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Changes in Thinking About Intelligence

The debate over whether intelligence is inherited has far-reaching implications for schools.  Although word-smarts and number-smarts, which are collectively known as "g," are certainly important in student learning, they are unreliable predictors of future success in the workplace and in the personal lives of students.  This is particularly the case with children from low-income families ("The Smartest Questions to Ask About Intelligence," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21).

With childhood poverty in the U.S. about 20 percent, small differences in opportunities overwhelm genetic differences for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  This means that IQ scores can be dramatically altered by changes in environment. Teachers in schools with large numbers of students from poor families have long known this, but their views were not given serious attention. That's why anything that can enrich instruction is so important. For example, I recently visited the Getty Center during the week to see busloads of students from inner-city schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District accompanied by their teachers going on tours.

Nevertheless, there are those who adamantly cling to the belief that intelligence is almost exclusively the result of the architectural and neural functioning of the brain. Perhaps the most outspoken is Charles Murray, author of Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008). He argues that efforts to raise intelligence significantly and permanently are exercises in futility.  Even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by the limits on intelligence.

Even if Murray is correct, his view is not as deterministic as it initially seems.  Some of today's most successful people never excelled in numeracy and literacy.  Instead, they possessed other forms of intelligence that enabled them to have a productive and gratifying life. That's why I've long supported art, music and vocational classes.  These provide students with an opportunity to develop their interests and talents.  They may not score as high on IQ tests as their peers who shine in traditional academic courses, but down the line they can surprise everyone by their accomplishments.

 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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