of thinking; and
      • foster the transfer of learning by having students learn their way around the kind of thinking in question in diverse contexts, all the while reflecting on their learning and considering where else it might apply.
      Now where does this leave our oxymoron, learnable intelligence? Well, one figure of speech deserves a few more. Perhaps not learnable intelligence but fixed intelligence is the real oxymoron. And thinking skills by themselves are a mere synecdoche—a part standing in for a much richer whole. And “learning your way around thinking” serves as a useful analogy for highlighting what learnable intelligence is, how it can be learned, and how important it is to learn. And that's not hyperbole.

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