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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

The Thinking-Learning Connection / Where Is Intelligence?

Hold on there. Surely I mean what, not where. What is intelligence—is it test scores, fast neurons, knowing your way around different kinds of thinking, the view I explained in my last column? We need to know what intelligence is.
Not today. I truly want to ask where intelligence is. We take it for granted that intelligence rests in the mind or the brain. However, in everyday life, good thinking and learning depend not just on what you have in your head but on the physical, social, and symbolic support systems around you.
To test this idea, try the following thought experiment: Imagine you have a personal problem to solve, something to do with your job or home life. But there are a few restrictions: No writing any notes to yourself to try to figure things out and no using resources like books. No talking things over with friends or experts. And finally, no specific advice to yourself about how to think about your problem—no words about exploring options, predicting consequences, and so on. You can do those things, but you can't talk about them to yourself.
It's pretty clear that you aren't going to think about your problem very well.
Notes on paper and resources like books, talking things over with others, giving yourself advice—all these help the thinking process along. You function more intelligently with physical (paper and pencil, books), social (thinking with others), and symbolic (verbal advice to yourself, for instance) support systems than you do without.
Cognitive scientist Roy Pea of Northwestern University has written in this spirit about “distributed intelligence” (1993). The notion is that our capacity to think well—our intelligence—resides not just in our heads but is distributed throughout the physical, social, and symbolic environment. In my recent book Smart Schools, I express this as a contrast between the person-solo and the person-plus. The person-solo is the person without physical, social, or symbolic support systems for thinking—the naked brain approach to thinking. The person-plus makes ample and skillful use of such resources.
What does this mean for classrooms where students should learn to think well and should learn the subject matters in thoughtful ways? What does it mean if we want students to become savvy problem solvers in math class, sensitive readers of literature, insightful interpreters of current events against a backdrop of history? It implies that distributed intelligence deserves more attention in the classroom.
As a trend, schools treat students like naked brains. Except for traditional kinds of writing like essays, they don't teach students how to think on paper, which is quite an art in itself. Schools tend to limit opportunities for collaborative thinking and learning with other students, and they give too little exposure to the rich language of thinking embedded in the English language (consider the nuances among terms like guess, hypothesize, suppose, presume, assume). We ought to take a lesson from life in general, where person-solo is the exception and not the rule, and treat students more like persons-plus.
  • Recognize that students tend to work in their heads too much and encourage them to “think on paper” in all subject matters, not just in math class, where we ask students to “show their work.”
  • Recognize that words are not the only good vehicle of thought, and welcome and encourage pictorial and diagrammatic thinking on paper as much as words; or for that matter other embodiments of thinking such as physical models or computer programs.
  • The well-known jigsaw method organizes students into small groups to study a topic. Each group member takes responsibility for a subtopic, students from different groups who are investigating the same subtopic gather to study that topic, and then they return to their original groups, where they are responsible for teaching the subtopic to their peers. The knowledge that they are going to be obliged to teach about their subtopics generates very active, attentive learning.
  • Pair problem solving, developed by Jack Lochhead (1985) asks students to address a problem in pairs, one working on the problem while the other questions the first about what he or she is doing and why. Then they change roles. This metacognitive exercise sharpens students' sense of how they approach problems.What about symbolic support for thinking?
  • Research shows that textbooks make little use of the language of thinking (terms like theory, hypothesis, reason, and evidence). Make up for this: Speak the language of thinking in the classroom and encourage your students to do so as well. Although such terms may seem forbidding at first, remember that language correctly used in context is one of the easiest things for youngsters to learn.
  • Introduce students to symbolic tools like concept maps or webbing or Venn diagrams and encourage their use in diverse contexts; they amount to languages for representing the relationships among ideas.
All such tactics challenge the hegemony of the naked brain, the picture of the person-solo as the seat of intelligence. Traditionally, psychologists and educators have felt that the genie of our individual genius lives solely in the bottle of our heads. Let's let the genie out of the bottle! Free in the wide world of physical, social, and symbolic supports, the genie will turn out to have even more genius than we thought.
References

Lochhead, J. (1985). “Teaching Analytic Reasoning Skills Through Pair Problem Solving.” In Thinking and Learning Skills: Vol. 1, Relating Instruction to Research, edited by J. Segal, S. Chipman, and R. Glaser. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pea, R. D. (1993). “Practices of Distributed Intelligence and Designs for Education.” In Distributed Cognitions, edited by G. Salomon. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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