Monday, 7 September 2015

Why can't we talk about intelligence and genetics? (#rED15)

At ResearchEd 2014, I stumbled into Andrew Sabisky's talk on IQ. It wasn't my intention to go to it, but whatever I had picked was full and I made this my wildcard. This is great advice for all future ResearchEd conferences, "Don't panic. Go to wildcards."

I found his presentation fascinating (see <here>), and I remember thinking to myself that I couldn't recall anyone during my training, or nine years of teaching, really discussing the idea of intelligence, IQ or 'general mental ability factor' - even less so, it's effect on classroom practice and educational systems. Genetics was another feature of his talk, and again something which remains a taboo in most educational training and debate.

Since then, I've spoken to Andrew a few times about intelligence and his research which has lead to my interest in the topic growing. However, and not by Andrew, I have been warned on numerous occasions by several people... DO NOT DISCUSS INTELLIGENCE OR GENETICS ON TWITTER or indeed with anyone you consider a friend in education; you will fall out. Or get labelled as a Nazi.

At ResearchEd 2015, I attended Stuart Ritchie's presentation on IQ (and why it is so controversial) and it has done nothing to stop my interest. Why don't we talk about intelligence? Why don't we let it effect decisions we make in the classroom or school? Should we better recognise genetic factors in schools?

It was an excellent talk, showing convincing, comprehensive studies over long periods, with lots of participants. He included lots of fascinating information, such as the fact that there are a greater number of boys at the high and low ends of the IQ spectrum, and people with big brains ARE cleverer. It's all in his book, which I have added to my 'to read' list (see <here>).

I must point out that I am no expert in any of this, and I am writing as an absolute 'lay-man' on the topic. Please correct me if and when I have got things wrong. This is also deliberately 'light' and accessible; I also appreciate these topics are like Pandora's Box, and many won't want to read any further.

It certainly seems that most psychologists believe that a general mental ability factor, or 'intelligence' exists which explains performance in cognitive testing. IQ tests are designed to approximately measure this. The resulting score is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. These IQ scores are fairly good indicators of educational attainment, income, tendency towards crime, life expectancy and other socio-economic outcomes. I'm pretty sure someone told me that IQ tests are not perfect, but we are able to more accurately measure IQ than we can measure a person's height or weight.

In spite of all this, the mainstream media, and indeed many in education, particularly teachers, seem to suggest:
  • IQ scores have little meaning
  • Genes have no impact on IQ
  • Testing of IQ is so biased it is useless
  • Doing well at at IQ test is simply a measure of how good you are doing well at IQ tests (Named "Ritchie's Law" during his talk)
However, with even my limited reading about intelligence, this just doesn't seem to be the case. It IS a controversial topic, and it can be quite emotional (eugenics and the Nazis hasn't helped this). Some have suggested that in a modern, liberal society we do not like to think about people, let alone our students, as intrinsically unequal.

Yet as Dylan Williams suggests, the above views are just not backed up by scientific research. Instead science seems to suggest:
  • Intelligence is determined by both environment and genetics, and the genetic influence is substantial;
  • Intelligence tests correlate strongly with a range of other measurements of mental capability;
  • Intelligence is strongly associated with success in a wide range of real world activities;
  • There are several different aspects of intelligence, but most of them are strongly inter-related.  <Source>

If this is correct, maybe there should be better discussion about intelligence and genetics in schools.

Intelligence is not a limiting factor in education, but it needs to be recognised that some students will need to work harder to achieve the same goals as others. This is why some have suggested that grit, character and growth mindset are vital to develop and explicitly teach in schools. Will these counter some of the effects of intelligence and genetics? Does the lack of these qualities explain why some bright students do not succeed?

Are CATs scores useful in schools? Are they simply a tool for identifying the 'More Able' or 'Gifted and Talented', or just to get the Y7 sets "about right"? Could they be used as a better indicator of under achievement at GCSE than anything else we have? Do we have faith in our CATS scores? Should we?

Andrew's talk at Wellington Festival of Education (see <here>) suggested other ideas such that Pupil Premium money would be better allocated based on intelligence to really be most effective. He also noted that due to correlation of income to intelligence, it would be likely to include many of the same students, but it would nevertheless a better way to allocate funds. Is this as controversial as it first sounds? 

