Intelligence, IQ and Teaching - The Elephant in the Classroom

John Mountford's picture
 7

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 Finally, an outdated notion that intelligence is fixed and immutable conveys a message, compelling to some; if we can’t change it, why focus on it?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.

 

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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 28/04/2018 - 08:44

As a non-scientist I've taken the view that 'IQ' isn't fixed but is affected by both nature and nurture.  As you say,  physical characteristics are inheritable.  It's likely, therefore, that the characteristics of the brain are also inheritable (eg the speed at which neurons make connections, the amount of hormones released).   This doesn't mean that it's all genetically-determined because, as you say, there are 'strategies known to enhance cognitive development'.

These strategies aren't the whole picture though.  Again, speaking as a non-scientist, I think nurture also encompasses nutrition, health, parental interaction and lifestyle.    A poor diet, for example, impedes physical development.  Surely this includes the brain?  Similarly, there are health issues which could have a negative impact.   These two are more likely (but not necessarily) linked to poverty.  I also think parental interaction plays a large part.  I despair when I see parents more interested in their phones than in talking to their children.  Added to this can be an unhealthy balance between physical and non-physical activity, insufficient sleep and low attention span (caused by what?).  

Also, is there an optimum time to learn something.  I've heard that the ability to learn languages is at its highest when children are very young.  So if this window is missed - what is the long-term affect?  (Answer: I don't know).

 


John Mountford's picture
Sat, 28/04/2018 - 09:33

I fully agree with you, Janet, there are many disparate factors that eventually affect the precise expression of the genes. I fully accept there are implications for social policy that require urgent attention. This is where I feel political parties need to focus their limmited attention span and policy priorities. I, too, am witness to the all too obvious negative impact of technology on all our social interactions (not just parents) unless we accept the need to monitor our behaviours.

My point in posting this article was to bring the thorny issue of IQ, its measurement and use into the open. To repeat myself, it is a subject we are ill at easy discussing and it is very easy to be misunderstood.  I hope we can bring about a change in this regard which is why Roger Titcombe and I are focussing our attention on researching the use of Cognitive  Ability testing in growing numbers of secondary schools, despite the fact that KS2 SATs are apparently now 'standardised' with the intention of making Progress and Attainment 8 target setting more robust for secondary schools. In a recent FoI request to a local secondary school using CATs at the beginning of YR7 we had this to say on the subject;   "CATs measure and report cognitive ability on an age-related standardised scale with a mean of 100 and a Standard Deviation of 15 (the UK IQ scale). SATs results are now also reported on a standardised scale on which the ‘expected standard’ is defined as a score of 100, with minima and maxima of 80 and 120. However, while CATs, test underlying cognitive ability unrelated to any taught curriculum, SATs test attainment on the tightly defined KS2 National Curriculum. CA testing, on the other hand, is not knowledge-based. The SATs most certainly are, with results that can be improved by intensive ‘cramming and coaching’. Cognitive Ability, including Non Verbal Reasoning, also develops, not just overtime on the basis of age, but also in response to cognitively demanding teaching."

In conversation with one of my local secondary school's headteacher in relation to this work, he explained that the SATs results are of limited use in some cases because of the cramming effect producing inflated scores, whether standardised (after a fashion) or not. Are schools reluctant to bring this to the attention of the public? What are the cost implications of doing this extra testing? How do schools explain their decision to parents and/or governors? As critical friends, should governors sanction this duplication of effort and cost at a time when budgets are under huge pressure? The questions grow, the more you think this through.

I am in the process of writing to my MP, having identified how many of the secondary schools in the Bath area are employing this strategy. I would urge others accessing this site to do likewise in their own area. I will report back on the response I get from Jacob Rees-Mogg in due course.


agov's picture
Sat, 28/04/2018 - 13:37

"What is it that hinders acceptance of working with this important measure?"

So just the three things, then? Nothing to do with the fascist Left and its hysterical denunciations of anyone who mentioned it (- partial exception: using it to slag off whites) and the threats of violence against them and the damage done to their careers?

"IQ is not a predictor of future performance."

Except perhaps insofar as it detracts from it, as many members of MENSA claim.

"pedagogical approaches enhance cognitive performance by structurally transforming intelligence"

And a change in structure is demonstrated by better performance? Or could that be simply better using what they started with? Or are there perhaps things like brain scans?

"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"

Yes, it's really important now that secondary schools are affected.

"rationalise any differences between SATs results and CATs scores"

Good luck getting Ofsted to take much notice of that.


John Mountford's picture
Sat, 28/04/2018 - 17:58

Agov, thank you for your contribution to this posting. If I may start by answering my own question. In my view, what is hindering progress towards opening a full and honest debate about IQ is an understanding that this is something we can no longer avoid. It will take courage. Ultimately, collective responsibility for doing so calls for leadership and there’s a need for professional bodies to come forward and take the lead. Why I maintain we need such a stance is because it’s already happening ‘below the radar’. Secondary colleagues are beginning to challenge the validity of the existing set-up because they have to. Let’s be transparent about what has changed.

