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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?