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Toby Young
Friday 3rd November 2017

Why all children should be exposed to the best that's been thought and said


I read with interest Dr Kathryn Asbury’s excellent contribution to the debate about the influence of genetically-based individual differences on educational attainment. Her article was, in part, a response to a blog post by me on the subject, as well as a response by Professor Sonia Blandford, which briefly appeared on the Teach First website before being taken down. I have reposted the two blogs on my website – mine is here, Professor Blandford’s is here – and you can read an article about the whole imbroglio on Quillette here.

As that article points out, my post accurately summarised mainstream scientific research in this area but it is worth highlighting that not everyone accepts the findings of psychologists and behavioural geneticists. One of the claims I made is that there is little robust evidence that schools can raise the general cognitive ability of individual students – which is not to say it is impossible, only that we have not yet discovered how to do it. But the fact that schools have not yet found a reliable way of closing the attainment gaps linked to genetically-based individual differences does not mean they cannot shift the entire bell curve to the right, and many schools do. That is, good schools can raise the mean even if they cannot close those gaps. But I should have added that many eminent social scientists believe that some experimental interventions have successfully raised children’s IQs. For a summary of the evidence, see this article by Richard E Nisbett, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Dr Asbury and I broadly agree on what the science tells us about the relative impact of nature and nurture, but I part company with her when she links this to an argument for more flexible targets within our education system and a greater plurality of goals. The fact that half the population of schoolchildren have below average IQs, and that fact that IQ is linked to academic attainment, does not mean that only the top half should be entered for the English Baccalaureate. Expecting 90 per cent of children to achieve level 5 or above in the seven EBacc GCSEs may be unrealistic, but there are good reasons for thinking that entering that number is the best way of maximising the percentage of children who obtain it. And the exam results of children in the world’s highest-performing education regions – Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai – suggest that significantly more than half of our schoolchildren should be able to meet that target. (To read more, click here.)

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Re: Why all children should be exposed to the best that
Posted by Tom Burkard on 09-11-2017 14:43:

Bit late on this one--only just discovered your blog via Guido.

Although I agree with your arguments, I think that we've become far too fixated on IQ--as you understand perfectly well, efforts to teach generic 'thinking skills' to low ability kids have had exactly the opposite of the intended effect. I would argue that this obsession with fluid intelligence harms all pupils; in a blog post earlier this year, Heather Fearn recounted her efforts to teach her kids maths, and the enormous amount of time she devoted to automatic recall of number bonds and fluent use of conventional algorithms. Her kids ended up way ahead of the rest; as she said, the conceptual bits just aren't a 'biggie' if you've got the foundation in place.

I'm pretty sure that Heather's kids have a healthy genetic endowment, but I think we should be thinking more of the value of crystallised intelligence. Anyone who has been in the military will understand that senior NCOs are seldom of much more than average fluid intelligence, but at the same time they have such a wealth of crystallised intelligence in terms or their trade, their mission and their men that no officer--no matter how bright--would make a significant decision against their advice. The same applies to the building trades; on the occasionS when I worked on site as a carpenter, I found that clerks of work would routinely tell skilled tradesmen to 'get over' blunders made by architects. It was a far better way of getting things done than going back to the architects and trying to get them to understand where they'd cocked up and how to put it right.

Recently, a good friend of mine--my key aide on the Phoenix team--has been establishing a comprehensive system of routine testing of knowledge in his Science department, and it has been so successful that he's just been made HoD. It has transformed his pupils' attitude to learning and improved behaviour so much that his colleagues and his SLT--who were initially very sceptical--are now rolling it out in all departments.

Obviously, Katherine Birbalsingh has gone down this road, but to see this succeeding in a school where the SLT are lukewarm at best just goes to show how much there is to gain when we abandon our obsession with IQ.






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