Primary and Secondary Intellectual Abilities in Adolescence

Primary intellectual abilities include number skills, word fluency, verbal understanding, inductive reasoning, and spatial orientation. These abilities improve until early middle age, and then begin to decline. There are cohort patterns where strength of primary abilities are concerned – for example, our grandparents were better at math than we are because they had less access to calculators. This suggests that development of primary abilities is very much influenced by practice.

Secondary abilities, which organize primary abilities, include fluid intelligence (flexibility, adaptiveness and relational thinking), and crystallized intelligence (breadth of knowledge.) Fluid intelligence declines with age, but crystallized intelligence is enhanced by life experiences and education, and therefore improves over the life span.

Because there are patterns of increase and decline in these abilities, we should not expect people of different ages to possess the same levels of ability. For example, when I first started teaching English to Anglophones (as opposed to ESL), I expected my students to have much stronger word fluency, verbal understanding, and inductive reasoning skills than they did. Over the years I’ve come to realize that most teenagers are still developing these skills and cannot be expected to perform at adult levels. I also often forget that a lot of the crystallized knowledge I take for granted consists of things that my eighteen-year-old students haven’t been exposed to or haven’t absorbed. Being aware and accepting of where students are at in terms of their intellectual development is essential if a teacher wants to reach them successfully.

It is useless to get frustrated with a student who is unable to process certain information or who cannot grasp certain procedural instructions. The best we can do is to make our way backward to a place where they can understand, and then try to build on that in small ways in order to help them move forward.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)

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