I have a pet peeve in Educational Studies. To tell the truth, I have a pet peeve in educational policies and practices. I’m not on my own in it either, because if you walked into one of my classes this week and declared your love for IQ tests you’d probably be slapped. First and foremost by the lecturer, then the rest of the class. Like that scene from ‘Airplane’ but without the laughs… or the 70s.
Why? Well, let me introduce you to the complicated world of IQ and education.
What is intelligence anyway?
Excellent question! A really basic definition in the OED states that intelligence is “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”. That’s actually pretty problematic when you’re studying intelligence, because it doesn’t specify what kinds of knowledge and skills it applies to. Do you count the ability to acquire knowledge and skills in football in that? What about cleaning? Or are we just talking about academic skills? Plus, how much knowledge and how many skills must we acquire before we are considered intelligent? What kinds of situations must we apply them in, and how frequently?
We’ve all heard of IQ – the intelligence quotient you receive at the end of an ‘intelligence test’, that presumably can tell you if you’re super smart, or have learning difficulties, or are just of average intelligence. The quotient subscribes to the idea that intelligence is a measurable, genetically inherited attribute that comprises of mathematical and literary problem-solving skills.
The most popular one is the Stanford-Binet test because that one tends to produce reliable results. By which I mean if you took that test every Thursday for 6 weeks, the scores each time wouldn’t vary that much, regardless of things like your mood. Psychologically speaking, that’s a big tick right there – we love reliability.
Yet while the scores it produces are consistent, what the test is actually er.. testing, is a bit more complicated. Not everyone agrees that an IQ test is actually testing your intelligence, which I guess links back to this confusing idea of what exactly constitutes ‘intelligent’ behaviour. If you happen to define intelligence in the limited way of the IQ test, then you probably think it’s testing exactly the right thing. Other people believe there are multiple intelligences in addition to those studied by the test – the popular theorist Gardner (1983) believes in eight primary intelligences, few of which are covered by standardized IQ tests.
More to the point, there have been a lot of problems identified with the current tests anyway, which is majorly problematic when they are used to inform policies. For example, let’s look at the Grammar school system in England, which arose toward the end of the Second World War in 1944. At 11 years old kids sat an intelligence test, the results of which would determine which kind of secondary school they got to go to. If you were of average intelligence, you went to a secondary modern school; if you were of lower intelligence, you went to a technical college; if you were of high intelligence, you went to a grammar school… at least in theory. The whole process was based around the research of people like Cyril Bert, who studied the hertiability of IQ, and found that IQ was totally passed on in your genes, so there was basically no need to waste time educating everyone as though they were all the same.
The only problem was, people have suggested that Cyril made up a few of his figures in order to get the results he wanted. They claim he actually didn’t test as many people as he said, and that he sort of ‘imagined’ people in the tests. Subsequent research has not managed to replicate his findings – where they find an element of heritability in IQ, it’s never at the levels Burt suggested. The ethics of having used the mans research to determine the futures of a whole handful of kids is majorly questionable if he actually did make it all up.
But that aside, IQ testing is still flawed. Some people suggest it’s more a test of the advantage you’ve experienced in your life – a ‘middle-class’ test, if you will. Which is supported to an extent by the high levels of middle-to-upper-class children that do amazingly well on it. Not to mention it’s apparent bias against ethnic minorities and women; in fact in some states in America they use different versions of the test for ethnic minority children, to try and combat the apparent bias in the test. Plus, some research also seems to suggest that there are an awful lot of extra factors that influence test scores, such as level and quality of education received, home life, access to resources and such (stuff that more privileged kids are more likely to have access to). In Kent, where they still use the 11 plus and grammar school system, they’ve recently had to redesign the exam to stop parents hiring tutors to teach kids how to pass it. Surely you shouldn’t be able to successfully get away with that in a test of your intellectual capabilities?
So, what is IQ actually a test of? Privilege, or inherited intelligence?
What about hard work?
There’s been some interesting research in the past few years looking at the language we use to praise children and how that affects their subsequent learning. The emerging research seems to suggest that if you praise children based on their intelligence, they will only engage in basic tasks so they can maintain their ‘intelligent’ image, whereas if you praise children based on their hard work (e.g. saying “you must have worked really hard on that”), they are more willing to engage in challenging tasks and go on to perform better on them. In short, the very concept of intelligence may damage children’s learning, encouraging them not to try.
Maybe it’s time we ditched the rhetoric of intelligence from education, then?