Intelligence adds an important dynamic and consideration to 'closing the gap' in education. If it was better recognised, and further discussed, would we have a greater chance to close the achievement gap (or is 'closing the gap' actually an impossible task?)? Schools do remain the biggest factor in increasing IQs, despite it's effect being somewhat less that what some people hope.

If it remains a taboo, shut down or awkwardly avoided, there is little chance we'll ever fully understand it's effects. It should not be the great unspoken in education. This is not helpful to schools, teachers or students.

If a 'bell curve' of intelligence exists (and it certainly seems to), we can reasonably hope to shift the whole thing, but not eradicate it. Michael Wilshaw was heavily criticised for suggesting that it was unacceptable that some children left school 'below average' (see <here>) because there will always be a distribution of intelligence - and that is not have averages work! Nicky Morgan again came under fire when discussing 'coasting' schools where she warned that an school without "an above-average proportion of students making acceptable progress" over a three period would be under DfE scrutiny (see Tom Sherrington <here>).

I think the message to students must remain:

We don't want you to fulfil your potential, we want you to exceed it. Regardless of intelligence or IQ score, we don't know what your upper limit is (in terms of GCSE/A-Level grades).

The message to teachers, schools and policy makers:

Let's talk more about this.

Schools Week report on the session <here>

Further Info (some of my reading used to write this)
  • David Didau on "Reading Ability": <here>
  • Andrew's podcast interview on "Genetics and Education": <here>
  • Andrew's presentation from ResearchEd 2014: "Nature and Nurture" <here>
  • Andrew's presentation from Wellington Festival of Education 2015: "Ability and Education": <here>
  • The neuroscience of human intelligence differences - <here>
  • Toby Young - "The Fall of the Meritocracy" - man is not a mould-able piece of clay <here>


  1. good blog. A few thoughts. Intelligence must act as a bar on achievement, especially at higher levels, but it's very hard to be precise about it. For many people the effort involved in mastering maths A-level will not be worth it; it will take far too long. Some people will never be able to do maths A-level at all. With our current level of knowledge, can I or anyone safely and precisely identify these people on the basis of an IQ test? No. Not least because other factors are involved in educational achievement, such as personality traits like Conscientiousness. When faced with a serious discrepancy between IQ and achievement, believe in the achievement. After all, IQ is good because it predicts achievement, but achievement is achievement (think Greg Cochran might have said this at some point...) -

    It's worth remembering the story of my friend who has cerebral palsy - at age 3 she was given a non-verbal IQ test on which she scored very badly, and the ed psych gravely warned her father she might really struggle in school. Her father pointed out that in the waiting room she was reading a book aimed at 8 year olds. She still can't do spatial tasks but those apart has always excelled in academic contexts - we did the MSc together. For some special populations abilities do not intercorrelate quite so well as they do in the general population. I am actually quite convinced that as awesome as IQ tests are, they are heavily overused in SEN diagnosis, which is not what they were invented for. You can and should use them to examine the possibility of general intellectual disability, but IQ tests are not very informative about specific learning difficulties.

    anyway, it is one of my least popular opinions but I do not think income-based achievement gaps are easy to make disappear in a meritocratic society. If IQ predicts income (which it does - modestly - even within sibling pairs), and if IQ is even somewhat heritable (it is, highly), then necessarily the children of the rich will have, on average, somewhat better genes for IQ than the children of the poor. This is accentuated by assortative mating for IQ. It's surprisingly hard to get out of the logic of this syllogism. For the latest empirical work on this subject see

    1. If IQ is highly heritable then the description of a system that awards high status to those who perform well at academic tasks and low status to those who don't as 'meritocractic' is highly questionable. In what sense do we deserve our genes? If my success at school was created in the womb, and you make a good case it was, then I didn't deserve it any more than I deserve to be tall and white.

      I think we can make great strides to reducing income-based achievement gaps, while retaining the undisputed benefits of academic education. We can do this by broadening the curriculum for all children to include practical, collective tasks (such as starting a business) and an arts education geared towards product and performance (as opposed to writing about the product and the performance). A broad curriculum that didn't explicitly place students in a status hierarchy.

      Of course, students with high IQ would retain an edge in all these tasks over those with low IQ. But it would be a blunter edge than the one given by our present curriculum which bolsters their IQ advantage with a notion of social superiority while compounding the disadvantage of low IQ by linking it to low social status.