The concept of aptitude is conceived of as readiness or being equipped to handle, perform, or succeed in some particular task. It is not (a) a generic term for a personal attribute that individuals carry across situations, (b) determined by heredity, or (c) limited to the cognitive domain. It is a latent potential that enables a productive response to a particular situation, and it can adapt and develop (evolve and mature) as a result of experience (Corno et al. 2002).

Classical theories define aptitude as any relatively enduring personal attribute that predicts future behaviour. Aptitudes that have been shown to predict behaviour in many types of education settings include, for example, an aspect of personality called impulsivity along which people can be ordered; a stable assessment of generalized intelligence; or a disposition that can be observed and recorded across occasions, such as generalized anxiety. These attributes represent abstract qualities that can be observed across multiple occasions, independent of other measurements. For a given individual, such observations can be shown to vary little across time periods, tasks, and settings; but individuals differ substantially on these measures. Classical theory thus interprets aptitude as representing a quality a person has to greater or lesser degree that is integral to doing well in some course of training or education (Cronbach 1960). Over the years, aptitude measures have been used and misused by institutions in ways researchers never intended – to label, sort – admit or reject – track and evaluate, and to value or devalue individuals and groups with like aptitude profiles (Perry and Winne 2000).

New theory both redefines the concept and redirects research efforts away from this checkered past. The new theory highlights the interaction of person and situation in defining aptitude. Features of learning situations – the resources, obstacles, and relevant or irrelevant cues – are seen to exist in tune with learners who experience them. The situation provokes learners to apply their thoughts, impulses, and knowledge to assemble an appropriate response (Gibson 1979). Propensities the learner brings to the task, as well as others in the learning situation (participants such as teachers and peers), also affect this process. When a learner displays a response during instruction, it becomes available for evaluation by observers such as teachers, but also as a basis for personal reflection. Success in learning occurs as the result of feedback from these sources of evaluation. The new theory emphasizes that aptitude is a process, it is situated in learning experiences, and it can be distributed across networks of relations between persons.

The new research that accompanies new theory crosses disciplinary boundaries and is multimodal. Three examples are useful to consider: research on how the brain communicates and processes information, research on cultural influences that shape academic behaviour, and studies of classroom discourse. This redirected research does not categorize people inappropriately based on generalized measurements, but emphasizes the developmental nature of aptitude and alternative ways to capture it.

Studies of human aptitude will never produce neat investigations like those of concepts in the hard sciences, but a strong research agenda remains important for psychology and education, and the concept is more relevant to the general public than many other pscychological concepts. Aptitude affects how people take instruction; aptitude helps people tune out distracting sights, sounds, smells, thoughts and feelings; aptitude allows adopting the perspective of others and reconsidering misconceptions of concepts and events; aptitude helps learners gain proficiency in myriad tasks. Relevant illustrations can be found in applications from technology and media, both personal and social; community and professional enrichment; home schooling; and public health education.

However misleading historic or classical ideas about aptitude as innate ability may be, they have long lived on in the vernacular of cultures and societies as explanations for learning and behavior. Through careful science in and beyond educational psychology, slowly, that is changing.