Posted Tue 5 Feb 2019 at 6:00amTuesday 5 Feb 2019 at 6:00am, updated Wed 6 Feb 2019 at 12:44pmWednesday 6 Feb 2019 at 12:44pm
5 Feb 2019 at 6:00amTuesday 5 Feb 2019 at 6:00am, updated Wed 6 Feb 2019 at 12:44pmWednesday 6 Feb 2019 at 12:44pm
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For over 100 years, the intelligence quotient (IQ) test has been considered the quintessential marker of who is “smart” and who is not.
But a dip in IQ scores worldwide has researchers questioning if it’s time to broaden how we understand intelligence.
“My particular theory is that scores really haven’t gone backwards, but the IQ test hasn’t kept up with the way we’re using our brains,” says Tony Florio, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of NSW.
He argues the test measures only a certain kind of intelligence, and is therefore of limited use.
Dr Florio suggests that the IQ test might help us see who will be successful in a traditional school system, which was its original purpose, but that it is not the be all and end all about who’s smart and who isn’t.
Dr Florio has studied the test for decades and says a typical IQ test is divided into ten subsets including vocabulary, general knowledge and problem solving.
In Australia, he says, these tests are conducted by psychologists either clinically, in schools or very occassionally for organisational psychology testing — for example when selecting members for executive committees.
An IQ score of a 100 is considered a score of average intelligence, 130 and above is defined as gifted, and a person scoring below 70 is interpreted as having an intellectual disability.
Not the first time the test has been criticised
Dr Florio has several criticisms about the breadth of the IQ test, which, he says, measures linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities and not motivation, personality or creativity.
“It’s gone down a narrow pathway,” he says.
He’s not alone in criticising the test.
He says there has been a perennial debate about whether there is one general intelligence.
Dr Florio argues that the IQ test doesn’t necessarily accommodate that “individuals are complicated with many aspects to them” — pointing to similar concerns raised by the test’s very founder.
He explains that French psychologist Alfred Binet, who developed the IQ test over 100 years ago, feared the test — initially designed to help measure the ‘mental age’ of a child — could be too limited.
Binet stressed that intelligence was far too broad a concept to quantify with a single number; however, he designed the test as a way to help identify children with learning difficulties.
France was the first country to introduce universal education and needed to work out who would struggle with learning and might need extra help, Dr Florio explains.
He says it’s much easier to compare people as children because there are different educational milestones that they reach at different ages.
If children were reaching them at a younger age they were seen as gifted and if they were reaching them later they were seen as delayed.
In 1916, Dr Florio highlights, an American psychologist adapted the IQ test for use in the US Army and since then the test has been adopted by many institutions other than schools.
The impact of the ‘Google effect’
Since the test first began in 1906 there has been, until recently, a steady increase in IQ score test results worldwide, a trend dubbed ‘the Flynn Effect’.
Dr Florio says factors that led to the Flynn Effect were improved nutrition and maternal health, and increasing access to education.
Even the reduction in the average size of families was a contributing factor, says Dr Florio, as “there’s less children per family so more attention per child”.
Now, however, Dr Florio says research shows a decline in scores occurring specifically throughout Europe where most of the relevant research has been conducted, and this is being branded the ‘reverse Flynn Effect’.
Research seems to suggest that worldwide our IQ scores in developed countries have been dropping over the last decade, Dr Florio says.
“You’d think logically that it should’ve just plateaued but it seems to have in fact gone backwards.”
According to Dr Florio, there are several theories to explain this.
“There’s a theory that’s been dubbed the ‘Google effect’,” he says.
“Because we now outsource a lot of things like our memory and doing cognitive tasks to machines, we don’t develop general knowledge retention which is something that is measured on IQ tests.”
Dr Florio says another explanation could be “that we can’t improve forever”.
But do the decreasing results point to a decreasing intelligence?
Dr Florio isn’t convinced.
He says it may be that it’s not useful to have that kind of general knowledge memory any more, which means that the IQ test as we understand it may need to change.
More than one way to be ‘smart’
Children’s book author Davina Bell, who has researched alternative approaches to intelligence, sits firmly in the camp that argues there is more than one way to be intelligent.
She says she has long felt that creative pursuits were undervalued in traditional intelligence tests, an idea she’s explored in her latest children’s book, All the Ways to be Smart.
While researching for this book, Bell discovered the work of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardener and his theory of Multiple Intelligences.
“Gardener said that rather than seeing intelligence as dominated by a single general ability we should see it as a series of modalities or abilities,” Bell says.
Gardener describes nine categories to measure intelligence, including bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, such as good hand-eye coordination, interpersonal intelligence, such as the ability to effectively communicate, and musical intelligence.
Bell wanted to create a book that honoured all nine ‘ways of being smart’, for example being ‘smart’ at drawing, interacting with others or being physically coordinated.
“The book offers a kind of validation,” Bell says.
“If you weren’t a traditionally smart person or if you had intelligence in other areas that perhaps weren’t recognised, maybe it provides a validation of your identity outside those traditional intelligences,” she says.
Dr Florio supports Gardener’s broader approach to intelligence, but says the academic community’s response to Gardener’s theory is mixed.
“I think Gardener’s theories are valid, there are lots and lots of other abilities,” Dr Florio says.
Although Dr Florio explains Gardener’s critics say his definition cannot be quantified and in the academic community some say it is not backed up by enough data.
Dr Florio believes there still is a place for the traditional IQ test when it comes to diagnosing conditions like autism, dyslexia and intellectual disabilities.
But, like Bell, he sees approaches like Gardener’s as offering a broader and more modern understanding of intelligence.
“Gardener was pointing out the limitations of the IQ test and the problems of focusing on one aspect. We are complex individuals,” he says.
Posted 5 Feb 20195 Feb 2019, updated 6 Feb 2019