Posts Tagged ‘The Element’

Ken Robinson on Intelligence, IQ testing and SAT

June 17, 2010

The following section (pages 35-42) of The Element presents a fascinating, if disconcerting, look at the origins and uses of intelligence testing:

Another thing I do when I speak to groups is to ask people to rate their intelligence on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the top. Typically, one or two people will rate themselves a 10. When these people raise their hands, I suggest that they go home; they have more important things to do than listen to me.

Beyond this, I’ll get a sprinkling of 9s and a heavier concentration of 8s. Invariably, though, the bulk of any audience puts itself at 7 or 6. The responses decline from there, though I admit I never actually complete the survey. I stop at 2, preferring to save anyone who would actually claim an intelligence level of 1 the embarrassment of acknowledging it in public. Why do I always get the bell-shaped curve? I believe it is because we’ve come to take for granted certain ideas about intelligence.

What’s interesting is that most people do put their hands up and rate themselves on this question. They don’t seem to see any problem with the question itself and are happy to put themselves somewhere on the scale. Only a few have challenged the form of the question and asked what I mean by intelligence. I think that’s what everyone should do. I’m convinced that taking the definition of intelligence for granted is one of the main reasons why so many people underestimate their true intellectual abilities and fail to find their Element.

This commonsense view goes something like this: We are all born with a fixed amount of intelligence. It’s a trait, like blue or green eyes, or long or short limbs. Intelligence shows itself in certain types of activity, especially in math and our use of words. It’s possible to measure how much intelligence we have through pencil-and-paper tests, and to express this as a numerical grade. That’s it.

Put as bluntly as this, I trust this definition of intelligence sounds as questionable as it is. But essentially this definition runs through much of Western culture, and a good bit of Eastern culture as well. It is at the heart of our education systems and underpins a good deal of the multibillion-dollar testing industries that feed off public education throughout the world. It’s at the heart of the idea of academic ability, dominates college entrance examinations, underpins the hierarchy of subjects in education, and stands as the foundation for the whole idea of IQ.

This way of thinking about intelligence has a long history in Western culture and dates back at least to the days of the great Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Its most recent flowering was in the great period of intellectual advances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that we know as the Enlightenment. Philosophers and scholars aimed to establish a firm basis for human knowledge and to end the superstitions and mythologies about human existence that they believed had clouded the minds of previous generations.

One of the pillars of this new movement was a firm belief in the importance of logic and critical reasoning. Philosophers argued that we should not accept as knowledge anything that could not be proved through logical reasoning, especially in words and mathematical proofs. The problem was where to begin this process without taking anything for granted that might be logically questionable. The famous conclusion of the philosopher Rene Descartes was that the only thing that he could take for granted was his own existence; otherwise, he couldn’t have these thoughts in the first place. His thesis was, “I think, therefore I am.”

The other pillar of the Enlightenment was a growing belief in the importance of evidence in support of scientific ideas – evidence that one could observe through the human senses – rather than superstition or hearsay. These two pillars of reason and evidence became the foundations of an intellectual revolution that transformed the outlook and achievements of the Western world. It led to the growth of the scientific method and an avalanche of insights, analysis, and classification of ideas, objects, and phenomena that have extended the reach of human knowledge to the depths of the earth and to the far ends of the known universe. It led too to the spectacular advances in practical technology that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and to the supreme domination of these forms of thought in scholarship, in politics, in commerce, and in education.

The influence of logic and evidence extended beyond the ‘hard’ sciences. They also shaped the formative theories in the human sciences, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine. As public education grew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it too was based on these newly dominant ideas about knowledge and intelligence. As mass education grew to meet the growing demands of the Industrial Revolution, there was also a need for quick and easy forms of selection and assessment. The new science of psychology was on hand with new theories about how intelligence could be tested and measured. For the most part, intelligence was defined in terms of verbal and mathematical reasoning. These were also processes that were used to quantify the results. The most significant idea in the middle of all this was IQ.

So it is that we came to think of real intelligence in terms of logical analysis: believing that rationalist forms of thinking were superior to feeling and emotion, and that the ideas that really count can be conveyed in words or through mathematical expressions. In addition, we believed that we could quantify intelligence and rely on IQ tests and standardized tests like the SAT to identify who among us is truly intelligent and deserving of exalted treatment.

