Teaching to make children cleverer: Part 1

I’ve argued previously that the aim of education ought to be to make children cleverer. If I’m right, then not only is it desirable, it’s also possible to achieve this end. But before we can do so, we need to make sure we have a solid understanding of precisely which aspects of intelligence we might be able to boost.

In What Is Intelligence? James Flynn suggests a number of factors that make up an individual’s intelligence:

  • Mental acuity – the ability to come up with solutions to problems about which we have no prior knowledge
  • Habits of mind – the ways in which we are accustomed to using our minds; if we practice thinking in certain ways we are likely to improve at thinking in those ways
  • Attitudes – how the society in which we live tends to view and think about the world. Flynn argues that seeing the world through “scientific spectacles” has changed the way we think from being essentially concrete to being much more abstract.
  • Knowledge and information – the more you know, the more you can think about; no one can think about things they have no knowledge of.
  • Speed of information processing – how quickly we assimilate new data.
  • Memory – our ability to retrieve information when it will be useful.*

Of these, mental acuity and speed of information processing are probably innate. That is to say, what you’ve got is all you’ll ever have. The others are all, to a greater or lesser extent subject to various environmental factors and are therefore more or less malleable. In order to understand how best we might teach in order to make children cleverer, let’s consider the relative profitability of concentrating on the remaining four aspects.

Habits of mind are inherently subject to practice. If you’ve never done a cryptic crossword before you’ll probably struggle no matter how good you are at dreaming up novel solutions or how rapidly you accumulate new ideas. But, as you get used to doing crosswords you learn to spot patterns. You have to get used to thinking about how the same word can be used as a noun or a verb, or how likely you are to have to solve an anagram to find an answer. As teachers, we can profitably direct students to think in particular ways about the subjects we teach. Although possessing mathematical knowledge will be a prerequisite for solving mathematical problems, it’s also true that having practised solving particular problems will be a great help in solving further problems. That said, too much effort at simply developing students’ habits of mind without an equal or greater focus on knowledge and information could be costly. In a subject like English I’ve been dismayed at how it’s possible to train students in the habit of produce writing which looks, from a distance, like an academic essay but, because students often do not know enough about the subject of their writing, the essays are often absurdly empty. (See here for a post on ‘cargo cult’ writing.)

Although social attitudes may sometimes shift fairly rapidly, more commonly change is slow and incremental. We are often unaware of the power of these attitudes to shape our thoughts. I’ve written before about so-called ‘meta beliefs’ such as those we can trace back to Romanticism or the Enlightenment. It’s hard for us to now understand the religious attitudes which permeated our forebears’ patterns of thought, and it would be even more difficult to think our way back to the pre-agrarian ways of thinking our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have possessed. It’s almost certainly true that the mental attitudes of an individual do not necessarily have to reflect those of the social group in which she lives, but these departures will probably be relatively rare and subtle. As such, this aspect of intelligence is probably one which is fairly resistant to the efforts of teachers.

There’s no doubt we can improve our memory – or, more specifically, our ability to retrieve information – and much has been written over recent years about the promise of techniques like spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice in improving students’ memories. These sorts of approaches are very well supported by evidence and so there’s every reason to believe that they should be effective in supporting students’ ability to recall what they have been taught. But, and this is something that is probably not considered often enough, what is it that students are able to recall? I’ve taught many students who appear to have a fabulous memory for football statistics or pop song lyrics, but few teachers would see these as appreciably improving students’ intelligence.

This leads us to the final category of intelligence: knowledge and information. I contend that it is the quality and the quantity of what you know that, to a large extent, determines how clever you are. Although it’s no doubt true that those students with greater mental acuity and faster information processing are likely to co-opt the environment to also know more (the quicker you learn things and the better you solve problems, the more likely you are to be labelled as bright and to be put into top sets etc.) it’s also true that what you know is entirely dependent on your environment. As an extreme, if a child were to be raised by wolves, they wouldn’t end up knowing much that would be useful in a modern society. If a child is raised in an environment where they are read to and where the adults in their lives include them in discussions about current affairs, then they’re infinitely more likely to be able to think about these things than those children who don’t have these advantages.

