Nature, nurture and human autonomy

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Does your family make you smarter? by James Flynn

Book Review by Roger Titcombe

James Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in the academic study of intelligence. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. It is the name given to the large year on year increases in IQ that took place in all developed countries during the twentieth century.

I am a retired headteacher, educational researcher and author. My work is based on the concept of general intelligence. The general intelligence factor ‘g’, accepted as a sound general construct by Flynn, is a concept about which much heat has been generated. If the validity of this construct is rejected, as it still is by some left inclined educationalists, then Flynn’s latest book together with his life’s work will be judged unworthy of serious consideration. To be clear therefore, I am reviewing this book in acceptance of the concept of general intelligence, with the crucial proviso that it is plastic and that it can be enhanced in childhood and subsequently throughout life as a result of both passive and (especially) active interaction with cognitive challenges.

See Sections 1.2 & 1.4 of ‘learning Matters

Notwithstanding the main title, this is what Flynn’s book is mainly about. The subtitle, ‘Nature, Nurture and Human autonomy’ is a better description of the main thrust of the book. In it he describes how his view of the stability of genetically inherited intelligence has substantially changed. Wading into the nature vs nurture debate Flynn now rejects the pessimistic, anti-educational notion that IQ is largely stable over a lifetime. He argues that intelligence can be changed positively and negatively through ‘human autonomy’, by which he largely takes to mean the life decisions open to individuals in adulthood.

Flynn is now arguing that intelligence is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by most academics that study intelligence. Although he appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  He writes as follows.

“my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

“I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 Flynn is not an educationalist, but his conclusions have profound implications for teachers, schools, national education systems and especially the failures of the ‘reformed’ English system with its emphasis on marketisation, league tables and parental choice.

Flynn’s book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’. See also Sections 1.8 & 1.9 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ test scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation and ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers. A ‘cognitive underclass’ is therefore in the making.

See Sections 2.1,2.2 & 2.3 of ‘Learning Matters

 My argument is that marketised schools driven by SATs and GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving ‘floor targets’ at any costs. This condemns a large proportion of the school population to 11 years of shallow, degraded behaviourist teaching that, by age 16, will not develop cognitive ability sufficiently for full functioning in the modern world resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

A study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points. This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009), and gives weight to the contention that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

If environmental factors such as high cognitive challenge can result in growth of cognitive ability over time, as Flynn now asserts,  then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can produce a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found just such a decline suggesting that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with ever more qualifications.

See Sections 5.10 & 5.11 of ‘Learning Matters

Referring to the title of the book, Flynn has analysed decades of IQ data to conclude that while the quality of the family environment can raise IQ scores in early years this effect wears off with schooling to virtually disappear by the age of 17. This suggests that contrary to common assumptions, as children progress through the education system the growth of cognition as a consequence of schooling is determined far more by the cognitive demands of the school experience than by any assumed deficiencies in the home background.

This too is a profoundly optimistic conclusion in terms of the potential of the education system for halting the national cognitive decline that is resulting from the corrupting effects of the marketisation of our schools.

However, the right kind of pedagogy is needed.

See Sections 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 5.7, 5.8 & 5.9 of ‘Learning Matters

Although not written for educationalists this important book adds to the growing evidence that  ‘intelligence matters’ and that the marketisation paradigm of the English education system is increasingly failing our children.

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