« Checkbook Math--Policy and Practice Don't Reconcile | Main | The \$100,000 Question »

Are Chimps Smarter Than Fifth Graders?

It was only a matter of time! First there was Jeopardy! I’m sure I would do as well as Ken Jennings. Then there was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which has some pretty baby questions and lets contestants ask for help. It’s almost as if we have a devolving frame of mind about our abilities. And for further evidence of that possibility, now there is Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

I am proud to say that I am smarter than a fifth grader, by the way. I know because I played online three times and won every time and never had to ask a 10-year old for help. However, I’m not sure that knowing that Seattle is more populous than Tacoma, or that all elm trees are not indigenous to the North American continent, or that Salt Lake City, Utah is closer to Phoenix than Pierre, South Dakota makes me all that smart. However, I felt pretty good about being Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.

But now it looks like I’d probably go down in flames if I had to go up against a chimpanzee trained by Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzaw of Kyoto University. The story appears in National Geographic News

One memory test included three five-year-old chimps who were taught the order of Arabic numerals 1 through 9, and a dozen human volunteers. Participants saw nine numbers displayed on a computer screen. When they touched the first number, the other eight turned into white squares. The test was to touch all these squares in the order of the numbers that used to be there. Results showed that the chimps, while no more accurate than the people, could do this faster.

The people against whom their skills were measured were college students who had been training for six months. All the chimps could beat the humans, but the younger chimps were faster than the older ones.

So what, exactly, does this research mean? Well, it depends on what you want to prove. Here are some possible conclusions that the media might draw:

Chimps are better at math than humans
College students are not as smart as chimpanzees
Schools should model instruction on behavior modification techniques
Planet of the Apes was a visionary look at the future of our civilization

But AP writer Malcolm Ritter reports that Dr. Matsuzaw

Thinks two factors gave his chimps the edge. For one thing, he believes human ancestors gave up much of this skill over evolutionary time to make room in the brain for gaining language abilities. The other factor is the youth of Ayumu and his peers. The memory for images that is needed for the tests resembles a skill found in children, but which dissipates with age.
So what do we learn? Maybe this study just puts some more questions on the table.

Is recognition and recall learning or training?
Does increasing speed of response without increasing accuracy of response matter?
Could the cognitive assessments that value recall above all else (so popular among some school reformers) be less than optimum measures of meaningful learning?
Is the loss of visual recall really a “loss” or does it indicate a “gain” in abstract thinking?

All of these are interesting questions and ones that Dr. Matsuzaw would probably be willing to discuss with other serious-minded people. But the truth is that “Chimps Outsmart College Students” is just so much more fun than “Research Indicates Trained Chimps Demonstrate Faster Response to Numerical Sequencing Recall Than Humans”—just like playing Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader is more amusing that seriously considering what is critical for a 10-year old to know. Too bad so much of our public discourse on evaluating learning boils down to entertainment, sound bites and memory games.

Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous. Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC), The Confucian Analects

Great post, as always.

Well speaking of learning boiling down to entertainment, sound bites and memory games. Wanna know whey those 5th graders are so darn smart?

Because they have Cell Phones! They do not memorize all those unrelated facts-
Google has a very slick short message service (SMS) interface that you can use to get all sorts of information like you describe above.

You use the service by simply sending your query as a text message to GOOGL (aka 46645) and a few seconds later it returns the result of your query. Pretty darn easy- in fact.. so easy I bet a chimp could do it!

As always, Susan, your thinking is excellent! Sheryl's point about cell phones supports the notion that teaching and learning *must* change in the 21st century. Recall and memorization will not ensure our students' success in a global economy.

Thanks for pushing *our* thinking, Susan!

If only we could get those legislators to read and reflect on Susan's post. Maybe they would actually rethink some of their perceptions on what qualifies as learning! I have to admit that Susan's blog and Sheryl's phone information have me doing some serious reflecting, and I, too, appreciate having my thinking pushed.

If only we could get those legislators to read and reflect on Susan's post. Maybe they would actually rethink some of their perceptions on what qualifies as learning! I have to admit that Susan's blog and Sheryl's phone information have me doing some serious reflecting, and I, too, appreciate having my thinking pushed.

I saw this clip and was quite amazed with how quick the chimps were with hitting the numbers even when they were covered. I agree with Melissa's post. This video showed that Chimps can memorize quicker than the human testers. However, in our society, our success does not depend on memorization, but application. Can the chimps do anything with their memorization of sequential numbers? Should teachers be pushing students to memorize for the end of grade test or to apply the knowledge throughout their lifetime?This is something the government does need to think about.

Comments are now closed for this post.

• Stern: I saw this clip and was quite amazed with how read more
• LJ: If only we could get those legislators to read and read more
• LJ: If only we could get those legislators to read and read more