IQ and Education

Two recent opinion pieces have me thinking about the nature vs nurture debate and its implications for education.  Two weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in praise of Richard Nisbett’s book, Intelligence and How to Get It:  Why Schools and Cultures Count.  This week, a professor from Texas A&M, Christopher Ferguson, wrote an indirect response to that column in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I have no doubt that Ferguson’s essay, “Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius,” will garner a great number of angry responses from public educators, but I must admit that I am inclined to share his position.  Ferguson’s contention is that popular educational theories such as Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences” have turned out to be empirically unfounded.  Moreover, the very features that make these educational theories politically attractive- their focus on diverse talents and different learning styles, for example- make them empirically unverifiable, a hazard in the sciences.  Nisbett’s view is not a direct contradiction of Ferguson, but it strongly suggests a different ideological position.  It is that position I want to explore.

For the sake of concision, I will abbreviate the Ferguson position as the “nature” view of intelligence and the Nisbett, et. al. position as the “nurture” view.  The nature view is that intelligence is mostly determined by genetic factors and the nurture view is that intelligence is highly influenced by environmental factors.  These views don’t necessarily conflict, as proponents on each side concede that both genetic and environmental factors influence intelligence, but the nature and nurture views imply radically different theses about education and the role of educators, which, I will argue, is the real reason for the debate.

In terms of scientific verifiability, the nature crowd appears to have the upper-hand.  Psychologist have identified genetic traits that account for about 50% of the variables that determine intelligence and environmental factors that account for only 10% of the variables that determine intelligence.  These findings presuppose a static view of intelligence- what psychologists call “g”- which the nurture crowd widely rejects.  By rejecting g in favor of some new, qualitatively different account of intelligence, the nurture crowd reframes the argument.  “So what if the parents’ IQs are the best indicator of the child’s IQ?” the nurture crowd says, “IQ tests aren’t an adequate or accurate measure of real intelligence because they focus only on verbal-linguistic and mathematical-spatial aptitude.”  This re-framing shifts the debate from the realm of science, data-gathering, and empirically-testable claims, to the realm of semantics, value claims, and politics.

The question of whether some aptitude, g, is more heavily influenced by environmental or genetic factors can be answered empirically and, to some extent, it has been answered:  g is mostly genetic.  The question of what counts as “intelligence” is philosophical, and it is politically-loaded.   It is not surprising then that members of the nurture group tend to share certain political values (e.g., equality and fairness) or that they tend to discount social theories which seem deterministic. This is not to suppose that everyone within the nurture crowd agrees upon what counts as intelligence.  I would wager to guess that many fans of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences are teachers who find it pedagogically useful.  Nisbett’s work focuses the malleability of skills and aptitudes (including g), so he favors tracing the trajectory of these skills and successes (the usual hallmarks of intelligence) to see where they are influenced by teaching, culture, and other environmental factors.  The common tie that binds these views together is not what intelligence is, but rather what nurture proponents believe it must not be: a set of genetic characteristics outside of our control.

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I find the nurture position unconvincing, despite the fact that I share many of the political values which underlie it.  The move from a debate about whether intelligence is genetic to what counts as intelligence is ad-hoc.  Also, “multiple intelligences,” is semantically confusing.  When I say “intelligence,” I mean g, and I would wager to guess that anyone else who hasn’t read Gardner means the same.  More generally, I am not inclined to think that a descriptive theory is true simply because it appeals to my values or biases.  If the empirical data suggests that most children who are born to parents with low IQs will also have low IQs and that people with low IQs tend not to be as successful as people with high IQs, I am inclined to shrug it off as unsurprising and move on to other questions.  (I work in a homeless shelter, so I have become quite comfortable with the revelation that the world is unfair.)  But I am surprised by the number of well-educated people I know- many of them teachers- who seem to find the nature position threatening, as if the strong genetic component of intelligence invalidates their work and efforts.  This strikes me as misguided, like a doctor fretting because the maximum lifespan of his patient is determined by genes.  Intelligence tests are not supposed to be a measure of worth but a tool for gauging a person’s capacity to learn and think.