Ironically, Alfred Binet, one of the creators of the IQ test, intended the test to serve precisely the opposite function. In fact, he originally designed it (on commission from the French government) exclusively to identify children with special needs so they could get appropriate forms of schooling. He never intended it to identify degrees of intelligence or ‘mental worth.’ In fact, Binet noted that the scale he created ‘does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.’

Nor did he ever intend it to suggest that a person could not become more intelligent over time. ‘Some recent thinkers,’ he said, ‘[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.’

Still, some educators and psychologists took – and continue to take – IQ numbers to absurd lengths. In 1916, Lewis Terman of Stanford University published a revision of Binet’s IQ test. Known as the Stanford-Binet test, now in its fifth version, it is the basis of the modern IQ test. It is interesting to note, though, that Terman had a sadly extreme view of human capacity. These are his words, from the textbook The Measurement of Intelligence: ‘Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them feebleminded. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth . . . No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.’

Terman was an active player in one of the darker stages of education and public policy, one there is a good chance you are unaware of because most historians choose to leave it unmentioned, the way they might a crazy aunt or an unfortunate drinking incident in college. The eugenics movement sought to weed out entire sectors of the population by arguing that such traits as criminality and pauperism were hereditary, and that it was possible to identify these traits through intelligence testing. Perhaps most appalling among the movement’s claims was the notion that entire ethnic groups, including southern Europeans, Jews, Africans, and Latinos fell into such categories. ‘The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and Negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods,’ Terman wrote.

‘Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.’

The movement actually managed to succeed in lobbying for the passage of involuntary sterilization laws in thirty American states. This meant that the state could neuter people who fell below a particular IQ without their having any say in the matter. That each state eventually repealed the laws is a testament to common sense and compassion. That the laws existed in the first place is a frightening indication of how dangerously limited any standardized test is in calculating intelligence and the capacity to contribute to society.

IQ tests can even be a matter of life and death. A criminal who commits a capital offense is not subject to the death penalty if his IQ is below seventy. However, IQ scores regularly rise over the course of a generation (by as much as twenty-five points), causing the scale to be reset every fifteen to twenty years to maintain a mean score of one hundred. Therefore, someone who commits a capital offense may be more likely to be put to death at the beginning of a cycle than at the end. That’s giving a single test an awful lot of responsibility.

People can also improve their scores through study and practice. I read a case recently about a death row inmate who’d at that point spent ten years in jail on a life sentence (he wasn’t the trigger man, but he’d been involved in a robbery where someone died). During his incarceration, he took a series of courses. When re-tested, his IQ had risen more than ten points – suddenly making him eligible for execution.

Of course, most of us won’t ever be in a situation where we’re sterilized or given a lethal injection because of our IQ scores. But looking at these extremes allows us to ask some important questions, namely, What are these numbers? and, What do they truly say about our intelligence? The answer is that the numbers largely indicate a person’s ability to perform on a test of certain sorts of mathematical and verbal reasoning. In other words, they measure some types of intelligence, not the whole of intelligence. And, as noted above, the baseline keeps shifting to accommodate improvements in the population as a whole over time.

Our fascination with IQ is a corollary to our fascination with – and great dependence on – standardized testing in our schools. Teachers spend large chunks of every school year preparing their students for statewide tests that will determine everything from the child’s placement in classes the following year to the amount of funding the school will receive. These tests of course do nothing to take the child’s (or the school’s) special skills and needs into consideration, yet they have a tremendous say in the child’s scholastic fate.

The standardized test that currently has the most impact on a child’s academic future in America is the SAT. Interestingly, Carl Brigham, the inventor of the SAT, was also a eugenicist. He conceived the test for the military and, to his credit, disowned it five years later, rejecting eugenics at the same time. However, by this point, Harvard and other Ivy League schools had begun to use it as a measure of applicant acceptability. For nearly seven decades, most American colleges have used it (or the similar ACT) as an essential part of their screening processes, though some colleges are beginning to rely upon it less.

