FT.com / Arts & Weekend / Living – Are children getting cleverer?
Today’s children are almost certainly no more inherently intelligent than those of yesteryear, they are certainly no dumber. They are just learning different skills – skills, incidentally, that enable them to do better in IQ tests than their parents.
After all, a generation ago, before the dawn of the information age, information was much harder to come by than it is now, so schools attached a lot more importance to rote learning and the accumulation of knowledge. You had to be able to name all the world’s capital cities, list the world’s longest rivers and memorise famous poems.
Today, a lot of older people think youngsters are growing dumber because they do not have as much of this kind of information stored in their heads. But they are comparing apples with pears. Now, the emphasis has shifted from “what” to “how”, which is why it is hard to compare today’s educational standards with those of previous generations. It also gives rise to the paradox whereby one minute, parents are berating their children for not knowing what the capital of Canada is and the next, they are begging them to fix a software glitch on the household PC.
“It may be true that kids don’t know the capitals as well as they did before, but part of my reaction to that is: You know what? We have Google now,” Johnson says. “Is it more important that they have memorised the names of all the capitals or that they have great skills at using the internet to find the information they need? One is give someone fish; the other is teach them how to fish.”
While it is surely good news that children today are getting better at using the skills that, by most definitions, constitute intelligence, there are a couple of snags. In the UK, while other cognitive skills have improved, arithmetic skills, as measured in IQ tests, have declined, probably because of a shortage of good maths teachers. And we should bear in mind that the scientists’ definition of intelligence does not extend to qualities such as wisdom, insight, creativity, empathy or having a good sense of humour, any or all of which could be more important in life than knowing which letter comes next in the series B A C B D C E D F _.
There is something else, too. The Flynn effect appears to be finite. The annual rises in IQ scores are slowing in some countries and in Scandinavia they appear to have stopped altogether.
And no, says Flynn, it is not because our brains are full up. (How dumb is that?) “I think it is to do with social trends,” he says. “The factors that have been fuelling this are reaching their limits.” In well-off, advanced societies such as those in Scandinavia, the scientific ethos has probably spread as far as it ever will and families can hardly get any smaller.
As for making ever more imaginative use of your free time: “I think at a certain point people want to relax rather than be challenged during leisure,” Flynn says. “You can only stuff so many cognitively demanding things into leisure before it stops being fun.”
PUT YOURSELF TO THE TEST
Perhaps one reason why IQ scores are rising is because people are getting more practice taking tests. Bookshops and the internet these days heave with opportunities for self-assessment. These questions are from IQTest.com. Pencil and paper are not allowed and you are penalised if you take more than 20 seconds per question.
1 A round wall clock that has been rotated until it is hanging upside down will have a minute hand that points to the right when it is 2.45. True or False?
2 Sixteen hours are to one day as 20 days are to June’s length. True or False?
3 The sequence of words “triangle, glove, clock, bicycle” corresponds to the sequence of numbers “3, 5, 12, 2”.
True or False?
4 If Richard looks into a mirror and touches his left ear with his right hand, Richard’s image seems to touch its right ear with its left hand. True or False?
5 The number 64 is the next logical number in the following sequence: 2, 6, 14, 30 . . . True or False?
Answers: 1. True 2. True. 3. True. 4. True. 5. False