I can only posit that the reason for the widespread popularity of the nurture view among educators has to do with the fact that teachers, like all of us, are more successful when they believe that their efforts will make a difference in the future.  For example, I said above that the multiple intelligences theory may be “pedagogically useful.”  Here is what I mean:  It may well be the case that a teacher who believes in multiple intelligences will be better at fostering self-esteem and encouraging effort in students than a teacher who believes in g.  Insofar as the teacher incorporates his views on multiple intelligences into the curriculum, he may motivate children who have lower aptitude in g to work harder overall because when a student believes that he has some innate talent or intelligence he is motivated to try harder at school.  A child who works hard every day is likely to do better than a child with the same IQ who does not work hard.  This is because IQ is a measure of capacity for learning, which is an active process.  So, the teacher may come to the anecdotal conclusion that his method (underpinned by his belief in multiple intelligences) is more effective than another teacher’s method (underpinned by a belief in g).  The relevant point to note here is that this has absolutely nothing to do with the veracity of the theory of multiple intelligences.  As various studies have demonstrated, the teacher could be equally effective by lying about a student’s IQ in order to convince him that he had some special potential.  What matters is that you believe that your efforts matter, whether you are a student or a teacher.

The takeaway here is that g is mostly genetic, but beliefs and actions still have an effect on intelligence.  A person’s capacity for thinking and learning, g, is not actualized without effort, and so teachers have a significant role to play in motivating their students to put forth this effort. This is not to suggest a compromise position between nature and nurture, however.  Environmental influences play a role in whether a person actualizes his potential, intellectual or otherwise, but they do not determine that potential.   Also, by and large, studies have shown that IQ is a better predictor of later-life success than any environmental factor.  It is dishonest to deny the wealth of empirical data that corroborate this conclusion or make ad hoc conjectures to discount its significance for political purposes.  It is also a bad way to fight a political battle.  Rather than making questionable descriptive claims about intelligence, proponents of equality should be working to ensure that each child has the opportunity to fulfill his or her intellectual potential, whatever it may be.

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9 Responses to “IQ and Education”

  1. a modern hell Says:

    The problem with both arguments is that they don’t take into account the fallibility of IQ measurement as a whole. The scope of what standardized IQ tests can gauge, in terms of perceptiveness and broad mental ability, is really quite narrow. Some of the most insightful people I know would barely score above 90… Okay, maybe 100 after a little coffee and Mozart.

    • Liza Says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by the “fallibility” of IQ measurements. Admittedly, the tests measure a narrow scope of abilities: verbal-linguistic reasoning, spatial and mathematical reasoning, and sometimes memory. But I am puzzled that you could read my post and draw the conclusion that both sides don’t take this into account. On the contrary, one side says that the limited scope of IQ tests is quite adequate because the test identifies exactly those aptitudes which are properly identified as “intelligence” and the other side says that the limited scope of IQ tests makes the results inadequate because the tests fail to measure other aptitudes that could be considered “intelligences.”

      • a modern hell Says:

        Oh, my. It’s late. I really should be sleeping instead of splitting hairs… Yes, Liza, it’s true there is an acknowledgment that the tests fail to measure certain aptitudes that fall outside the definition of standard intelligence. However, it seems to me that there is an aim, from both the nature and nurture camp, to squeeze learning into a limited framework that will foster the type of success predicted by higher IQ scores. You yourself said “studies have shown that IQ is a better predictor of later-life success than any environmental factor.” But such studies likely measure “success” in terms of income, education and status, which is not the goal for everyone.

