Adaptive Competence across Cultures and Subcultures

When we think about measuring intelligence, we often think of intelligence tests and their surrogates.  But is intelligence the same thing across cultures and subcultures, and if not, how would we measure it in different milieus?

In this program of research, my colleagues and I have applied the theory of successful intelligence and other theories across cultures and subcultures on five continents.  We have found that intelligence, defined as adaptive competence, cannot be understood or measured outside its cultural context.  There are several reasons for this.

First, different cultures and subcultures have different conceptions of what it means to be “smart.”  In studies of folk conceptions of intelligence, we have found that conceptions vary widely.  Even in the United States, conceptions extend beyond the conventional notion of IQ to include practical problem-solving skills and social competence.  In Taiwan, conceptions of intelligence include traditional abstract analytical abilities, but also encompass other skills, such as interpersonal competence, intrapersonal competence (understanding oneself), knowing when to show how smart you are, and knowing when not to show how smart you are.  In rural Kenya, conceptions are even more wide-ranging, including skills such as obedience and respect for others.

Second, a given test item may be the same in printed or oral form for members of different cultures or subcultures, but have different meanings for the various people.  For example, abstract reasoning skills are learned, primarily in Western schooling, so a geometric matrix problem will be much more familiar in kind for someone who has had Western schooling than for someone who has not.  What appears to be the same test item for two different people is not.

Third, children are enculturated and socialized in very different ways across cultures and subcultures.  In rural Alaska, navigation, hunting, and fishing skills may  be essential to survival and be crucial elements of adaptive competence.  In most of the continental USA, however, such skills are merely a luxury.

I am especially interested in applying some of these ideas to inner-city urban and remote rural regions of the United States.  In particular, I would like to show that the standardized tests we use are biased in favor of the backgrounds of the people who created the tests.  This is not to say that such tests are useless, but rather, that they do not tell us what we think they tell us.  We would learn more about students from different environments if we used tests that take into account the kinds of enculturation and socialization students have had.



Key References

Grigorenko, E. L., Geissler, P. W., Prince, R., Okatcha, F., Nokes, C., Kenny, D. A., Bundy, D. A., & Sternberg, R. J. (2001). The organization of Luo conceptions of intelligence: A study of implicit theories in a Kenyan village.  International Journal of Behavior Development, 25, 367-378.

Grigorenko, E. L., Meier, E., Lipka, J., Mohatt, G., Yanez, E., & Sternberg, R. J. (2004). Academic and practical intelligence: A case study of the Yup’ik in Alaska. Learning and Individual Differences, 14, 183–207.

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Sternberg, R. J., Grigorenko, E. L., Ngorosho, D., Tantufuye, E., Mbise, A., Nokes, C., Jukes, M., & Bundy, D. A. (2002). Assessing intellectual potential in rural Tanzanian school children. Intelligence, 30, 141–162.

Sternberg, R. J., Lipka, J., Newman, T., Wildfeuer, S., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2007). Triarchically-based instruction and assessment of sixth-grade mathematics in a Yup’ik cultural setting in Alaska. International Journal of Giftedness and Creativity, 21 (2), 6-19.

Sternberg, R. J., Nokes, K., Geissler, P. W., Prince, R., Okatcha, F., Bundy, D. A., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2001). The relationship between academic and practical intelligence: A case study in Kenya. Intelligence, 29, 401–418.

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