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Intelligence Theory and Gifted Education

Originally prepared by: Jonathan Plucker (Fall 2001)

Note: This essay is based on material prepared for an introductory essay in a special issue of the journal, Roeper Review, published in April 2001. The purpose of the special issue was to provide educators of the gifted with descriptive and critical perspectives on new and emerging intelligence theories that could potentially influence educational practice. Readers are strongly encouraged to read the special issue.

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Looking Back
Looking Around 
Looking Forward 

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The study of giftedness has closely paralleled the study of intelligence. Many scholars who were concerned with matters of intelligence also focused on manifestations of talent and genius: Kant, William James, Galton, Terman, and Hollingworth, to name just a few. The interrelationship between intelligence and gifted education continues today. Intelligence theory influences the way we identify and assess students, our attitudes toward giftedness and gifted students, the models upon which we base our programs and interventions, and many other aspects of gifted education.

Yet with the surge in new intelligence theories, many of these theories and their potential applications remain underexamined. The purpose of this Hot Topic is to identify theories that have significant potential for gifted education or that, for various reasons, have been underutilized.

But how to organize the multitude of intelligence theories? Both Sternberg (1990) and Gardner, Kornhaber, and Wake (1996) propose classification schemes in their texts on intelligence. Sternberg suggests that we view intelligence theories in terms of the metaphors on which they are based: geographic, computational, biological, epistemological, anthropological, sociological, and systems. Gardner et al. take the more traditional approach to classify these theories based on their dominant perspective: psychometric, developmental, biological, cognitive, and recent. In this brief article, I will use a simpler set of categories: "classic" theories that dominated psychology and education for most of the past century (Looking Back), more recent theories that were introduced and have been analyzed for nearly two decades (Looking Around), and emerging theories that have had a considerable educational impact or show potential to do so (Looking Forward). Table 1 contains a summary of relevant theories.

Looking Back
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The unitary, entity view of intelligence ("g") has been by far the most influential conception of intelligence since Spearman first provided evidence of its existence early in the 20th century. Although g is much maligned in educational circles, anyone concluding that unitary entity perspectives are out of fashion should note the passion surrounding the publication of The Bell Curve. This book, which is among the most exhaustive defenses of g, elicited a great deal of debate within gifted education (e.g., Pyryt, 1996; Robinson, 1995; Rogers, 1996; Sternberg et al., 1995). At the time of its publication, I was surprised at the number of educators who openly disagreed with the authors' rather extreme social recommendations but quietly agreed with the authors' scientific positions. Indeed, Jensen (1998b) goes so far as to argue that Sternberg's Triarchic Theory is fully compatible with the idea of g. The death of g has been exaggerated.

However, the debate about the existence of unitary theories of intelligence is unfortunate for another reason: Several other theories of intelligence that emerged prior to 1980 received little application in gifted education. These theories include the conception of Fluid and Crystallized Intelligences (Cattell, 1971) and the Structure of the Intellect model (Guilford, 1967). These theories have seen different degrees of application in schools, but not to the degree one would have expected given their considerable empirical support.


Looking Around

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Several "new" approaches to intelligence theory have become rather widespread in their acceptance and application. Foremost among these theories are the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1983) and the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1985). MI Theory has enjoyed widespread application since its inception, but the popularity of the theory in educational circles has peaked. Triarchic Theory, which has received much less attention from educators primarily due to its complexity, is well-known and may be gaining momentum -- the work of Sternberg and his colleagues applying the theory in educational settings (in conjunction with Sternberg's theories of successful intelligence and mental self-government) has produced promising results.

Interestingly, two approaches to intelligence theory that are often cited in the psychological literature are much less popular (and rarely discussed) by educators of the gifted. Ceci's (1990) extension of Sternberg's theory to incorporate bio-ecological elements receives very little attention among educators, as does Carroll's (1993) Three-Stratum Theory of Cognitive Abilities. These conceptualizations of intelligence are worthy of further investigation.