        • Liza Says:

          Thank you for the clarification. The subtext of this debate in education is a question about whether IQ is an adequate measure of a person’s potential to develop valuable skills. Of course, it isn’t. IQ scores don’t tell us whether a person has special musical talent or athletic talent. And I think that our educational system should be responsible for helping kids develop skills and realize their talents in non- g areas like music, fine arts, and athletics. These pursuits are valuable and having people who have developed their talents in these areas is good for our society. Also, it’s true that a person can be a great athlete or musician without having an especially high IQ, however, it is rare. It just turns out that most people who do really well in music, athletics, or some other discipline have initial talent, work really hard to develop that talent into a skill, and have an average or above average IQ. A high score on an IQ test is not strongly correlated with talent in other areas but people who have developed those talents also tend to have at least average IQs.
          I want to make a point for clarification: IQ is a better predictor of later life success than any other measure that we have, but it is still not a very good predictor. It’s silly to believe you are condemned by a below-average IQ or to believe that you will succeed with an above-average IQ without working very hard. That being said, the “success” that IQ predicts is much broader than you might imagine. It not only correlates with income, education, social status but also family/relationship stability, good health, and a longer life-span.) I suppose these things aren’t the goal for everyone, but they are a pretty good collection of what we mean when we say “success”. On the other hand, I don’t know if any studies have been collected, but it wouldn’t surprise me if high IQ didn’t also correlate with an increased risk for major depression or suicide.

  2. a modern hell Says:

    A spirited debate indeed. I look forward to reading more posts from you.

  3. James Gray Says:

    First, why talk about intelligence at all? Just talk about IQ in this case. Second, IQ beliefs shouldn’t be pedagogically useful if it is actually irrelevant to a teacher’s job.

    I am not surprised that IQ and success could be related to genetics. We are human beings because of genetics, and that seems to help. The word “human being” lumps a lot of different creatures together that we are satisfied are “similar enough,” but we don’t have to be realists about species.

    • Liza Says:

      I don’t understand your question. The debate is about what the word “intelligence” picks out, and many people believe that it doesn’t pick out simply those things measured by IQ tests. How can we not talk about intelligence?

      Also, it seems likely to me that all sorts of “noble lies” may be pedagogically useful, in the sense that, when someone (teacher or student) believes the lie, the student works hard/learns more, etc. The fact that a lie might be pedagogically useful does not mean that the lie is true, and so we can’t appeal to the pedagogical usefulness of some theory as evidence for the theory being true.

      I’m not sure what you are getting at in your second paragraph. Are you taking a jab at anti-realists?

      • James Gray Says:

        After reading your article, I wasn’t sure why we need to define intelligence instead of just discussing IQ. If you think “intelligence” means “IQ” but other people don’t like your definition of intelligence in this way, then why do you think you (or others) should define intelligence as IQ? What would this accomplish?

        I agree that there can be pedagogically useful “noble lies,” but how is this an example of that? Do teachers have to improve people’s IQ, or do teachers help people in others ways? (Perhaps there are other elements to intelligence, such as actual knowledge that IQ does not provide.)

        Second paragraph: We are human beings because of our genetics. We are more intelligent than other animals because we are humans. Therefore, we have high intelligence because of our DNA.

        Being an anti-realist about species further supports this fact. If there is no such thing as “species” we still have to realize that we group people together because of there similar genetics. If everyone has intelligence because of their genetics, then some people could have better intelligence genes than others.

  4. James Gray Says:

    Where did you get your information about genetics and how IQ influences success? Do you know whether or not EQ has more or less to do with success than IQ? I am interested this question. I read that “Research shows that emotional intelligence may actually be significantly more important than cognitive ability and technical expertise combined. In fact, some studies indicate that EQ is more than twice as important as standard IQ abilities.” Not sure what studies show this or how accurate they are, but if true, this might be more relevant than IQ, and so we should find out whether or not EQ is determined by genetics, and if so, how much. I’ve also heard that EQ can be improved easier than IQ, which might indicate that it is not determined as much by genetics as IQ is.

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