The SAT is in many ways the indicator for what is wrong with standardized tests: it only measures a certain kind of intelligence; it does it in an entirely impersonal way; it attempts to make common assumptions about the college potential of a hugely varied group of teenagers in one-size-fits-all fashion; and it drives high school juniors and seniors to spend hundreds of hours preparing for it at the expense of school study or the pursuit of other passions. John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review, offers this stinging criticism: ‘What makes the SAT bad is that it has nothing to do with what kids learn in high school. As a result, it creates a sort of shadow curriculum that furthers the goals of neither educators nor students . . . The SAT has been sold as snake oil; it measured intelligence, verified high school GPA, and predicted college grades. In fact, it’s never done the first two at all, nor a particularly good job at the third.’

Yet students who don’t test well or who aren’t particularly strong at the kind of reasoning the SAT assesses can find themselves making compromises on their collegiate futures – all because we’ve come to accept that intelligence comes with a number. This notion is pervasive, and it extends well beyond academia. Remember the bell-shaped curve we discussed earlier? It presents itself every time I ask people how intelligent they think they are because we’ve come to define intelligence far too narrowly. We think we know the answer to the question, ‘How intelligent are you?’ The real answer, though, is that the question itself is the wrong one to ask.


Ken Robinson and The Element

June 15, 2010

I’ve started reading The Element by Ken Robinson, and I think it should be compulsory reading for all parents and teachers. Here’s a lengthy extract from pages 12-17:

Most of us can look back to particular teachers who inspired us and changed our lives. These teachers excelled and reached us, but they did this in spite of the basic culture and mindset of public education. There are significant problems with that culture, and I don’t see nearly enough improvements. In many systems, the problems are getting worse. This is true just about everywhere.

When my family and I moved from England to America, our two children, James and Kate, started at high school in Los Angeles. In some ways, the system was very different from the one we knew in the UK. For example, the children had to study some subjects they had never taken before – like American history. We don’t really teach American history in Britain. We suppress it. Our policy is to draw a veil across the whole sorry episode. We arrived in the United States four days before Independence Day, just in time to watch others revel in having thrown the British out of the country. Now that we’ve been here a few years and know what to expect, we tend to spend Independence Day indoors with the blinds closed, flicking through old photographs of the Queen.

In many ways, though, the education system in the United States is very similar to that in the United Kingdom, and in most other places in the world. Three features stand out in particular. First, there is the preoccupation with certain sorts of academic ability. I know that academic ability is very important. But school systems tend to be preoccupied with certain sorts of critical analysis and reasoning, particularly with words and numbers. Important as those skills are, there is much more to human intelligence than that. I’ll discuss this at length in the next chapter.

The second feature is the hierarchy of subjects. At the top of the hierarchy are mathematics, science, and language skills. In the middle are the humanities. At the bottom are the arts. In the arts, there is another hierarchy: music and visual arts normally have a higher status than theater and dance. In fact, more and more schools are cutting the arts out of the curriculum altogether. A huge high school might have only one fine arts teacher, and even elementary school children get very little time to simply paint and draw.

The third feature is the growing reliance on particular types of assessment. Children everywhere are under intense pressure to perform at higher and higher levels on a narrow range of standardized tests.

Why are school systems like this? The reasons are cultural and historical. Again, we’ll discuss this at length in a later chapter, and I’ll say what I think we should do to transform education. The point here is that most systems of mass education came into being relatively recently – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These systems were designed to meet the economic interests of those times – times that were dominated by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Math, science, and language skills were essential for jobs in the industrial economies. The other big influence on education has been the academic culture of universities, which has tended to push aside any sort of activity that involves the heart, the body, the senses, and a good portion of our actual brains.

The result is that school systems everywhere inculcate us with a very narrow view of intelligence and capacity and overvalue particular sorts of talent and ability. In doing so, they neglect others that are just as important, and they disregard the relationships between them in sustaining the vitality of our lives and communities. This stratified, one-size-fits-all approach to education marginalizes all of those who do not take naturally to learning this way.

