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Intellectual Development in Adulthood
Rhonda L. Munford
Department of Psychology
I. Objectives II. Intellectual Development III.Changes in Intellectual Development
IV. Mental Stimulation V. Related Activities
I. Session Objectives
To introduce intelligence and intellectual development from the psychometric and contextual perspectives
To facilitate discussion on evidence regarding cognitive decline and cognitive growth.
To introduce one practical application of research on cognitive growth in adulthood and contribute further support that development and learning are lifelong processes.
Time: One 50-minute class period
The following section provides lecture topics and supporting information designed to expand the current view of intellectual development in adulthood. We have all heard the cliche, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Unfortunately, this longstanding view of human capacity has had seriously negative implications for how we think about "being smart" across the lifespan. The topics and activities associated with this session are aimed at helping students discover their own views as well as debunking any myths associated with those views.
b. Topic Outline
II. Intellectual Development:
Moving from Psychometrics to Context
Activity/ At the close of the preceding session (approximately 5-10
minutes prior to the end of class), pass out an activity sheet that you will need to
develop. There will be three versions of the activity sheet (but, students should not know
this). The activity sheet could be a half sheet of paper that has the following
instructions--"Take a minute or two and write down the first three terms or words
that come to mind when you hear the terms "intellectual development and
__________________." The three versions of the activity sheet will have one of the
three phases of adulthood inserted--(1) young adults; (2) middle-aged adults; or (3) older
adults. One third of students will receive an activity sheet that contains the terms
"intellectual development and young adults," "intellectual development and
middle-aged adults," and so forth. Collect the sheets from students and tally the
information on a master list. During the following class meeting, use this information to
open this topic and begin discussion on views of intellectual development in adulthood.
Provide frequencies and briefly link this activity to research methods in psychology.(1)
Content/ Introduce to students the historical view of intelligence by sharing
that even 40 years ago, psychologists believed that intelligence universally declined
after youth and that skills involved in being "intelligent" were stable and
unchanging. Until recently, the notion of intelligence and the measurement of intellectual
performance was considered the domain of psychometrics. And, for adults, this
typically translated into measuring intellectual capacity by administering a standardized
intelligence test--particularly the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Adults (WAIS). Explain
that the psychometric approach is not really a theoretical approach as much as a method
used to describe cognitive performance through the administration of standardized
measures. While this approach is very narrow, research in this vein has contributed a
tremendous amount of descriptive data about cognitive performance throughout the lifespan.
Currently, increasing numbers of researchers and scholars are thinking about age and
intelligence from a contextual perspective. Forerunners of this view include Lev
Vygotsky and Baltes, Dittman-Kohli, and Dixon. Essentially, contextual models view
intellectual change as multidirectional and individual-specific. That is, because
cognitive development is the result of a complex interaction among the individual's
genetic nature and his/her social, cultural, and historical environment, there are notable
variations among individuals in terms of the nature, direction, and timing of intellectual
Point out that while the meaning of intelligence is generally a controversial debate in
psychology, these two approaches make the use of the term intelligence among adults even
more complex and problematic to define.
III.Changes in Intellectual Development: Isn't Decline
Content/ Charles de Gaulle once said, "Old age is a shipwreck." His
statement represents one perspective of intellectual change known as the decrementalist
view. According to this view, universal, inevitable, and pervasive decline
characterize intellectual development in adulthood. While cross-sectional research on
intellectual changes in adulthood seems to support this perspective (e.g., abilities peak
at midlife, abilities plateau through the late 50s and early 60s, accelerated decline by
the 70s), students should realize that such findings reflect group data that does not
account for vast and increasing individual differences. For instance, researchers
such as Shaie and Salthouse demonstrate that marked decline in older adults is often a
function of pathology and illness rather than an inevitable course experience by all older
adults. In order words, good health--which is often a function of lifestyle and habits
that begin in young adulthood--significantly affects the degree, rate, and pattern of
cognitive change across the lifespan. In fact, findings from Schaie's Seattle Longitudinal
Study found a large number of elderly who showed little cognitive decline. What made the
difference among Schaie's sample? Evidence showed that these older adults (1) were in good
health (no cardiovascular disease); (2) were of average economic status; (3) were actively
involved in life; and (4) described themselves at mid-life as having developed flexibility
in their attitudes and behaviors.
