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Intelligence and Education

I’ve noted a few times that the political center needs to come to grips with research on genes and intelligence or we risk ceding the field to people with scary impulses and frightening goals. I think something like what the center-left position should be is reasonably well articulated by Richard J. Haier. Haier is a professor emeritus in the University of California at Irvine medical school, editor in chief of the journal Intelligence, and he was one of the signators of the Mainstream Science on Intelligence: An Editorial With 52 Signatories, History, and Bibliography in 1994.

Here is a recent article by Haier:

Historically, assaults on intelligence research were launched as a reaction to studies that suggested that average intelligence test scores were lower for some disadvantaged and minority groups. Combined with the possibility that intelligence might be genetically determined, this incendiary combination resulted in efforts to discredit the validity of intelligence tests and genetic studies. Concurrently, there was a single-minded focus on environmental factors as the predominant, if not only, influence on differences in mental abilities and the cause of achievement gaps.

This has led to 50 years of earnest and expensive but largely futile attempts to reduce education achievement gaps. These include focuses on early childhood education, raising students’ expectations, smaller classes, better teacher training, more testing and greater accessibility of challenging classes. Such interventions should not be expected to reduce gaps appreciably given the consistent research that shows that such variables do not influence academic achievement all that much – especially compared with the large effect of a student’s intelligence.

Education is for individuals. It does not matter if there are average intelligence differences among groups defined by poverty or race because there is more overlap than separation. As in modern medicine, any genetic influences, although real, are best thought about as probabilistic rather than deterministic. Basic neurobiology is the same for all humans, and both genetic and neuroimaging research connects neurobiology to intelligence. Understanding the complexities of how this works has potential for designing ways to improve mental ability and maximise education for all students, irrespective of background.

No one is well served by education reforms that neglect research findings on the nature of intelligence and its central role in student achievement. Neuroscience and intelligence research cannot solve all the issues of failing schools and education, but it is time to follow the data and add what we know from these perspectives to discussions about what research to fund, and what reforms to try next.

(The bolding is mine.)

While this may be anathema to much of our educational and academic establishment, it is, from what I can tell, pretty close to the position of the best -known researchers in the field like Stephen Pinker and James Flynn. Which is to say, the position is mainstream science on intelligence.

We ignore that at all of our peril.

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