Developing practical intelligence for school

Research in thinking skills led Wendy M. Williams and Robert J. Sternberg, Yale University, to study how certain kinds of lessons can help children make the most of their abilities. Through observations conducted during their Practical Intelligence for School project, the following guidelines were shown to have significant impact on children’s development and potential for success:

1. Teach children that the main limitation on what they can do is what they tell themselves they can’t do. Children can do pretty much what they make up their minds to do. Tell children they have the ability to meet most challenges. What they need to decide is how hard they are willing to work to meet these challenges.

2. Remember that it is more important for children to learn what questions to ask and how to ask them than to learn the answers to questions. Do not encourage students to view the teacher as the one who should ask questions and the child as the one to answer them, or to believe that the teacher’s role is to teach them facts. What matters most is not the facts children know, but rather their ability to use those facts. The ability to ask good questions can be either fostered or stifled by teachers.

How teachers respond to children’s questions is important; one kind of response is helpful while another is less helpful in developing their thinking ability. Williams and Sternberg describe a hierarchy of responses adults exhibit when responding to children’s questions. The authors stress that adults need no special abilities to be helpful to children, just an affirming attitude. The lowest-level response is a rejection of the child’s question, such as “Be quiet!”, “Don’t ask so many questions,” or “Don’t bother me.”

Only slightly less hurtful, the adult may answer, but in a meaningless way such as rephrasing the question as a statement. Slightly better would be a direct response or an admission of ignorance. A more helpful response is to seek the answer through another authority, for example by showing the child that you can find the answer to questions by looking them up. A more stimulating response is to explore various explanations with the child. In addition, demonstrating how to evaluate various explanations and following through to gather more information to distinguish between explanations actively encourages thinking skills in children.

3. Help children find what really excites them, bearing in mind that it may not be what really excites you or what you wish would really excite them. Williams and Sternberg warn that helping children find what they really love to do can be frustrating for adults who mistakenly encourage children to choose something they believe the child should want to do rather than what the child really wants to do. People who really excel in life are almost always people who love what they do.

4. Encourage children to take sensible intellectual risks. This means helping children develop a sense of when to take risks. Risks often involve the possibility of making a mistake in public. Since we learn from mistakes, a child who is afraid to risk making a mistake, will not be fully engaged in learning. Developing a tolerance for failure is associated with higher achievement. Children need safe environments in which they won’t be ridiculed by peers or adults for wrong answers. Children who believe that intelligence is a fixed entity one is born with also try to avoid mistakes and are embarrassed when they fail because they believe it is a reflection of their intelligence. When children develop a concept of intelligence that is incremental — that intelligence is increased as we learn and experience the world — they can regard mistakes as a natural condition of learning.

5. Teach children to take responsibility for themselves — both for their successes and for their failures. Do not allow children to look for an outside “enemy” who is responsible for their failures. Refrain from constant urging since this communicates that the child is not self-motivated. Help children develop their own internal motivation. One way to develop this inner sense is to serve as a role model for it. Nudging a child when required can be successful if he is not pushed constantly. When you give children tasks to do, expect them to do the work adequately and not just to get by with the minimum.

6. Teach children how to delay gratification, to be able to wait for rewards. Emphasize the long term; don’t give immediate rewards or allow children to expect immediate rewards. Teach children that the most important factors in becoming an expert in anything are hard work and practice. Hard work is risky, because there is no guarantee that it will yield results. By working on a tangible task for many weeks or months, children learn the value of making daily incremental efforts.

7. Teach children to put themselves in another’s place. Teach children the importance of understanding, respecting and responding to others’ points of view. Many bright children never succeed in life because they never develop practical intelligence. They do well in school and on tests, but they never learn how to get along with others and especially to see things as others see them. Williams and Sternberg write that we need to pay special attention to these issues with boys, because on average, girls tend to be more sensitive to feelings and to understand them better than boys do. Defensiveness impedes intellectual development. Children need to learn that criticisms can be constructive and can be used to our advantage. Advise them to think about criticisms before rejecting them.


“Seven Lessons for Helping Children Make the Most of Their Abilities”, Educational Psychology, Volume 13, No. 3 &4, pp.317-331.

Published in ERN May/June 1994, Volume 7, Number 3.

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