Early Childhood Education



What is intelligence? Laypeople generally include practical problem solving, verbal behavior, and social competence in their definitions. Psychologists, however, do not agree on how to define the concept of intelligence. While most Western definitions have emphasized cognitive competence, many traditional societies have emphasized social competence. There is widespread agreement that intelligence is a person’s capacity for goal-directed adaptive behavior (Sternberg 1994, p. 1135). Most formal and implicit theories regard language as playing an important role in the definition and measurement of intelligence. Psychologists representing the psychometric approach have defined intelligence as whatever intelligence tests measure. In the 1920s and 1930s, many equated intelligence quotient (IQ) with native ability. In the 1950s and 1960s, constructivist theories introduced into the United States portrayed intelligence as being constructed by children through interaction with their physical and social environments. Contemporary psychologists think of intelligence as a variety of attributes influenced by genetic makeup, prenatal environment, postnatal environment, encouragement and opportunities, and cultural beliefs and practices.

The study of intelligence has been controversial since its inception. In his early studies of intelligence, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) concluded that the major differences among babies were hereditary. On the other hand Alfred Binet (1857-1911), a French psychologist, believed that the capacity to learn could be increased by stimulation. Binet became interested in studying child development following the birth of his two daughters in 1885 and 1887. His observations of his daughters led him to formulate a conception of intelligence. In 1904, the French Ministry of Education asked Binet and his student and collaborator, Theophile Simon, to devise a method to identify children who would benefit from slower-paced instruction in public school classrooms. Binet and Simon’s original measure consisted of test items that assessed memory, good judgment, and abstraction and were arranged according to the year at which the majority of children mastered each skill or ability. Binet and Simon’s test was so successful at predicting school success that it was adapted for use by other countries. In the United States, compulsory school attendance laws, child labor laws, and large numbers of immigrants had caused the school population to change in the early 1900s. To address the wider range of individual abilities present in school classrooms, Louis Terman (1877-1956) at Stanford University revised Binet and Simon’s scale, renaming it the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale in 1916.

Over the last century one of the primary questions about intelligence has been whether it is a unitary or multifaceted construct. In 1927, British psychologist Charles Spearman, using factor analysis, developed the two-factor theory of intelligence, where g represented a primary general intelligence (abstract reasoning) and s represented specific related abilities. Spearman believed that the general factor was the essential foundation from which the specific related abilities emerged. American psychologist, Louis Thurstone (1938) disagreed with Spearman, advancing his theory of seven unrelated primary mental abilities which he believed operated independently: verbal meaning, perceptual speed, reasoning, number, rote memory, word fluency, and spatial visualization. Extending factor analytic research, Raymond Cattell (1971) described two types of intelligence in addition to a general factor: (1) crystallized intelligence (i.e., accumulated knowledge and skills) which depends on culture and learning opportunities; and (2) fluid intelligence (e.g., the ability to see relationships), which depends on brain function. Recent research has shown that even fluid intelligence test items (spatial and performance tasks) depend on learning opportunities.

In the 1950s and 1960s, J. McVicker Hunt, Benjamin Bloom, Jerome Bruner, and Kenneth Wann, influenced by the interactionist theory of Jean Piaget, amassed evidence on and argued for the influence of early experience on intelligence. They succeeded in focusing attention on the idea that intelligence is a highly complex process, not explained by the simplistic notion of fixed genetic endowment. Hunt, in particular, became a strong advocate for early childhood enrichment programs, which he believed would maximize children’s intellectual potential during its period of greatest malleability.

More recently several theories have emerged that portray intelligence as multifaceted. In 1983, Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner introduced his theory of multiple intelligences (MI). Based on his studies of stroke victims, savant syndrome, and lower animals, Gardner originally posited seven distinct domains of intelligence, each of which he believed had separate neural circuitry. He included linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences, later adding naturalistic and existential intelligences. Although Gardner’s MI theory has not yet been supported by research evidence, it has been widely embraced by educators, who design curriculum, lesson plans, and classrooms to address multiple intelligences in the children they teach.

In 1985, Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg introduced a triarchic theory of intelligence, which included three subtheories of intelligence: componential, experiential, and contextual. According to this theory, individuals with high componential intelligence think analytically and critically and therefore, achieve high scores on standardized tests; persons with high experiential intelligence process information more skillfully in novel situations, demonstrating creativity; and persons with high contextual intelligence are intelligent in a practical way, adapting to and shaping their environment. Sternberg believes that for most people contextual or practical intelligence may be more important for success in life than are the other two subtheories of intelligence.

Definitions of intelligent behavior vary according to culture. Some researchers have found that European American parents named cognitive abilities as most important to their conception of an intelligent child, whereas Mexican American parents rated social skills, and Asian parents rated motivation—the drive to do well—as highest in importance. In Brazil, the Flecheiros or Arrow People teach their sons to become deft archers to keep intruders away; a skilled archer is considered an intelligent person. In the United States, a child who is good at academics is considered intelligent. Sternberg addresses the different contexts of intelligent behavior in his triarchic theory.

Poverty severely depresses the intelligence scores of ethnic minority children in the United States. The longer children remain in impoverished environments, the greater the negative effects on their intelligence test scores. Early intervention programs such as Head Start were initiated in response to research on the importance of early experiences on children’s intellectual and social experiences. Other early intervention programs such as the Carolina Abecedarian Project have demonstrated that providing continuous high-quality early childhood experiences for the first five years of life is an effective way to help children avoid the declines in intelligence that come from being reared in impoverished environments.

Although the concept of intelligence is slippery, the study of intelligence is important to the field of Early Childhood Education for a number of reasons. First, the initial five years of life is the period of most rapid human development outside the womb. Early assessment allows professionals to identify infants and young children who may be at risk for developmental problems and to design and implement early intervention to maximize children’s potential while their brains are still plastic. Second, although we know that genetics contributes to intellectual potential, we have learned that the early caregiving environment is a powerful influence on intelligence and academic success. Appropriate early stimulation increases the number of synaptic connections in the cerebral cortex. In other words, early experiences grow the brain. Third, as teachers of young children become aware of the newer theories of intelligence, they can provide experiences to foster all the domains of intelligence. Fourth, the study of intelligence has prompted an appreciation for the diversity of intelligence existing in groups of young children, from those described as slower learners to the very gifted. Such understandings of intelligence have supported critics of a “one size fits all” standardized curriculum that does not meet the needs of young children. Fifth, the ability to reliably measure cognitive abilities has enabled researchers to conduct longitudinal studies of cognitive development. See also Intelligence Testing.

Further Readings: Berk, Laura E. (2003). Intelligence. Child development. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 310-351; Braun, Samuel J., and Esther P. Edwards (1972). History and theory of early childhood education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Gardner, Howard E. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books; Sternberg, Robert J., ed. (1994). Encyclopedia of human intelligence. New York: Macmillan; Sternberg, Robert J. (2000). Handbook of intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press; Storfer, Miles. D. (1990). Intelligence and giftedness: The contributions of heredity and early environment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Carol S. Huntsinger