The Role of Context in Shaping Cognitive Development

I'm a great believer in the wide-ranging, and widely-underestimated, effects of context - on all manner of things. I'm also a fan of the view that intelligence - so widely regarded as a fixed attribute - is also partly influenced by context. So I was pleased to see an article by Stephen Ceci - intelligence guru - discussing the role of context in cognitive development, and the implications of that for education.

Stephen Ceci at This View of Life:

When it comes to mental ability, many of our human talents were shaped by evolutionary forces that arose under the demanding conditions of life on the African savannah 35,000 to 50,000 years ago. Evolutionary psychologists have linked many of our current attributes to these earlier environmental challenges faced by our predecessors (Kanazawa, 2005). This much is noncontroversial. What is less agreed upon, however, is the extent to which present-day cognition is under the control of local conditions—that is, the specific physical, motivational, and psychological conditions under which humans attempt to solve problems. The argument I am making is that it is logically unsafe to claim that our successful performance on cognitive tasks today reflects our evolutionary preparation because the flip side is that our unsuccessful performance reflects our lack of evolutionary preparation—which may be wrong. In fact, a great deal of developmental research demonstrates that even when evolution has prepared us to undertake certain cognitive operations, successful performance depends on local conditions.


Educational implications. The goal of education is not to drum facts and concepts into children, but to create awareness of how these facts and concepts can be generalized to situations that differ from the ones used to teach them. Thus, the key is transferring knowledge from the contexts used to teach it to ones encountered outside of school. And yet, a great deal of empirical research has documented that young and old, high IQ and low IQ, schooled and unschooled, all fail to transfer learning to new contexts that differ from the context in which they were originally taught (e.g., Ceci, 1996; Leshowitz, 1989). The research described here suggests that context is a constituent of cognition, not something adjunctive or peripheral to it. This view of cognition-in-context has several implications for education.

View of Life article