Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Uta Frith on school intelligence vs. world intelligence

From a passage in "Autism: Explaining the Enigma" (second edition, 2003) that I recently assigned to my class:

For success in a test situation, it is necessary to be accustomed to the idea of solving problems outside their real-life context. This idea is vigorously promoted by schooling. Schooling normally provides the opportunity to work on problems for their own sake and to acquire seemingly useless knowledge. The result is what we might call school intelligence, the opposite of world intelligence...I assume that formal education, like autism, enables people to disregard context and solve problems in their own right. Presumably, explicit teaching fosters the latent abilities of abstraction in the human brain. In contrast, the harsh "school of life" may suppress these latent abilities and foster the situation-dependent solution of practical problems.
Normal children everywhere do well when they understand and take account of context. This is not the case with autism. Here we have evidence of an unusual ability to disregard context. The ability to entertain a thought out of context (disembodied thought) is also typical of school learning. Consider the acquisition of literacy. When becoming literate the child must learn to free language from its embeddedness in everyday situations so as to achieve the ability to look at the sound of speech and its relationship to letters. Aspects of the words such as their sound structure are quite separate from their meaning but must be attended to in their own right when learning the rudiments of spelling.
Uta Frith is an accomplished autism researcher and a perceptive and thoughtful writer. But this passage suggests it's been a while since she's stepped inside a classroom. With the rise of balanced literacy, text-to-self inferences, real-world problems, real-life application, and implicit teaching, "school intelligence" and "world intelligence" are merging.

As Frith's observations about autistic learners suggest, all this particularly disadvantages students on the autistic spectrum. It's just that she doesn't recognize that it's actually happening.

One of Frith's observations has survived these changes: schools providing the opportunity to acquire "seemingly useless knowledge"--provided we replace "seemingly" with "actually."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I assume that formal education, like autism, enables people to disregard context and solve problems in their own right."

For some of us, formal education would be more enjoyable if this assumption were more correct. Unfortunately, you have to get very far along in education to get to the point where this is significantly true.