Home' Teacher : May 2011 Contents PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT 21
When people are asked about intelligence
they tend to think about it in two differ-
ent ways. One group of people sees intel-
ligence as a fixed amount, present at birth.
That fixed entity determines learning but is
not determined by it. In other words, what
you are born with decides how much you'll
achieve and the experiences you have along
the way won't influence or increase your
Another group of people, however, sees
intelligence not as a fixed thing but as a pro-
cess, one that is influenced by experience
and by learning. The best research evidence
is starting to suggest that this latter view is
the more accurate. As an example on the
level of the individual child, some work with
children with autism spectrum disorder sup-
ports the view that brains can be 'grown' or
at least their functioning improved by the
right sorts of learning experiences.
The phenomenon known as the Flynn
effect is a further example at the level
of whole populations. The Flynn effect
describes the trend that saw IQ scores rise
steadily throughout the 20th century -- in
some places it continues to do so. Genes
haven't changed much or at all in that time,
so plainly it's something in the environment
that is increasing people's mental capacity
as measured by intelligence tests.
Another taken-for-granted belief in our
culture is that cognitive decline with age
is inevitable. Some make the distinction
between what is known as crystallised intel-
ligence -- what we know -- and fluid intelli-
gence -- how well we learn new things -- and
maintain that while crystallised intelligence
may increase with age, our ability to learn
new things invariably gets worse.
The good news is that research evidence
suggests that everyone, from any ability
range or age group, can improve levels of
cognitive ability, that is, increase their capac-
ity to learn, not just how much they learn.
The key is the link between intelligence and
what is know n as working memory.
Put simply, working memory is the cogni-
tive work space of the mind: the larger its
capacity the more information can be held
in it and made available for tasks, like prob-
lem solving. The link with intelligence is
obvious, as better cognitive capacity allows
for more 'intelligent' performance.
The research evidence suggests that work-
ing memory and cognitive capacity can be
increased at any age and for any ability range.
There are five keys to improving the
Seek out new experiences, ways of thinking,
ideas and activities, or offer these to your
students. Encourage debate and discussion,
comparing perspectives and opinions. Don't
only hang out with people who agree with
you! Novelty has observable effects in the
brain: it increases the brain's plasticity or
capacity for learning and also increases levels
of dopamine, the motivation chemical. More
dopamine means more eagerness to learn.
Challenge yourself and
Lots has been written about brain training
and the importance of taking up challeng-
ing new activities but the truth is that each
challenge only works as a brain trainer for
a short period. The challenges have to keep
We've been encouraged to think that crea-
tivity is a property of the 'right brain,' but
truly creative thinking involves using both
sides of the brain to generate novel and
appropriate solutions to problems by com-
bining information and ideas from widely
Do things the hard way
Many labour-saving devices de-skill us.
It's better for your brain -- and your stu-
dents' -- to ditch the labour saving devices
and instead use the onboard computer, the
mind. Do some maths without calculators,
remember phone numbers instead of stor-
ing them in your phone, navigate without
the assistance of your global positioning
Here's one tip that will seem easy to the
linked-up generation. Taking the time to
expose yourself to new people, ideas and
environments is great for mental growth.
Talking to other people from a wide range
of backgrounds gives you a great oppor-
tunity to see things from different per-
spectives and to obtain the information
you need to make interesting hu nches into
It's pretty obvious that these five keys
are not entirely separate: seeking new expe-
riences can also involve taking on chal-
lenges and linking up with new groups of
Incorporating these strategies in our own
lives increases our capacity to learn and
finding ways to include them in our teach-
ing assists our students to do the same. For
teachers looking for ways to increase the
creativity of their teaching, and thus their
students', Robert Sternberg's Rainbow Pro -
ject is a great place to start.
Catherine Scott is a Senior Research
Fellow in the Teaching, Learning and
Leadership Division of the Australian
Council for Educational Research.
Jaeggi, S.M, Buschkuel, M. , Jonides, J. &
Per ring, W.J. (2008). Improving fluid intel-
lige nce with training on working memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences. 105(May): 6829-33.
Ster nberg, R.J. (2002). Raising the
achievement of all students: Teaching
for successful intelligence. Educ ation al
Psychology Revie w. 14 (4): 383-93.
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