Very few schools and even fewer school systems in the world teach dance every day as a formal part of their curricula, as they do with math. Yet we know that many students only become engaged when they’re using their bodies. For instance, Gillian Lynne told me that she did better at all of her subjects once she discovered dance. She was one of those people who had to “move to think.” Unfortunately, most kids don’t find someone to play the role the psychologist played in Gillian’s life – especially now. When they fidget too much, they’re medicated and told to calm down.

The current systems also put severe limits on how teachers teach and students learn. Academic ability is very important, but so are other ways of thinking. People who think visually might love a particular topic or subject, but won’t realize it if their teachers only present it in one, nonvisual way. Yet our education systems increasingly encourage teachers to teach students in a uniform fashion. To appreciate the implications of the epiphany stories told here, and indeed to seek out our own, we need to rethink radically our view of intelligence.

These approaches to education are also stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the twenty-first century – the powers of creative thinking. Our systems of education put a high premium on knowing the single right answer to a question. In fact, with programs like No Child Left Behind (a federal program that seeks to improve the performance of American public schools by making schools more accountable for meeting mandated performance levels) and its insistence that all children from every part of the country hew to the same standards, we’re putting a greater emphasis than ever before on conformity and finding the “right” answers.

All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think. When my son was four, his preschool put on a production of the Nativity story. During the show, there was a wonderful moment when three little boys came onstage as the Three Wise Men, carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I think the second boy lost his nerve a little and went out of sequence. The third boy had to improvise a line he hadn’t learned, or paid much attention to during rehearsals, given that he was only four. The first boy said, “I bring you gold.” The second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.”

The third boy said, “Frank sent this.”

Who’s Frank, you think? The thirteenth apostle? The lost Book of Frank?

What I loved about this was that it illustrated that, when they are very young, kids aren’t particularly worried about being wrong. If they aren’t sure what to do in a particular situation, they’ll just have a go at it and see how things turn out. This is not to suggest that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. Sometimes being wrong is just being wrong. What is true is that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

There is a basic flaw in the way some policymakers have interpreted the idea of going “back to basics” to upgrade educational standards. They look at getting back to basics as a way of reinforcing the old Industrial Revolution-era hierarchy of subjects. They seem to believe that if they feed our children a nationally prescribed menu of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we’ll be more competitive with the world and more prepared for the future.

What is catastrophically wrong with this mode of thinking is that it severely underestimates human capacity. We place tremendous significance on standardized tests, we cut funding for what we consider “nonessential” programs, and then we wonder why our children seem unimaginative and uninspired. In these ways, our current education system systematically drains the creativity out of our children.

Most students never get to explore the full range of their abilities and interests. Those students whose minds work differently – and we’re talking about many students here; perhaps even the majority of them – can feel alienated from the whole culture of education. This is exactly why some of the most successful people you’ll ever meet didn’t do well at school. Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn. There’s a huge irony in the middle of all of this.

The reason many school systems are going in this direction is that politicians seem to think that it’s essential for economic growth and competitiveness and to help students get jobs. But the fact is that in the twenty-first century, jobs and competitiveness depend absolutely on the very qualities that school systems are being forced to tamp down and that this book is celebrating. Businesses everywhere say they need people who are creative and can think independently. But the argument is not just about business. It’s about having lives with purpose and meaning in and beyond whatever work we do.

The idea of going back to basics isn’t wrong in and of itself. I also believe we need to get our kids back to basics. However, if we’re really going to go back to basics, we need to go all the way back. We need to rethink the basic nature of human ability and the basic purposes of education now.

There was a time in our history when the steam engine reigned supreme. It was powerful, it was effective, and it was significantly more efficient than the propulsion system that came before it. Eventually, though, it no longer served the needs of the people, and the internal combustion engine ushered in a new paradigm. In many ways, our current education system is like the steam engine – and it’s running out of steam rather quickly.

This problem of old thinking hardly ends when we leave school. These features of education are replicated in public institutions and corporate organizations, and the cycle goes around and around. As anyone in the corporate world knows, it’s very easy to be “typed” early in your career. When this happens, it becomes exceedingly difficult to make the most of your other – and perhaps truer – talents. If the corporate world sees you as a financial type, you’ll have a difficult time finding employment on the “creative” side of the business. We can fix this by thinking and acting differently ourselves and in our organizations. In fact, it is essential that we do.