Intelligence, IQ and Teaching - The Elephant in the Classroom
That humans are differently endowed across every measurable parameter is an established fact. It is also a fact that the education world seems to have particular difficulty knowing how to relate to IQ. What is it that hinders acceptance of working with this important measure? Right from conception, we all differ genetically. Intelligence is simply one attribute initially accounted for by our genes. So, why does this appear to be a taboo subject in education circles?
The answer to this question is basically threefold. First, there is no consensus about what intelligence is; different conflicting interpretations persist. Next, grave concerns (for example, eugenics) muddy the waters immediately the measurement of IQ is mentioned. Finally, an outdated notion that intelligence is fixed and immutable conveys a message, compelling to some; if we can’t change it, why focus on it? But the truth is, we can change it and in important ways to varying degrees if we specifically target teaching to this end.
There is abundant evidence that specific pedagogical approaches enhance cognitive performance by structurally transforming intelligence. For example, EEF (Education Endowment Fund) trials focusing on cognitively challenging talk, such as ‘Philosophy for Children’, and ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’ have found consistent results across subjects. The lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.
EEF’s conclusion is important as it recognises that the successful approaches are not based on the learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of general cognitive ability. Put simply, the pupils made more progress because the teaching and learning methods used made them cleverer. It is important to note that pupil’s confidence and performance improved in all subjects, not just the ones directly relevant to what the ‘classroom talk’ was about. This is the claim of the long-standing ‘cognitive acceleration‘ movement led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, backed by a huge amount of peer reviewed research.
Dr Kathryn Asbury (senior lecturer in psychology in education at the University of York) tackles a particular offshoot of this debate in her article that calls on us to face up to the implication that social mobility is not what it might appear to be. Be warned, the very mention of Toby Young will have some readers reaching for the delete button but, Dr Asbury’s article deserves careful consideration.
She informs us, “Young pointed out that individual differences in cognitive ability are genetically influenced, and that cognitive ability is the strongest predictor we have of GCSE achievement.”
This does not equate to genetic determinism, understandably anathema to those on the political left including the vast majority of teachers. It is rather an acknowledgement that, according to Dr Asbury, “ In fact, heritability estimates tell us the extent to which behavioural differences between individuals (eg, where they fall on the IQ distribution) are explained by genetic differences between them.”
The interaction between genes and the environment determine the exact expression of our genetic endowment. Hence, IQ is not a predictor of future performance. This is why we have to grasp the nettle and examine meaningful ways to integrate this knowledge into teaching and learning. In this respect, our working spaces, the home, the school and the wider environment, including health and social wellbeing, are the places where we can make a difference once we agree to use IQ data to inform rather than dictate.
Despite the reluctance on the part of many to incorporate IQ into the picture, for the reasons already outlined, growing numbers of our secondary schools are opting to rely on cognitive ability testing at the commencement of year 7, despite the fact that virtually all pupils will arrive with the results of KS2 SATs fresh from the previous summer’s round of national testing. WHY IS THIS?
The simple truth is secondary schools have to establish Attainment and Progress 8 targets for each individual child and they would otherwise have to rely on the accuracy of the SATs results; something most are rightly reluctant to do. So CATs are a kind of ‘reality check’ necessary because Ofsted will be watching when GCSE results are declared in Yr 11. The attainment gap is a fearsome weapon that secondary schools wish to neutralise. This raises some fundamental questions.
How do those schools employing CATs rationalise any differences between SATs results and CATs scores when agreeing attainment and progress targets (FSM entitlement may exacerbate these differences)?
How, if at all, does any significant discrepancy between these unrelatable scores for the same individuals impact on teaching approaches, group sizes, allocation of homework, allocation of resources, and other issues?
How, where they exist, do schools convey to parents any of these data and endeavour to explain their implications?
Roger Titcombe and I have come together to examine the impact of SATs/CATs scores, sampling results where they exist. This work has important implications for those concerned about the related issues of the north/south divide, social mobility, the attainment gap and general underachievement. We expect to identify significant discrepancies in the apparent attainment of students at this particular point in children’s education that will, in turn, point to a fundamental problem affecting the whole education process. We plan to share the evidence from our investigation with teachers, parents and policy-makers with the express intention of supporting those calling for an end to KS2 SATs. If this can be achieved, schools will be free to explore those teaching and learning strategies known to enhance cognitive development, leading to real, lasting improvements for pupils of all abilities. We are calling for a national debate on the mistaken premise that the current preoccupation with schooling young people is an appropriate substitute for educating them.