By Benjamin Hebebrand
Head of School, Quest Academy
The desire to see our students develop social competencies underscores a growing trend to define giftedness beyond traditional intelligence and creativity measures. In studying giftedness and intelligence, we have seen various giftedness/intelligence models evolve to the extent that there now is an abundance of models that include social and emotional competencies or intelligences.
One such model is Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory that beyond the traditional analytical/cognitive and creative attributes includes a component Sternberg calls practical intelligence.
“Practical intelligence involves individuals applying their abilities to the kinds of problems that confront them in daily life, such as on the job or in the home,” according to Sternberg’s article “The Theory of Successful Intelligence,” published in the 2005 Journal of Interamerican Psychology.
Without well developed practical intelligence, individuals with high analytical/cognitive or creative giftedness may not know how to publish their research, exhibit their artwork, or otherwise bring their creations to a public arena. In short, “they may fail in later transitions of giftedness because they are ineffective at promoting their own ideas,” according to Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education, a National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC) publication of 2008.
Another way of looking at this paradox is to examine the fine interplay between the domain and field in which one works. According to the renowned cognitive research scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a domain refers to “the kind of work one does (biological research, musical composition, etc.), whereas field refers to the social organization of the domain -- the entire network of people who both create and judge the products of creators.”
Practical intelligence is divided into three specific applications of adaptation, shaping, and selection, according to Sternberg:
1) Adaptation occurs when the individual changes oneself to fit the environment or the specific field of one’s domain.
2) Shaping is the reverse process of adaptation in that one changes the environment to suit oneself.
3) Selection may occur when neither adaptation nor shaping deliver results. and therefore one “seeks out another environment that is a better match to one’s needs, abilities, and desires.”
According to Sternberg, “people differ in their balance of adaptation, shaping, and selection, and in the competence with which they balance among the three possible courses of action.”
Sternberg relates practical intelligence to the notion of tacit knowledge -- not necessarily “street smarts,” but certainly akin to that idea. Tacit knowledge may best be understood as “what one needs to know in order to work effectively in an environment that one is not explicitly taught and that often is not even verbalized.”
While our schools greatly emphasize and offer social opportunities, we rarely invest deliberate efforts to teach for practical intelligence. It is as if we assume that practical intelligence is fostered by osmosis -- exposure to social activities will somehow teach assimilation.
I believe that practical intelligence can be deliberately fostered (i.e. taught), preferably integrated into the analytical and creative learning offered in a classroom. Teaching practical intelligence should not just be the domain of school psychologists or counselors, but rather it should be included -- or better yet -- integrated into the curriculum.
Literature and social studies offer wonderful opportunities. At our school, Quest Academy, a school committed to meet the needs of gifted students, specific learning simulations take place to help students better understand historical events such as “Immigrants Arriving at Ellis Island,” or “Pilgrims Crossing the Ocean on the Mayflower.” These simulations are not limited to a few class periods but rather extensive periods, during which students often journal from the perspective of their historical character. Certainly, we can see how Sternberg’s idea of “adaptation” is being presented to students (how do I as an Irish immigrant adapt to life in the United States?). Certain “Explorer” units, specifically future scenarios such as settling the moon may require students to think in Sternberg’s “shaping” mode i.e. how can I change the environment to suit my needs. Within the study of literature, it may prove helpful to engage kids to identify characters that remind students of oneself or others -- again with the goal of helping students achieve practical intelligence. The beauty, of course, is that these learning activities are also fostering analytical and creative intelligences. In combination, they amount to "teaching for successful intelligence," as the NAGC publication "Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education" states.