Cognitive Ability is Plural

Updated: Dec 11, 2019


Many of us grew up believing we were born with an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and that we were graced with cognitive ability at birth, or not. That notion is still quite present today, even among both general and special education teachers.

Today, though, we are understanding more about cognitive abilities. Plural. You can find a few psychological theorist models for this with one popular model being the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory.

Regardless of the model, though, it becomes clear that cognitive ability is more complex than simply an intelligence quotient. It also becomes easier to see how we can each have relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Our experiences with these abilities, especially in younger children and the elderly, also demonstrate that these things can change over time.

With these understandings, the need for a personal learning approach becomes obvious. The unique cognitive profiles in a classroom are as many as there are learners, with each learner bringing strengths to bear. Each learner will think differently and process at differing rates.

Learning experiences need to be designed to accommodate these differences. Teaching to a standard or a skill isn’t sufficient. This assumes all learners learn in the same way and at the same rate. Traditional approaches of insisting same age students are all taught the same thing on the same day in the same way may be the greatest malpractice in schools today. In addition to learners needing to be taught in their Zone of Proximal Development, they also need to be supported in the ways they are thinking about information. This supports the case for learning trajectories. For more on this topic, see

Ultimately, educators need to be researchers…researching each learner in their sphere of influence. Educators know the importance of building relationships with learners and that to build a relationship you have to know about the learner. And, knowing about the learner means more than knowing a name and other facts. It means knowing someone’s likes and dislikes, passions, dreams, fears, and so on. Similarly, educators need to be researchers of how learners think. This involves knowing their relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses and constantly asking learners to share their thought processes in the moment. In this way, educators can correct misunderstandings quickly and stimulate the thinking to move the learner on to the next level of understanding.

Learning. It’s personal.

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