Looking Forward

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A major goal of this special issue is to introduce emerging theories of intelligence and ability. Some of these theories (e.g., PASS Theory) have had longer incubation periods than others, but all provide alternative perspectives on the nature of human intellect. For example, many educators are exploring the potential applications of emotional intelligence (Mayer, Perkins, Caruso, & Salovey, 2001; Pfeiffer, 2001), implicit theories of intelligence (1987), and similarly alternative perspectives (Rea, 2001; Ritchhart, 2001).

Determining the relative worth of these theories is a difficult process. After all, who would have expected MI Theory to have such a pervasive influence on gifted education, and education in general, back in 1983? And who would have expected the potential applications of Triarchic Theory to become more readily apparent a decade after its introduction? As Sternberg and Lubart (1995) note in their investment theory of creativity, when considering the value of ideas, "buying low" and "selling high" has considerable value. Educators and psychologists have begun to "buy" the value of PASS Theory, emotional intelligence, and implicit theories. The other, even more recent perspectives have similar potential.



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Table 1

Representative Summary of New and Emergent Theories

Looking Back: Relevant "Classic" Approaches

Monocentric, entity views such as "g" (Jensen, 1998a, 1998b)

Fluid and Crystallized Intelligences (Cattell, 1971)

Structure of the Intellect (Guilford, 1967)

Looking Around: Relevant "Modern" Approaches

Three-Stratum Theory of Cognitive Abilities (Carroll, 1993)

Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Fasko, 2001; Gardner, 1983, 1993, 1995)

Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1985)

Successful Intelligence (Sternberg, 1996; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000)

Theory of Mental Self-Government (Sternberg, 1988)

Bio-ecological Theory (Ceci, 1990)

Looking Forward: Emerging Approaches

PASS Theory (Das, Naglieri, & Kirby, 1994; Naglieri & Kaufman, 2001)

Emotional Intelligence (Mayer, Perkins, Caruso, & Salovey, 2001; Pfeiffer, 2001)

Implicit Theories of Intelligence (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995)

Other Perspectives (Rea, 2001; Ritchhart, 2001)


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Carroll, J. B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cattell, R. B. (1971). Abilities: Their structure, growth, and action. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ceci, S. J. (1990). On intelligence - more or less: A bio-ecological treatise on intellectual development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Das, J. P., Naglieri, J. A., & Kirby, J. R. (1994). Assessment of cognitive processes: The PASS theory of intelligence. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C., & Hong, Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267-285.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1995, November). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan, 200-209.

Gardner, H., Kornhaber, M. L., & Wake, W. K. (1996). Intelligence: multiple Perspectives. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Guilford, J. P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jensen, A. R. (1998a). The g factor and the design of education. In R. J. Sternberg & W. M. Williams (Eds.), Intelligence, instruction, and assessment: Theory into practice (pp. 111-131). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jensen, A. R. (1998b). The g factor: The science of mental ability. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Pyryt, M. A. (1996). IQ: Easy to bash, hard to replace. Roeper Review, 18, 255-258.

Robinson, N. M. (1995). Rescuing the baby: A commentary on The Bell Curve. Gifted Child Quarterly, 39, 180-182.

Rogers, K. B. (1996). What The Bell Curve says and doesn't say: Is a balanced view possible? Roeper Review, 18, 252-255

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). Mental self-government: A theory of intellectual styles and their development. Human Development, 31, 197-224.

Sternberg, R. J. (1990). Metaphors of mind: Conceptions of the nature of intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1996). Successful intelligence : how practical and creative intelligence determine success in life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sternberg, R. J., Callahan, C. M., Burns, D., Gubbins, E. J., Purcell, J. P., Reis, S. M., Renzulli, J. S., & Westberg, K. (1995). Return gift to sender: A review of The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein & Charles Murray. Gifted Child Quarterly, 39, 177-179.

Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence: To increase student learning and achievement. Arlington Heights, IL: Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free Press.

Prepared by Jonathan A. Plucker, Ph.D.

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