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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 18-Dec-07


Tuesday 18-December-07

Intelligence and education

Today two nice things happened. First, I 'broke up for Christmas', getting a break from work for a couple of weeks, and secondly, I went to a nice 'promote the book' lecture at the RSA. Professor James Flynn was speaking with a topic of 'What is Intelligence?' and, although he never answered the question (despite being asked), it was a fascinating and enjoyable experience.

The core theme was that intelligence tests as devised a century or so ago have shown some interesting longitudinal effects. The three main areas in these tests are numerical, verbal and visual-spatial. Over the 20th century, the numerical and verbal scores have increased by two or three points, which may be expected if base human intelligence has not changed. The unexpected effect is that the visual-spatial tests, which were originally designed to be culturally independent by deliberately being abstract, have shown a marked increase by around 25 points. The effect is that an average person today would be at the 90th percentile a century ago. Professor Flynn was the first to identify this, and it is now known as the 'Flynn Effect'.

His explanation was that this was a complex mix of factors, including an increasingly abstract and conceptual world, though as a philosopher he was not seeking an absolute answer.

I wondered at it from a educationalist's viewpoint. Imagine you are teacher, a century or so ago when the tests were first made public. 'Aha!' you think. 'So that is what intelligence is about: numbers, words and abstract thinking.' And so, because education is supposed to promote intelligence, you set about teaching people sums, language and abstract ideas.

A hundred years later, you look back and are perhaps disappointed. The maths and English scores do not seem to have changed, although you are delighted to see that you have been very successful in the area of abstract thinking. It seems that perhaps we do not know how to teach English and maths.

But then a friend says 'Hang on, you've got it backwards: look at what has changed. A hundred years ago, you had already been teaching English and maths for a while, so students were already performing to their full potential. But in that more concrete age, you had not been teaching the abstract, visual-spatial stuff. So all you have done is bring people up to their potential in this, teaching them to do well in areas they were not practiced in before.'

It also seems arguable that the definition of the measured variables in the intelligence test has consequently had a significant effect on society. Rather than us getting better at conceptual tests because of a more abstract environment, perhaps that environment was driven (at least in part) by the focus of our teachers in improving test scores.

In my day job, I work for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, in which we deliver national educational testing for years 2, 6 and 9. A factor that troubles us is that schools want to look good and so focus disproportionately on the maths, English and science that are covered by these tests, perhaps to the detriment of other subjects. Like the rest of us, schools, heads and teachers will work to optimise the factors that make them look good. 'If you show me how I am measured, I'll show you how I will behave' was a saying that was common when I worked in a sales and marketing environment in the private sector, and the same effect seems true in the public sector. What start out as intendedly-neutral measurements turn into targets and behavioural drivers that distort the scores and reduce their real value.

So has intelligence increased? I agree with Professor Flynn, that it's too complex a situation to draw any solid conclusions. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about.

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