What are schools for?

rogertitcombe's picture
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My book, ‘Learning Matters‘, makes the case for a developmental approach to education. It is based on the idea that attainment, in all its forms and contexts, is founded on general abilities and that it is the job of schools to recognise and to promote the development of these underlying abilities. At the same time a school should be maximising students’ attainment in their academic studies and nurturing the physical, artistic and social skills that grow out of these talents and abilities. ‘Learning Matters’ draws heavily on the work and ideas of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

It is based on the concept of general intelligence and the validity of its routine measurement by means of commercially available Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs).

Although the basis for the routine work of Educational Psychologists for more than half a century and the current Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) based admissions systems for hundreds of state funded schools since the inception of the Academies programme, the general intelligence factor ‘g’ is a concept about which much heat has been generated.

Many left inclined educationalists still begin any discussion in this area with an IQ denial statement of some form. I am happy just to accept the fact that cognitive ability, regardless of arguments about its philosophical significance, can be readily measured by relatively simple, albeit increasingly sophisticated, tests and that their results have very high correlations with life outcomes and especially with performance in the education system.

Are there other sorts of intelligence? We certainly don’t all think the same way, which is why standardised cognitive ability tests have three sub-test components: verbal, quantitative and non-verbal. Although most individuals score similarly on each component, some do not, revealing differences in cognitive strategies and abilities in the three areas.

Howard Gardner went much further with his theory of multiple intelligences (1983), which is an attractive, popular and frequently quoted rebuttal of the concept of general intelligence. Gardner proposes seven distinct and independent ‘intelligences’ with two, ‘linguistic intelligence’ and logical-mathematical intelligence’ roughly corresponding with the qualities measured by Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). The other five, although claimed to be independent by Gardner, in fact correlate to a greater or lesser degree with the first two. To the extent that they correlate highly, they are more clearly understood as components of ‘g’. Those that correlate more weakly seem to be more like ‘talents’; further examples of the rich diversity of human variation to be encouraged and celebrated, but not so strongly predictive of general exam performance and broader life outcomes.

Chapter 12 of ‘Bad Education – Debunking Myths in Education’ (2012) edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, addresses the myths of both ‘intelligence fixed at birth’ and ‘multiple intelligences’.

The arguments in, ‘Learning Matters‘ are based on the validity of general intelligence as set out by Adey and others but with the insistence that although resilient, such general intelligence is plastic and that its development should be the priority of all good schooling. ‘Plasticity’ is a precise engineering term relating to properties of materials. A ‘plastic’ material is one that can be permanently deformed (shape altered) by the application of an external stress. The opposites are ‘brittle’ (cracks under stress) and ‘tough/resilient’ (does not break under stress or permanently deform – may spring back). In ‘Learning Matters’plastic intelligence means that cognitive ability and level of cognitive sophistication can be permanently changed through perception/experience combined with the right sort of teaching/learning.

Plastic general intelligence is a significantly different concept to fixed intelligence conferred at birth. It opens the door to the development of the intellect of all children (and indeed adults) through good quality education. However much education practice commonly believed to be ‘good’ is in fact ‘bad’ and does not result in cognitive growth. That is a theme that runs throughout ‘Learning Matters’.

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University wrote in his book, The Blank Slate (p. 149, Pinker, 2002):

I find it surreal to find academics denying the existence of intelligence. Academics are obsessed with intelligence. They discuss it endlessly in considering student admissions, in hiring faculty and staff, and especially in their gossip about one another. Nor can citizens or policy makers ignore the concept, regardless of their politics. People who say IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to the execution of a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by 5 points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush.

The academic arguments of the IQ deniers come down to the complex statistics of multi-variable correlations called factor analysis. These are the grounds on which Steven Jay Gould attempted to discredit ‘general intelligence’ in his much quoted 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man.

For those that are interested in further exploration of these arguments I recommend the ‘Afterword’ by Charles Murray in the The Bell Curve (R.J. Herrnstein, C. Murray, 1994). This book gained notoriety mainly for a section on racial and ethnic variations in IQ. While I disagree with the authors about the plasticity of cognitive ability, which they seriously underrate, I judge their book to be a work of great scholarship and moderation on the question of general intelligence. It is unjustifiably reviled by many on the left of politics.

In our modern society, with its rich literary, scientific and technological culture, proficiency in manipulating complex information and problem solving within this culture correlates strongly with putting food on the table, a roof over the head and maximising any surplus wealth that can be acquired. Hunter-gatherer societies clearly produce different correlations. Value judgments about the qualities needed to prosper in different cultures that so obsess sociologists seem to me to be increasingly pointless as global capitalism spreads, promoting increasingly commonly shared concepts of meritocracy and opportunity founded in the modern commercial and industrial world.

There is no dispute that scores on cognitive ability tests correlate strongly with exam results and future life outcomes in our society and culture. ‘Learning Matters‘ is about recognising the plastic nature of intelligence and the opportunity it creates for enriching the lives of individuals and the quality of society through the promotion of cognitive development through national education systems.

The fact that a minority of individuals can exploit diverse talents in commercialised sport, the entertainment industries and the cult of celebrity, that are not directly related to cognitive ability, in no way invalidates this central truth about the value of quality schooling.

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