13 February 2011

Intelligence, Competence and Expertise

Educators would agree that engagement in the teaching and learning process is one of key steps in improving student outcomes. I recently came across an article by Robert J. Sternberg which made the following statement:

“The main constraint in achieving expertise is not some fixed prior level of capacity, but purposeful engagement involving direct instruction, active participation, role modelling, and reward.”[1]

In the body of the article Sternberg goes on to argue that intelligence is not the only determiner for school success and many of us know this to be true. The article shows, through a variety of intelligence tests on diverse cultures that intelligence is only one instrument a student is using and that it is not a fixed instrument. (See earlier post Mindset and Praise.) 

Most of us teach using a variation on the processes which Sternberg lists. There is a time for direct instruction, although this may or may not be teacher-centered, and it is essential that students participate, by constructing their knowledge in some form or another.

In the same article Sternberg then states:
                “Indeed, motivation is perhaps the indispensible element needed for school success.”[2]

And we all know that motivation is much trickier. Getting students over the barriers, getting them to want to learn, getting them to be successful learners, these are issues we have all debated over time.  Many of the theorists in the Handbook of Competence and Motivation suggest that achieving competence is inextricably linked to motivation. When we feel that we can do an activity at a reasonable level, we are often motivated to increase that activity, eventually leading from competence to expertise.

Sternberg stresses that this is a cycle: learners move from novice to expert in a particular area, then they begin the cycle again with new thinking, knowledge and learning. His illustration below allows us to see learning as a continuum which incorporates knowledge, learning, thinking and metacognition as well as the previously mentioned motivation. Sternberg shows that all of these factors feed into one another as the student increases his/her competence and moves towards expertise. 

If we can externalize the process which Sternberg suggests as we teach, we can help students to realise that learning is cyclical. This should ensure that students experience greater engagement with the process of learning.

[1] Sternberg, Robert J., ‘Intelligence, Competence and Expertise’ in Elliot, Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (Guildford Press 2005)

[2] ibid

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