Cognitive Research in Puerto Rico: A Sociocultural Interpretation

Wanda C. Rodriguez-Arocho

University of Puerto Rico

This presentation examines the preliminary results of an extensive review of literature on cognitive research in Puerto Rico. One hundred and four studies were identified and classified in one of three major theoretical perspectives: psychometric, Piagetian and Vygotskian. The body of research was analyzed using the following categories: 1) statement of the problem under study, 2) justification, 3) conceptual framework, 4) empirical background, 5) method (design, sample, and assessment techniques and procedures), 6) results and 7) conclusions and recommendations. Our main finding was that, even though these studies departed from different perspectives and were based on a diversity of methodological approaches, all point to the mediation of sociocultural factors in cognitive processes. Socioeconomic status and area of residence were identified as predominant factors that mediate results in tasks designed to assess the level of cognitive functioning, with gender appearing as an occasional variable. I will discuss these findings in the light of Lev S. Vygotksy's interpretation about the sociocultural foundations of human cognition. Based on Vygotsky's ideas, we will examine the implications of our findings for the development of sensitive educational policies and practices.

As in many other countries around the world, the main research tradition in Puerto Rico for the study of cognition has been the psychometric approach. As it is well known, the psychometric perspective has emphasized task performance and problem solving. It has focused on the study of individual differences in scores on mental tests that measure verbal and mathematical abilities, figure analogies and metal rotation of geometrical objects (Sternberg, 1988). Since the mid 1920's researchers in Puerto Rico have concentrated their efforts in the translation (from English into Spanish) and, in a lesser degree, in the adaptation of tests to measure cognitive abilities. Among the tests traslated the most prominent are the Printer Non Verbal Mental Ability Test, the Stanford-Binet, the Raven Progressive Matrix Test, the Kauffman Evaluation Battery, the Peabody Pictoric Vocabulary Test, the Boem Basic Concept Test, the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children, and the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale (Roca de Torres, 1991).

Except for an isolated effort sponsored by the Department of Public Instruction and the College of Education of the University of Puerto Rico in the 1950's and early 1960's, no attempts have been made to develop indigenous tests to evaluate cognitive structures nor processes. However, as the academic and public debate regarding the racial and ethnic biases of intelligence testing intensified in the 1960's, the issues of cultural adaptation and standardization of the tests used in the evaluation of Puerto Rican children began to command --in the 1970's and 1980's-- more attention by our researchers. As a result of this debate and related controversies on the measurement of intelligence and its biases against disadvantaged groups, more cultural sensitive testing is just beginning to be developed in the 1990's.

The most important work in the psychometric tradition began in 1987 and concluded in 1991 (Herrans & Rodriguez, 1992) with the cultural adaptation and normalization of the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children - Revised (WISC-R). A represen-tative sample of Puerto Rican children and youth (N=2,200) aged between 6 and 16 years. Interesting findings from this research project are reported by Herrans & Rodriguez (1988, 1992), and Boulon de Diaz (1992). Significant differences in performance in ten of the eleven subscales compared were observed between children in rural and urban areas. All the comparisons favored children in urban areas. This finding is consistent with Herrans (1969) previous research using the Spanish version of the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale. One of her findings was that the area of residence was such a strong variable in the determination of performance that, independently of gender and education, it allows to predict that adults in urban areas will perform better than adults in rural areas. In her discussion of this finding she emphasized the problem of inequality in socioeconomic conditions between rural and urban areas.

Recently, Herrans and Rodriguez (1992) found that socio- economic conditions continue to be an important factor impact in cognitive functioning as measured by the WISC-R. Significant differences were found between the middle and high socioeconomic levels in four of eleven comparisons. Interestingly, the same comparisons between the middle and low socioeconomic level show significant differences in nine of the eleven subscales. All the differences observed favored the upper socioeconomic level.

The findings of the research conducted within the psychometric perspective that point to a mediation of socioeconomic and sociocultural conditions are congruent with the findings of research in the Piagetian tradition. It is impossible to discuss all the findings here, but its important to establish that this approach has followed three different lines of inquiry: 1) the study of cognitive abilities and ways of reasoning; 2) the study of changes of structures; and 3) the study of ideas supposed to be naturally acquired.

Research on the study of the level of cognitive functioning has been conducted by Bonilla & Barrera (1989), Crespo (1989), Rodriguez-Arocho y Bonilla (1990) and Rodriguez-Arocho (1993) using the Longeot Cognitive Development Test. Almost all the research has been conducted with college students, presumably admitted to higher education institutions for their abstract thinking abilities, on the basis of which a successful academic performance is expected. However, contrary to expectations according to Piaget's theory, the findings do not support the universal attainment of formal operations. In the analysis of the differences in performance, the socioeconomic level emerges again as a possible mediating variable.

