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Culture, Cognition, and Intelligence
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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There seems to exist an implicit assumption that, inasmuch as teaching and learning concern the transfer and assimilation of knowledge and skills by persons equipped to do so, the assessment process involves sampling the pool of knowledge, skill, and competence. This assumption is based on the further belief that if one can produce evidence of having mastered the assimilated knowledge and skill on demand, one not only knows but also can put these abilities to use whenever they are required. Nevertheless, this conception of knowledge and its assessment falls short of the mark, as it ignores the fact that the traditional assessment process is heavily dependent on the ability of the person being tested to recall and symbolically represent knowledge and to select iconic representations of skills (see Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol, 1998: xv-xvi for further details). In reality, one works with others in order to solve problems and often complements one's own knowledge and skill with those of others. Moreover, one actually engages in performances that contribute to the solution of real problems rather than producing symbolic samples of one's repertoire of developed abilities. As Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol (1998: xvi) assert, 'there is some dissonance between what we typically do in the assessment of intellect and the ways in which humans exercise intellective functions in real life'. In the present paper, we shall discuss culture and cognition in relation to intelligence, trying to show that the latter does not rest on test scores but 'is a multifaceted set of abilities that can be enhanced depending on the social and cultural contexts in which it has been nurtured, crystallized, and ultimately assessed' (ibid.: 129).

Culture and Cognition

Human cognition relates to, and describes, the mental activities that manipulate, translate, and transform, as it were, information represented in any modality. Thus, it can turn verbal information into spatial representation or pictorial information into numerical representation. Furthermore, the more commonly cited cognitions involved in intellectual activities are those related to short- and long-term memory, comprehension, vocabulary, reasoning, visual processing, auditory processing, and speed of processing. An important proviso is that all these cognitions do not function in isolation but depend, in part, on certain kinds of experiences in contexts for their expression and development.

Conceptions of culture

According to the historian Stocking (1968), the modern concept of culture emerged at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The research of early anthropologists through their field studies of cultural groups the world over sought to pinpoint the factors responsible for variation in thinking among various groups. In cross-cultural psychology, a widely cited definition of culture put forth by Geertz (1973: 89) is as follows: '[Culture is an] historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life'. According to Geertz, culture and cognition are inseparable, and it seems that this notion of inseparability is widely shared by cultural psychologists nowadays. Geertz held that the human brain is thoroughly dependent upon culture for its very operation. Gordon (1991: 101) has extended Geertz's notion of culture to include 'structured relationships, which are reflected in institutions, social status, and ways of doing things, and objects that are manufactured or created such as tools, clothing, architecture, and interpretative and representational art'. Besides, in an attempt to portray culture as an overarching construct in the lives of any social group, Gordon (1991) conceives it as a multidimensional construct comprising at least five dimensions: a) the judgmental or normative, b) the cognitive, c) the affective, d) the skill, and e) the technological (for further details, see Gordon and Armour-Thomas, 1991).

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