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IQ: Can We Get Smarter?

BrainIQ (Intelligence Quotient): a number used to express the apparent relative intelligence of a person as a score determined by one’s performance on a standardized intelligence test relative to the average performance of others the same age. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iq

One and done? One unchanging score for life? If that is true, then people don’t get smarter over time. But getting smarter seems to be what’s happening if you look at the Flynn effect. What James Flynn noticed was that IQ scores keep moving in one way, worldwide. They keep getting higher. According to Flynn, each generation scores higher on IQ tests than the generation before it.

So either we are all becoming geniuses or the scale needs to be revised. The average must be 100 or else how can we compare properly? [We don’t live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.] So the test makers recalibrate the tests. “The companies had to keep making it harder to get a 100, because people keep getting more intelligent and doing better at the tests.” Tom Chivers, The Telegraph, 2014

Professor Flynn doesn’t think the current generation is smarter than previous generations, though. He claims that we just think differently now; we think more abstractly than our predecessors did. Which is why we do better on the tests. They measure abstract thinking and logical problem solving.

I took a free IQ test online at memorado.com and was told that my IQ is 132 and that I am in the top 2% of everyone. This was based on 10-15 questions (I can’t be that smart…I don’t remember how many there were.) They also didn’t ask my age, which is supposed to be a factor. I’m pretty sure this was a sales tactic. They want to sell me brain games that will exercise my brain to make me even smarter. Naturally, I signed up. Who doesn’t want to be smarter than other people?

But can we really get smarter? Some people think so. In 2008, researchers Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl published a really interesting study. They used a game called N-back as a training regimen. The game challenges users to remember something that is presented immediately before (1-back), the time before last (2-back), the time before that (3-back) and so on. If you do well at 2-back, the computer moves you up to 3-back. Do well at 3-back and you’ll jump to 4-back. If you do poorly at any level, the computer takes you down a level.

What Jaeggi and Buschkuehl found was that playing the N-back game literally makes people smarter. Not only better at the game itself (practice, practice, practice) but at “a fundamental cognitive ability known as “fluid” intelligence: the capacity to solve novel problems, to learn, to reason, to see connections and to get to the bottom of things.” Can You Make Yourself Smarter, Dan Hurley, New York Times, April 18, 2012

Of course, not everyone agrees. Some intelligence researchers are skeptical. But many others are working on ways to improve intelligence. And the idea that we can get smarter is a concept that wasn’t even considered possible as recently as 2002.

If we collectively come to believe that people can get smarter, how might that change our educational system? Can education truly become individualized when we see student intelligence as fluid rather than fixed? Or will we find some other way to categorize and pigeon-hole people?

Howard Gardner

Gardner graphic2Do you remember Howard Gardner? If you have anything to do with Education, you probably do. He doesn’t have much presence on social media though, so some of you may have missed him.

Howard Gardner is the cognitive psychologist who revolutionized our thinking about human intelligence. He didn’t agree with the notion that humans possess a single intelligence (IQ) that can be measured using a single linear scale. His exhaustive research provided a much different theory of human intelligence. And this theory expanded and changed the way we think about education and student learning.

Gardner is a Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero (an educational research group at Harvard). Most recently, Gardner was named the Brock International Prize in Education Laureate for 2015. Impressive credentials.

When I first saw Howard Gardner speak at a school near Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s, I was surprised to see a short, bespectacled, mousy little man walk to the podium. His presence wasn’t compelling, neither was his soft voice. But his message was. His book, Frames of Mind (Basic Books, 1983, rereleased in 2011) had caused much discussion in educational circles. He claimed that he could identify at least seven intelligences in humans, using strict criteria that defined an “intelligence.”

The thing that struck me most about Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences was that of the original seven he had identified, only two were important in our educational system. Standardized tests and measures of IQ favored people with strength in Verbal-linguistic and Logical-mathematical intelligences. Students demonstrating those skills tended to do well. Students without a strong focus in those skills, even if they were very strong in other intelligences (Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Spatial-Visual, Intrapersonal, or Interpersonal) might be thought of as less intelligent and could easily fall through the cracks. “Dr. Gardner says that we should also place equal attention on individuals who show gifts in the other intelligences: the artists, architects, musicians, naturalists, designers, dancers, therapists, entrepreneurs, and others who enrich the world in which we live.” Thomas Armstrong, American Institute for Learning and Development, 2013

Over the years, Gardner published several additional books about multiple intelligences (MI). Following Frames of Mind (now available for Kindle), he published Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (Basic Books, 1993), The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (Basic Books, 1995, 2004, 2011), and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2000). His original theory hasn’t changed much, though he has added one new intelligence: Naturalist. He is exploring a ninth intelligence, Existential, but that one doesn’t meet all of Gardner’s criteria. He claims he has now identified 8 ½ intelligences. J

It has been over 30 years since Gardner’s first book on intelligence was published and on the surface at least, many educators have embraced his theory. But MI theory has been linked in some people’s minds with other educational concepts such as learning styles. Gardner would like to set the record straight, “one unanticipated consequence [of interest in the theory] has driven me to distraction—and that’s the tendency of many people…to credit me with the notion of ‘learning styles’…” Not so, he says. You can read Gardner’s in-depth analysis of the differences between MI and learning styles in Valery Straus’ article, Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple Intelligences’ are not ‘Learning Styles,’ Washington Post, 2013.

The good news is that educators are still discussing Gardner’s theory and trying to figure out how to put it into practice. More good news is that this is happening at his own school, originally formed in 1975 as The Children’s Learning Workshop in Scranton, Pennsylvania (where he is from) and reorganized in 2005 as the Howard Gardner School for Discovery. In 2012, the School for Discovery became a public charter school in Scranton, called the Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences Charter School (HGMICS). (http://howardgardnerschool.com/)  As a laboratory charter school, HGMICS’ mission is to improve the practice of teaching. I’m hopeful that Gardner and his colleagues will guide the rest of us to incorporate the Theory of Multiple Intelligences into common educational practice.