by Kevin Akers
I recently finished reading What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought by Keith Stanovich, and as an educator I feel the book is a very worthwhile read for educators at any level. I am an elementary K – 5 music teacher, and I feel that the book certainly applies to my job as well as to those in secondary and post secondary education. As the title indicates, Stanovich presents a very strong case that intelligence tests measure only a portion of cognitive functioning and that a separate test can and should be created that measures rationality. Although this is the premise of the book, I think that the most valuable aspects of the book for primary and secondary educators are the discussions about how poor thinking (or avoiding thinking) leads to irrational behavior and how rational thinking can be learned.
The opening chapters define intelligence and rationality and describes in detail a model of the mind that has three processes: autonomous, algorithmic, and reflective. This model builds on the research of other cognitive scientists and it was about at this point in the book that I began to realize something that I think is vital for educators; the book is based on evidence gathered from well done scientific studies. Stanovich cites a long list of research along with his own research and analysis. In my undergraduate and graduate studies some (many?) of the textbooks, educational theories, and speakers that were used in my classes were based on poorly controlled studies or worse – just opinion, “Hey I taught 25+ years and it worked for me!”
I have been told, and in fact it is written directly on my evaluation instrument, that I should be using research based instruction. I think this is a great idea and means that at least in my school system there is a focus on it, but I wonder how often educators at all levels, primary, secondary, and especially post secondary consider how much evidence there is for their teaching related beliefs.
This brings me to the rest of the book – having really already fully made his point that intelligence tests are inadequate for completely measuring cognitive ability and that we don't need to broaden the definition of intelligence, Stanovich lays out thinking errors that lead to irrationality in the other chapters. The list of thinking errors is very detailed, and I can almost visualize the poster hanging in a classroom listing them. Stanovich does not suggest a curriculum for incorporating rational thinking in this book, but he does say that improving rational thinking seems to be more “malleable” than improving intelligence. I would suggest then that a good first step in improving the rationality of students would be to improve the rationality of teachers! I am not in any way trying to talk down teachers – after all, as Stanovich points out there are a great many highly educated, highly intelligent people that are not rational. He also points out that it is a virtual mathematical certainty that in any group of highly educated people, and I am including teachers here, there will be irrational people, and this means that it is likely that their instruction, at least in some part, is not research based. After all, one part of being rational is holding beliefs that are evidence based, and I think it is safe to say that this includes a person's beliefs about education and how they teach.
If I had read this book before I started my undergraduate studies, I think I would have been better equipped to question the educational theories, textbooks, etc. that were put before me and I think that is the value in this book specifically for teachers. Teachers that have a good rationality quotient (when a test is created that measures it!) will be well equipped to consider scientifically the huge amount of teaching materials that are created for them each school year. There is a also a benefit to teaching students to be more rational and, at least in Kentucky, it is already popular in the school curriculum. Critical thinking, relating content to real life situations, and good decision making skills are all very popular in the curriculum and directly related to rational thinking. Stanovich discusses how marketing takes advantage of errors in rational thinking and this is a part of the current practical living curriculum as well. Finally, students that go on to college from high school that enter the medical field, and really any field, will need to have a strong grasp on scientific thinking, research methodology, and other skills that are strongly related to rational thinking.
In summary, What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought is a valuable book for improving good rational thinking skills. The premise of the book, that intelligence tests do not adequately measure all aspects of cognitive functioning, is very strongly supported. The more valuable part of the book for me and I would think for other educators as well, however, is the discussion on how to think rationally and how to avoid thinking irrationally. There is much to be learned here for teachers, and then for their students.