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Practical Intelligence

Originally prepared by: John Meunier (fall 2003)

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Biographical Background
Theoretical Overview
Tacit Knowledge 

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Robert J. Sternberg proposes three intelligences in human cognition.

  • Analytical intelligence is the ability to analyze and evaluate ideas, solve problems and make decisions.
  • Creative intelligence involves going beyond what is given to generate novel and interesting ideas.
  • Practical intelligence is the ability that individuals use to find the best fit between themselves and the demands of the environment.

The three intelligences, or as he also calls them three abilities, comprise what Sternberg calls Successful Intelligence: "the integrated set of abilities needed to attain success in life, however an individuals defines it, within his or her sociocultural context."

Sternberg's attempts to establish the validity of practical intelligence as a construct have yielded significant empirical work and criticism. As such, it provides a window on the issues and ideas at the core of this debate.

Biographical Background
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To understand this concept, it is important to understand how it is different from some traditional concepts of intelligence. Sternberg fought his first IQ test as a young elementary student. By his own story, he lost (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000). A victim of test anxiety, he was saddled with a low IQ score early in school. His teachers read his test score and for the first three years of his school career expected little of him. It was only the intervention of a fourth grade teacher who discounted tests that set him on the path to high achievement and success.

Now the IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University, Sternberg still battles against the hegemony of g-centric theories of intelligence.

Theoretical Overview
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Fundamental to Sternberg's theory of intelligence is the idea that intelligences are developing abilities rather than fixed characteristics of an individual (Sternberg, 1998). Traditional definitions of intelligence conceptualize one general factor of intelligence called g - which is measured by IQ tests and similar standardized tests such as the SAT. This general factor is presumed to remain essentially constant throughout an adult life.

Although this definition has wide currency in psychology and popular culture (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), it is not universally accepted by intelligence theorists and researchers. Evidence that g has risen globally over several decades (see related Hot Topic about the Flynn Effect)and that intelligent performance is highly influenced by context have led some psychologists to argue that intelligence should be rethought as a performance or ability to perform that is comprised of many factors outside the mental processing inside a person's head.

Sternberg argues not only that intelligence is a developing and context dependent notion, but also that traditional measures of intelligence such as IQ tests capture only a part of what it means to be intelligent, which he defines as the ability to adapt flexibly and effectively to the environment. More than mere analytical ability, humans need creative and practical abilities to succeed in their life pursuits.

Tacit Knowledge
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To measure practical intelligence, Sternberg relies on a concept called tacit knowledge (Sternberg et al., 2000). As the name implies, tacit knowledge is knowledge that is hard to express in words. Sternberg posits three characteristics of tacit knowledge.

  • It is procedural rather than factual, which means it is knowledge about how to do something rather than knowledge about something.
  • It is usually learned without the help of others or explicit instruction.
  • It is knowledge about things that personally important to the learner.

Sternberg has developed domain-specific tests of tacit knowledge that are based on situations that an individual might face in the real world. Those who answer more like experts and leaders in their fields are judged to have acquired more tacit knowledge in that domain. Sternberg has argued that tacit knowledge tests are better predictors of career success than measures of g or at least the best secondary predictors of career success after taking g into account. People who are more skilled at acquiring tacit knowledge, he asserts, do better in a variety of fields including sales, business management, academic psychology, and military leadership.

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Criticisms and theoretical challenges to the construct of practical intelligence come from several sources.

  • Sternberg himself has been vague in his explication of the terms and somewhat loose in his usage.
  • Sternberg also acknowledges that further theoretical work is required to answer such basic questions as how tacit knowledge is acquired, whether the ability that leads to its acquisition can be taught, or if practical intelligence is a general ability that one brings to different contexts or is determined completely in terms of the specific domains in which a person acquires tacit knowledge (Sternberg et al., 2000; Torff & Sternberg, 1998; Wagner & Sternberg, 1986).
  • Critics argue that his tests of tacit knowledge do not demonstrate the strong empirical support he claims (Gottfredson, 2001). At least one research group sympathetic to the theory has concluded that the test is reliable but not a valid measure of success (Taub, Hayes, Cunningham, & Sivo, 2001).
  • g-theorists have argued that practical intelligence is little more than job knowledge and can be explained better by traditional definitions of intelligence (Jensen, 1993; Ree & Earles, 1993; Schmidt & Hunter, 1993).
  • Situated cognition theorists have used some of the same research as Sternberg to argue that intelligence is not a characteristic of people, but rather a potential for intelligence performance that is embedded in specific situations (Barab & Plucker, 2002).

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Barab, S. A., & Plucker, J. A. (2002). Smart people or smart contexts? Cognition, ability, and talent development in an age of situated approaches to knowing and learning. Educational Psychologist, 37(3), 165-182.

Gottfredson, L. S. (2001). Book Review: Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life. Intelligence, 29, 363-365.

Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New York: Free Press.

Jensen, A. R. (1993). Test validity: g versus "tacit knowledge". Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 9-10.

Ree, M. J., & Earles, J. A. (1993). g is to psychology what carbon is to chemistry: A reply to Sternberg and Wagner, McClelland, and Calfee. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 11-12.

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1993). Tacit knowledge, practical intelligence, general mental ability and job knowledge. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 8-9.

Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Abilities are forms of developing expertise. Educational Researcher, 27(3), 11-20.

Sternberg, R. J., Forsythe, G. B., Hedlund, J., Horvath, J. A., Wagner, R. K., Williams, W. M., et al. (2000). Practical intelligence in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence: To increase student learning and achievement. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Professional Development.

Taub, G. E., Hayes, B. G., Cunningham, W. R., & Sivo, S. A. (2001). Relative roles of cognitive ability and practical intelligence in the prediction of success. Psychological Reports, 88, 931-942.

Torff, B., & Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Changing mind, changing world: practical intelligence and tacit knowledge in adult learning. In M. C. Smith & T. Pourchot (Eds.), Adult learning and development: Perspectives from educational psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wagner, R. K., & Sternberg, R. J. (1986). Tacit knowledge and intelligence in the everyday world. In R. J. Sternberg & R. K. Wagner (Eds.), Practical intelligence: Nature and origins of competence in the everyday world (pp. 51-83). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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