Intelligence isn’t everything: children, IQ and success

Intellectual ability is far from the only element at play in academic achievement, and telling children they are smart could even have a detrimental effect

For young children, research shows that boosting their IQ does not pay off. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

For young children, research shows that boosting their IQ does not pay off. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

 

It might not be wise to tell children they are bright. By doing so, you could be instilling an idea in their minds about their abilities by suggesting that this is something they have rather than something they have done or can strive towards, says neuropsychologist Prof Ian Robertson at Trinity College Dublin.

Every parent wants their child to reach their potential. In terms of academic achievement, IQ is important, but so too is effort and personality. “With a modest IQ, if you have got persistence and intellectual curiosity, you can achieve a huge amount,” says Robertson, who criticises “the curse of genetic determinism . . . an it’s-all-in-the-genes attitude.”

It can be a significant handicap to assume your abilities are carved in stone. US psychologist Carol Dweck has proposed that such a “fixed mindset” leads a person to try to prove how smart or talented they are and can lead them to shirk challenging situations. She contrasts this with those who believe their basic qualities can be improved upon and argues that this “growth mindset” should be taught to children.

Dweck’s research focuses on why people succeed and how to foster success. In her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, she notes that Leo Tolstoy and Charles Darwin were considered ordinary children.

Robertson is against the routine use of IQ tests for healthy children by parents. “Telling a child they are really bright puts across the message that this is something outside their control. It can lead a person, when faced with failure or a poor mark, to question themselves and become demoralised,” he says.

Teaching a “growth mindset” is proving attractive to some educators, but genes are also significant in determining intelligence and academic achievement. Recent research in the UK shows that about 60 per cent of a student’s GCSE results can be explained by their DNA. “We find genetics is really important in individual differences in school achievement and yet seems to be totally ignored in education,” says Prof Robert Plomin at King’s College London.

His study of 12,500 twins found that results in maths, science and humanities were highly heritable. This remained true even after they took intelligence into account, suggesting that genes linked to other traits matter. “It’s not just intelligence. It requires a certain amount of perseverance and conscientiousness to allow some children to succeed at school,” says Plomin, who predicts DNA profiling will one day assist teachers and schools.

This raises concerns about using DNA to predict performances or to pigeonhole children. But the thousands of genes likely to be involved in academic performance interact with the environment before having an impact, so it’s complicated. “Nothing is fixed. Genes tell you what is, but not what could be,” says Dr Kathryn Asbury at the University of York, who co-authored, with Plomin, the book G Is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement. She believes in the next 10-20 years, we will have genetic predictors of learning strengths and weaknesses.

 

Declining performance

Research shows that a child’s performance can decline along with teacher expectations, so we need to think about how we might use a genetic profile, says Asbury. If we identified enough genes to account for, say, poor reading performance, says Plomin, education could follow medicine and try to move away from cure to prevention, identifying children who need more resources for reading.

Plomin sees “growth mindset” ideas as mostly positive, but not when taken to extremes. Not everyone can become a 100m sprinter or professional pianist. Also, Asbury worries it could lead to a culture of blame. “Children are differently equipped for getting a growth mindset in the first place,” she says. “And people can have different mindsets in different domains.”

“This has the potential of blaming teachers, children or parents if [children don’t do well, which] doesn’t take genetic influence and individual difference into account,” says Asbury. “Most people who have anything to do with kids know they are different from the get-go.”

The key is to embrace those differences, encourage children to excel in what they are good at and assist them to minimise their weaknesses.

As for young children, research shows that boosting their IQ does not pay off, as it averages out after a few years. “Rather, focusing on self-control and behaviour and social relationships may have more positive long-term benefits,” Asbury says.

Charles Darwin saw the Beagle voyage as setting the course for his entire life, as his achievements were helped along by his persistence and insatiable curiosity. However, Trinity graduate and Darwin biographer Janet Browne, now at Harvard, says it was his affable personality and desire to learn that helped him get recommendations that secured his passage on the Beagle in the first place.

“[At university] he was a very engaging, outdoorsy and accessible kind of personality. People loved him and that is important. He was likeable,” she says. “They thought he was a young person who might go far.”

 

 

PE FOR BRAIN POWER: FITNESS IS GOOD FOR THE MIND

Exercise can boost academic achievement in schoolchildren, recent research suggests. One recent study in the US found that more aerobically fit children scored higher on tests of reading and spelling.

“There is a growing database suggesting that fitness and physical activity are related to academic performance,” says Charles H Hillman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the study.

His findings suggest that time spent in the school environment without adequate time for physical activity is not only detrimental to physical health – as evidenced by the obesity epidemic in most western countries – but might also be detrimental to brain health.

“Time spent engaged in physical activity does not appear to detract from academic outcomes and may actually improve them,” Hillman says.

“As such, we do not need to compromise children’s physical health, and schools, which reach the vast majority of children, should provide physical activity opportunities on a daily basis by knowledgeable teachers.”

It is not a slam-dunk, however. Cause and effect is not proven: higher aerobic fitness could be due to personality traits such as drive or home environment, which in turn influence school performance.

Set against that, there is emerging evidence that fitness is good for the brain, not just the heart. “Aerobic fitness is correlated with cognitive function,” says Ian Robertson on Trinity College Dublin. “We don’t know what is cause and what is effect, but there is certainly an association and certainly aerobic fitness has very positive chemical effects in the brain.”

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