Teachers often ask me what it means when a student scores poorly on the Verbal Comprehension Index of the WISC-IV (or a similar scale on another IQ test). The simple answer is that the scores don’t tell anything specific about how a student will perform in the classroom. However, classic intelligence theory claims that low Verbal Comprehension Index scores are an indication of poor crystallised knowledge.
Crystallised knowledge can be thought of as the information one acquires from one’s cultural and educational environment. There is an overlap between crystallised knowledge and semantic language skills. It develops largely as a result of formal and informal educational experiences and acquisition of this knowledge is heavily influenced by oral language skills and reading ability (Horn, 1994).
When students have a lot of crystallised information in their ‘mental hard-drive’, they not only make a good quiz teammate, but they are at an advantage when required to learn new information. This is because new learning is usually facilitated by prior knowledge (Engle, 1994). For example, it is much easier to learn about the concept of division when one already knows about multiplication. Likewise, it is easier to learn how to use an Apple computer if one is already skilled at operating a PC.
The student with a lot of crystallised information is also at an advantage when they have to perform higher-order reasoning functions. For example, it is hard to decipher the meaning of the first sentence below if one does not have prior knowledge of the Greek legend of Dionysius and the Sword of Damocles.
(a) The threat hung over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
Likewise, one would have dififuclty understanding the second sentence below if one was not previously aware of the fact that La Paz is situated at high altitude and that flying into an area of high altitude without acclimatising is likely to lead to a mild bout of altitude sickness, a symptom of which is often a massive headache.
(b) Tom spent two days in bed after flying into La Paz eating Aspirin like Jelly Beans.
Prior knowledge is vital for classroom learning. For example, a student may not be able to understand a lesson on Hannibal’s role in the fall of Rome without prior knowledge of Hannibal, his elephants, and the Roman Empire. Lack of vocabulary (lexical knowledge) or in the depth and breadth of content (general knowledge) will also adversely affect written expression.
Other difficulties experienced by students who lack crystallised knowledge include reading comprehension problems despite having adequate word-reading skills. These students typically understand the ‘bare bones’ of the story. They can often retell the story, and they may be able to recall information that has been explicitly referred to in the story. However, they may not be able to draw meaningful connections to background knowledge and to draw inferences, both of which are crucial to developing the situation model upon which real understanding is based. Students with adequate general knowledge, but poor vocabulary may read and understand well when they are reading about familiar topics. However, their comprehension suffers when reading about novel topics or when the text contains unfamiliar words.
Instructional strategies that may be useful include:
Students need to be able to regulate arousal levels to ensure optimal learning or task performance. Students who have weak mental energy control may simply lack the stamina required to maintain optimal behaviour/learning. Their mental energy may be hard to start up and once started, used up quickly. They may also waste energy on irrelevant details.
Students with reduced alertness can find their class experience tedious. They experience mental fatigue and/or boredom when they try to concentrate. As a result of being tuned out, they tend to miss the beginnings and ends of statements or directions.
These students are frequently misunderstood. They can be accused of not trying or laziness. Their inconsistency is particularly puzzling and frustrating.
How to help at home
Managing weak mental energy control in the classroom
The autism spectrum includes a number of conditions including Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s. In this post I will use the term autism.
There seems to be controversy about whether autism is a disorder of development and therefore represents a bunch of abnormal characteristics or whether it is a separate cognitive phenotype that represents a different way of communicating and interacting with the world. It may be that autism researchers still need to answer this question. However, as a clinician I prefer the latter concept because it allows autism to be “sold” much more positively. Michelle Dawson’s blog provides good examples of a positive world view of autism.
This blog aims to provide a brief summary of some of the cognitive characteristics that are common in autism. It is by no means an exhaustive list. I have selected some of those things I have seen in autists that are most relevant for the education content.
Theory of Mind
Autists are described as having poor “theory of mind”. Essentially, this means that they have difficulty understanding other peoples’ perspectives or “getting inside their heads”. Another way of putting it that seems to appeal to some individuals with autism is that they lack “social recognition software”. They lack the ability to recognise social situations and what is going on in those situations, what the appropriate responses to people might be, and the awareness of why people respond to their behaviour in certain ways.
As a consequence, individuals with autism or those with milder characteristics may not respond as well to praise or punishment in the classroom. Those with learning difficulties often detest being asked to repeat things, particularly in intervention-type programmes. Rather than recognising that the teacher may be asking them to ‘try again’ because it will help them learn, the child with autism may consider the teacher’s motives to be more sinister (i.e., “She thinks I’m dumb” or “She’s a mean person”). Equally, educators can sometimes be shocked or upset when the child with autism does not respond as expected to praise. For example, after finding out that the child has worked hard over a fortnight and can now do long division, we might get a bit excited and expect the child to look and sound proud and happy. Sometimes though, the child will look at the adult as if they are stupid or even with disgust. You might imagine that they are thinking, “Of course I can do it. Do you think I’m stupid?”
Some people have difficulty being flexible and creative in their thinking. They tend to develop one method of doing things and they stick to it even when it doesn’t always result in success. Note that the existence of cognitive inflexibility in autism is controversial.
Fact vs. Fiction
Many individuals with autism are oriented towards fact rather than fiction. They may not see the point in reading about or discussing fictitious material. This inclination can have positives and negatives in the classroom.
