Arthur Whimbey on Intelligence as a skill


Arthur Whimbey’s definition of intelligence:

“Intelligence in an attentional/processing skill used in analyzing and mentally reconstructing relations. The distinguishing feature of this skill is breaking down complex relations (or problems) into small steps that can be dealt with fully. The major components of the skill are extensive search and careful apprehension of all details relevant to the relation; thorough utilization of all available information including prior knowledge; accurate comparisons; and sequential, step-by-step analysis and construction.” – Arthur Whimbey, Intelligence can be Taught (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1975), 120.

Whimbey saw intelligence as a skill, a generalized skill. This is a notion I used to be thoroughly in disagreement with. Particularly after reading books by Howard Gardener, Geoff Colvin, and Eric Jensen. But, the more I think about it and the more of the data I review, it seems that intelligence is actually a generalized skill, but one which can be aimed at different perfecting multiple domains of knowledge and skill. Nevertheless, the process of learning intelligence or the genetics to start with it, must be there for various domains to be perfected.

Anyhow, Whimbey makes several recommendations for helping train people in the skill of intelligence or general reasoning. In no particular order here are some gems from his book:

  1. Low-aptitude students have a tendency to approach problems passively. This is a habit, not a permanent state of their brain. He notes two problems: they use “one-shot thinking rather than extended, sequential construction of understanding; and second, there is a willingness to allow gaps of knowledge to exist…” (pp 55).
    This attitude leads to more frustration when they see other students “get it” and they don’t. The problem is that these students do not have a habit of thinking about problems. The solution is, apparently, to give them examples of thinking through problems out loud then ask them to imitate with the same problem and then with similar ones.

  2. Many students who cannot read well (this is back in 1975) simply were not taught using a phonics based approach (73-74). They cannot “decode” symbols into sounds. This is bad. They assume that since they have not seen the word (a sight-words approach) that they do not know how it sounds. This too, is a problem that can be fixed. I have heard otherwise intelligent adults with no reading disabilities struggle to read words with three or four syllables. This, in my estimation, can be traced to either a lack of phonics training or poor enforcement of phonics skills over time. If a young person gets away with parroting and faking at reading for just one year (which is easy to do in a class full of kids) then they could be perpetually behind.

  3. It is actually important to vocalize when you read.

  4. Though teachers are responsible to aim to engender an active approach to the external and internal world in their students it seems that book implies that students have to take up the challenge.