 

There is no need for IQ to detract from future performance. This is not an inevitable consequence of turning the spotlight on the potential for our society to finally undertake a balanced review of how intelligence relates to teaching and learning, which is what I am calling for.

 

Does it matter that the challenge faced by colleagues in our secondary schools finally prompts us to confront this subject? I have no interest in the catalyst for this change. Is it not the case that our primary focus is the pupils (whatever type of school they attend) and their future prospects? If we can find a way through the maze of issues and concerns surrounding IQ in the education environment, everyone stands to gain.

 

Ofsted is no longer fit for purpose. Some would say it never was. I would argue it has become a stumbling block, rather than a solution to a problem it was intended to solve. Few would argue that we do not need accountability measures. However, when the tail wags the dog, time is right for change.

 


agov's picture
Sun, 29/04/2018 - 08:09

Nicely written but -

1st para - apparently now giving up on presenting a list of causes for this taboo.

2nd para - no, not inevitable but many say their high IQ undermined them and destroyed any possibility of them being high performers.

3rd para - not in principle no, but in practice it yet again demonstrates how the primary sector is ignored and badly treated. I notice there has been no outrage over the new funding formula, as it seems (though I am still investigating), robbing schools in the primary sector by hundreds of pounds per pupil to hand over to the already fabulously well-funded secondary sector. And the chances are that if a way was found for secondary schools not to have to be troubled by IQ consequences then any continuing effects on the primary sector would soon be forgotten.

4th para - be sure to let me know when anything actually changes.


agov's picture
Sun, 29/04/2018 - 08:09

Nicely written but -

1st para - apparently now giving up on presenting a list of causes for this taboo.

2nd para - no, not inevitable but many say their high IQ undermined them and destroyed any possibility of them being high performers.

3rd para - not in principle no, but in practice it yet again demonstrates how the primary sector is ignored and badly treated. I notice there has been no outrage over the new funding formula, as it seems (though I am still investigating), robbing schools in the primary sector by hundreds of pounds per pupil to hand over to the already fabulously well-funded secondary sector. And the chances are that if a way was found for secondary schools not to have to be troubled by IQ consequences then any continuing effects on the primary sector would soon be forgotten.

4th para - be sure to let me know when anything actually changes.


John Mountford's picture
Sun, 29/04/2018 - 09:56

1st para - My intention in presenting this subject was to encourage wider debate about what is clearly one of this life's 'hard issues'. Its impact is far-reaching but nowhere more relevant than in education. Fear is a powerful inhibitor. It comes in many guises. Fear in this debate is deeply entrenched. I was afraid of submitting this piece. I am an expert in nothing but am deeply interested in many things, especially how we can get a better deal for people (notably children) of all ages and all abilities through the deliberate attempt to make ourselves more intelligent. We may not like to go there, but we are all different and our genes play a fundamental role without representing the whole picture. We have to set aside our fear of ridicule because we may know  we know little individually about this complex subject. We cannot rewrite the geneetic code of individuals BUT we can make sure they get the best deal out of our efforts to help them learn. At the moment we are not doing this well enough and in some instances, not at all.

2nd para - All the more reason to explore IQ in an attempt to understand issues such as this. If the high IQ of those who had their chances of high performance blighted, shouldn't we try to understand that; not easy to do if we can't even talk about it? All the more resaon to change this. Their suffering may have come about because of others, maybe their teachers failed to help because of their own fear of ignorance, a lack of understanding how to manage giftedness in others or even an ingrained prejudice.

3rd para - As a former primary practitioner, I know where you are coming from. I have always believed we have never accepted the  need for funding to be highest where the need or the challenge is greatest. Early years education is and always has been grossly underfunded in relation to the task. We have only ever paid lip-service to the need for-well structured, adequately funded multi-agency support throughout the primary years.

One of the foremost reasons Roger and I are undertaking this work is to bring an end to KS2 SATs because they are proven to be unfit for young learners. That they have skewed teaching and learning at every level, helping deny children sufficient cognitive challenge and hence development, is an established fact. It is also a fact that this is impacting on future learning. This is too important to go unchallenged. There are other motivations, including ending the ridiculous duplication of effort and expense involved in the employment of CATs assessments in YR7.

4th para - I recommend the  IOE  - What If series, beginning with   “What if… we really wanted to prepare young people for the age of artificial intelligence?” Towards the end of the broadcast there was an outbreak of unanimity within the panel over Ofsted's future (and present) role in delivering accountability. It is well woth viewing the whole broadcast. Incidentally, Agov I have no doubt that this particular dog will have its day.

Thanks for you continued interest.


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