A complementary line of research with similar results has been followed by Quintero (1978, 1981, 1987, 1990). Her work has focussed on the notions that elementary and middle school children have about mathematical concepts and operations. Her contention is that, independently of the stage of cognitive development in which the students are supposed to be functioning, they come to school with some notions and concepts that serve as filter for their observations. She has found that these concepts and notions vary as a function of the socioeconomic conditions, so that children in upper socioeconomic levels enter the schooling experience with notions that will facilitate cognitive reorganization while other children enter school with notions that obstruct such reorganization.

The influence of socioeconomic and cultural variables, such as income level, education, and the area of residence, have also been evident in the study of ideas supposed to be naturally developed according to the Piagetian perspective. Among the findings in this line of research is a tendency in children of rural areas to develop conservation and classification schemes at a later stage than children of urban areas (Alicea, 1974; Mattei, 1977; López-Torres, 1983).

So far, the general conclusion is that children who grow up in poorer environments develop at a slower pace the cognitive abilities needed to perform successfully formal operations. It can also be concluded that these differences are more clearly observed when intellectual functioning is evaluated using conventional IQ tests, as the WISC-R. Fron the above it follows that there may be some differences in performance, presumably attributable to experience. However, this experience takes place in very different and particular contexts. Research is needed to explore the types of experience that will lead to particular levels of competence that will, in turn, lead to a better performance. Special consideration should be given to the factors that can affect the quality of performance, such as motivation, language skills, teaching strategies, specific learning experiences, and evaluation methods. These factors have begun to get some attention in recent years in several studies conducted within the sociocultural perspective associated with Lev S. Vygotsky and Alexander Luria.

From the universe of ideas in Vygotksy's work those that have been of interest to some researchers in Puerto Rico are those directly linked to education. Five works were identified within this perspective. A theoretical work by Rodriguez-Arocho (1989) discusses Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development in the light of the research generated by the concept and points the implications of ignoring such research in the implementation and evaluation of a program to teach thinking skills in the public education system in Puerto Rico. The other four works are studies that evaluate mediated learning experiences, following the conceptual and empirical background established by Budoff (1976) and Feuerstein (1979, 1980). Both recognize the modifiability of cognitive abilities in the course of social interactions.

Miranda (1988, 1991) used a dynamic assessment method to evaluate the performance of children classified as educable mentally- retarded (N=20), learning disabled (N=20) and normal children (N=20). She compared performance in the Colored Progressive Matrices (CPM) developed by Budoff (1976) and WISC-R for the 60 subjects. All the subjects were from the low socioeconomic level. The training session in the CPM was conceptualized as a mediated learning experience. Although no differential effect among the groups was observed, the training was effective irrespective of the grouping. All except one student increased their scores after the training session. The tendency to improve the performance of children from cultural and socioeconomic neglected environments after mediated learning experiences have also been documented by Alvarez, Santos & Lebrón (1994) and Zambrana-Ortiz (1992).

The partial discussion in this brief exposition of the literature on cognitive research in Puerto Rico leads to the conclusion that research and the educational policies and practices must focus on the sociocultural or sociohistorical factors that mediate cognitive processes. As Wertsch (1990) states following Vygotky's thought in this regard " ... human activity (on both in the interpsychological and the intrapsychological plane) can be understood only if we take into consideration the "technical tools" and the "psychological tools" or signs" (pp. 114). Only by giving the consideration they deserve to tools and signs that mediate human activity in the particular contexts in which they are created and used can we address the critical issues regarding cognitive development and schooling so well discussed by Cole (1990) and Ratner (1991). Furthermore, as evidenced by most of the works presented by Moll (1990), the application of the notion of mediation to instructional practices facilitates the creation of "zones of possibilities". These zones are urgently needed by the hundreds of students that abandon our schools every year, maybe to enter zones of dangerous possibilities, such as substance abuse and violence. And they are equally needed for us, who share with them the same society.

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Alvarez, V., Santos, J. & Lebrón, F. (1994). Efectos del Programa de Enriquecimiento Instrumental de Feurstein sobre las habilidades cognoscitivas de una muestra de estudiantes puertorriqueños [Effects of Feurstein's Instrumental Enrichment Program over the cognitive abilities of a sample of Puerto Rican students]. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicologia, 26, 51-68.

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Boulon de Diaz, F. (1992). The effects of intelligence, social class, early development and pre-school experiences on school achievement of Puerto Rican children. Revista Puertorriqueña de Psicologia, 8, 37- 50.

Budoff, M. (1976). Learning potential assessment of mentally retarded students. Cambridge, MA: Research Institute for Educational Problems.

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Crespo, L. (1989). Nivel de razonamiento de una población de estudiantes unversitarios y su impacto en la ejecución en un curso de biologia [Reasoning level of a population of college students and its impact on performace in a biology course]. Paper presented at the XXII Interamerican Congress of Psychology, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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