Specialist vs. Generalist
There are some people in the world who are what we call generalists. They are reasonably good at most things and take a broad interest in the world. Other people, including many individuals with autism, are more specialised in their orientation. Both are valid: can you imagine a world without Van Gogh, Hans Christian Anderson, or Bill Gates? All are people who have developed a specialty or have been consumed by a particular area of interest.
The trick in the classroom is that it is a place built for generalists. The specialist is disadvantaged until they can leave school and focus attention on their specialty.
Concept vs. Detail
Conceptual development is an important part of social and academic learning. Concepts help us cut through detail and to focus on the big picture. They also help as a way of subsuming a whole bunch of details under a single idea. In both ways, concepts facilitate problem solving. For example, many of us have some kind of social concept that describes the key elements of a social interaction. Subsumed under that concept are examples of social interactions (e.g., good and bad) and the elements that are characteristic of each (e.g., smiling, eye contact, asking questions vs. creeping away from you, scowl on face). This system allows us to focus on the overall interaction rather than the detail, while at the same time allowing us to recognise when something is awry and how we may go about resolving that problem.
Other people find it hard to learn concepts. These people might be described as not being able to “see the trees for the wood”. They focus on detail at the expense of the big picture. They tend to learn detail without understanding how the details are related (i.e., part of a concept). They may also dogmatically apply a rule or concept to situations incorrectly because they don’t truly understand the rule. That is, it affects their reasoning.
For example, Teddy is a 6-year old who has been taught that the sun can burn you and that we should wear a hat and sunscreen when we go outside. He now gets distressed every time he goes outside without sun protection because he might “burn up” – this even if he is to be outside for the briefest of times. Teddy has also covered his west-facing window because he thought it was going to be burned by the afternoon sun.
David is a twelve-year old who has a special interest in zoology. He can talk for hours about wolves; what they look like, what they eat, and unusually, their social habits, and their motives for social behaviour. However, he has little knowledge of how wolves and their social behaviour share similarities to humans; nor in fact does he care much. David will probably be a good candidate for a PhD in zoology on pack animals but may find it more difficult to cope with the generalist demands of High School biology.
Literal vs. Figurative
Individuals with autism interpret language literally. They can have great difficulty with figurative language (e.g., “he was as red as a beetroot”; “the grass was singed to the colour of gold”) and with drawing inferences when reading or listening. Hence, they are oriented towards factual texts that inevitably contain little ‘flowery’ language or need to develop sophisticated inferences.
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in response to threatening or challenging situations. The anxious response can range from mild physiological symptoms such as rapid breathing and heart rate through to panic attacks. Anxiety becomes a problem when it is chronic and out of proportion to the threat or challenge.
Causes of anxiety
There are likely to be numerous factors involved in causing anxiety. It is also likely that most individuals will experience a different mix of causal factors, which may include genetic factors, unique life experiences, disruption of neurochemicals in the brain, personality, and individual behavioural and thinking styles.
In most cases it is useful to consider that anxiety results from one’s perception of a situation, rather than the situation per se. Imagine yourself in a room with Steve Irwin (the late, great Crocodile Hunter) and a brown snake. Your response may be an initial perception of extreme threat, followed by intense fear and physiological reactions such as increased automatic nervous system responses (e.g., heart rate, breathing, blood rushing from the extremities to the vital organs), followed by a behavioural response such as running from the room. That your physiological and emotional responses diminish once you are safely outside the room reinforces the idea in your mind that snakes are inherently dangerous creatures and that when one sees a snake one needs to run away. In contrast, Steve’s perception of the same situation would most likely have prompted excitement and a strong desire to touch and look more closely at a beautiful animal. His successful behavioural response reinforces his idea that snakes are animals requiring respect but that he is competent to deal with their threat. The same situation, but very different emotion and behaviour. This example shows that it is the perception of the situation that is most important, not the situation itself.
Perhaps a more correct way of putting is that it is the learning experiences one has had in certain situations that are most important. Steve Irwin was born with the inbuilt human trait to fear the unknown. Therefore the first time he saw a snake he would have experienced the same burst of fear as the typical person. However, because of his exposure to the animals and because he learned to handle them competently he also learned not to fear them. In contrast, many people fear snakes despite having never seen one “in the wild”. One could argue that their fear is a ‘failure of learning’ because they have not yet learned that snakes can be avoided or handled competently. Therefore, their default response is the inbuilt human flight mechanism.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can be acute (as in the snake example above) or a pattern of chronic worrying. Physiological and behavioural symptoms include:
When symptoms reach a level of frequency and intensity that interferes with daily functioning (i.e., it creates impairment in job, school or interpersonal functioning) the patient may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or which there are several, including:
Evidence-based treatment tends to differ between the different anxiety disorders. However, all good clinicians will use a combination of some of the following:
A psychotherapist or a GP who specialises in mental health is usually necessary to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders. Still, there are many things that the patient can do to help themselves.
Take part in a pleasant activity every day.
Increase gentle exercise.
Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.
Improve time-management skills.
Rather than pressuring yourself to finish jobs, set a time limit on your work and try to be satisfied with doing a good job within that period.
Scores on tests of cognitive abilities, including IQ scores, account for only 45-50% of the variance in academic performance. So half or more of the individual variation in academic skills is accounted for by other factors. Other factors that seem to be important for learning are emotional states, the way one thinks in a particular situation and one’s prior learning experiences within a particular situation or with a particular task.
Affective factors refer to emotional states and those aspects of thinking that are devoted to perceptions or thoughts about yourself and how you think other people perceive you. Affective factors that seem to be important for learning include:
How to help