The quantity and quality of what children know is, I believe, the most important individual difference between them. Those who know more are, on average, cleverer than those who know less. Although it’s certain that some children are more ‘able’ than others due to their innate advantages, this is trivially true because there’s not really anything we can do about it. However, we can do an awful lot about developing the quality and the quantity of what our students know. We can, deliberately and systematically, introduce them to the concepts and information that are most prized by society and, carefully and patiently, we can ensure that they know them with real fluency. Clearly this suggest that we think carefully about the curriculum, but I also think it points the way in how we ought to go about the practice of teaching.

In Part 2 of this series of posts I will discuss in more detail what teaching for intelligence might look like and how we might need to adjust some of our own attitudes and habits of mind if we are to make this a possibility. 

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* All of these factors are, I’m convinced, subject to g – the tendency of mental abilities to correlate so that an individual with higher than average mental acuity is also likely to know more and possess a better ability to recall information. However, Flynn argues persuasively that g is just one factor affecting human intelligence. He suggests that we should also think about intelligence both physiologically and socially if we are to make sense of the Flynn Effect (the finding that IQ scores have increased enormously over the past 100 years but that some aspects of intelligence have increased much more than others.) Essentially, Flynn argues that social pressures reward acquiring skill in certain areas disproportionately more than others and that the big social change over the period of these IQ increases has been the increasing tendency to view the world through ‘scientific spectacles’ and think in more abstract terms. This social pressure has, he suggests, caused some cognitive attributes to “swim freely of g“. Although this is conjecture, I find Flynn’s thesis compelling and it’s currently the only one which adequately fits the facts.

7 Responses to Teaching to make children cleverer: Part 1

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    James Flynn’s book ‘How to Improve Your Mind’ should be something of a cautionary tale: rather than raising any of the above issues, he sets out in detail the typical intellectual and political prejudices of a liberal American university don. About the only issue where he’s out of step is on post-modernism–he’s agin it. As one reviewer suggested, “…a more honest and authentic title of the book would have been ‘How to Improve Your Mind – by Thinking Like Me’ “.

    Still, this serves to illustrate the biggest trap of all when we teach kids ‘how to think’: if Flynn can slide into the trap of teaching us ‘what to think’, what hope is there for us ordinary mortals? With the best will in the world, it’s hard to teach children about ‘attitudes’ and ‘habits of mind’ without privileging our own views on contentious issues.

    Even the selection of knowledge and information we choose to impart will inevitably reflect our biases. However, the more students learn about a subject, the better placed they are to form their own attitudes and habits of mind.

  2. Luc Kumps says:

    (there’s a verb missing in “but few teachers would these as appreciably improving students’ intelligence”)

    Two thoughts…

    1. Perhaps “knowledge and information” can be increased not only by “the practice of teaching” but by something like “increasing curiosity” (Richard Feynman gave great examples of how his father did this, in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character “). This makes learners HUNT for “knowledge and information”.

    2. Which factors contributes most to the Flynn Effect? I would guess “Habits of mind” and “Knowledge and information”…

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks: typo corrected.

      1. You certainly can – but this disproportionately benefits the most privileged at disadvantages the most disadvantaged. You need knowledge to hunt for knowledge. I’ll unpack this theme further in part 2.
      2. Flynn is very clear that it’s social attitudes that he believes have resulted in massive gains in similarities and Ravens scores.

  3. Michael Pye says:

    What specific cognitive attributes “swim freely of g“?

  4. […] my last post I reviewed those aspects on intelligence which are likely to be most malleable by teachers. […]

  5. […] discussed in Part 1 of this series of posts, it seems probable that the best way to use education to increase […]

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