Increasing evidence supports an alternative to the decrementalist perspective--the
continued-potential view. This view focuses on maintenance and improvement. It
emphasizes what is going well rather than what's wrong. Like the contextual model,
supporters characterize cognitive development as multidirectional, multidimensional, and
multicausal in nature.
What is meant by multidimensional? Psychologists interested in adult cognition realize
that as we move across adulthood, our style and manner of problem solving changes
qualitatively. These new ideas and findings have been synthesized into a concept known as postformal
thought. This area of cognitive development has been referred to as the next stage
following Piaget's "formal operations." In fact, Riegel argues that the poorer
performance of adults on tests of formal thinking have little to do with actual
intellectual declines and more to do with the development of totally new ways of thinking.
Key features of postformal thinking include (1) a shift from a problem solving orientation
to one focused on problem finding and the joy of developing new questions for exploration;
(2) dialectical thought which accepts incongruities and inconsistencies. Moreover, these
disparities are synthesized into a workable solution; the ability to integrate emotion and
logic since mature thinkers understand that handling life situations requires
consideration of social and affective phenomenon; and a general relativistic approach that
represents the acceptance of "gray" areas and conflicting opinions. Other
important functions of intelligence that evolve in adulthood are: (1) expertise--the
development of advanced skills and knowledge in a particularly well-practiced activity
such as an occupation or hobby; (2) wisdom--another type of expertise associated with the
important, fundamental, and uncertain matters of life; and (3) creativity--the ability to
construct extraordinary products and achievements that are novel, original, unique, and
IV. Mental Stimulation--The
Content/ Many investigators have documented that people who participate in
mentally stimulating activities including reading, attending classes, and doing crossword
puzzles tend to remain more intellectual flexible across the lifespan. In fact, according
to Schaie and his colleagues, training referred to as cognitive remediation can
reverse declines in intellectual performance. One well-known example of the application of
new research on adult cognition is the Elderhostel program. In 1975, five New Hampshire
colleges implemented a small pilot project to open their campuses to "hostelers"
of retirement age. This elderhostels live on-campus, usually for a week or so, and
participate in mini-classes that range in topics and interests. Today, there are over
2,000 colleges, universities, and other institutions which offer classrooms, residence
halls, and staff to Elderhostel. The program can be found in over 70 different. Indeed,
this and other similar programs demonstrate that development and learning are lifelong
Related Activities/ The following are suggested activities that can be
given as outside class assignments.
a. Reflection Papers: Ask students to write a short, reflection paper that briefly summarizes (1-2 paragraphs) the information covered in the classroom discussion. Students should answer the following questions in their papers:
1. What were the major themes from the lecture?
2. What concepts were most appealing to you? Why?
3. What concepts were most difficult for you to agree with or understand? Why?
4. What questions did the topics covered raise for you?
5. What questions, if any, did the lecture answer?
6. How will you use this information personally?
Learning: If there is a project required in your course, students might consider
volunteering at a local Elderhostel (or similar) program. Ask students to identify a local
program. The student should telephone the agency and request an interview with its
director or other appropriate staff member. During this conversation, the student should
explain his/her desire to volunteer as part of a course requirement and to gain hands-on
experience with the program. The interview should be informational (including the mission,
goals, objectives, activities, and relevant policies of the program) in nature. The
student should also request and get permission from the program director to interview a
participating elderhosteler. Permission should also be attained from the interviewee. The
interview questions should relate to uncovering how the interviewee's experiences at
Elderhostel relate to the topics covered in the lecture. The student and the director
should identify what role s/he can play in facilitating a class, etc. in the Elderhostel
program. They should develop a learning contact for your review that reflects a meaningful
experience for the student. The student's final project should be a paper which contains:
(1) an overview of what we know about adult cognition; (2) a description of the program
(this information should be compiled from program materials and the program director
interview); (3) a description of his/her experiences and specific activities at the
program site; (4) the information from the elderhosteler's interview with the students;
and (5) a reflective portion that describes changes that the student experiences because
of the process.
Rhonda L. Munford
Department of Psychology
125 Michigan Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20017
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Source/ Research information included in this section of the module can be found in Lemme, B. (1999) Development in Adulthood, 2nd Edition, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon Publishers.
1. This activity is borrowed and modified from American Psychological Association's Handbook of Activities in Psychology.