Schooling makes kids smarter

Schooling Makes You Smarter, argues Richard E. Nisbett, a University of Michigan social psychology professor,  in the new American Educator.  Actually, lots of environmental influences make people smarter — or duller.

People’s intelligence is greatly affected by prenatal and immediate postnatal factors; by home environments; by education, inclding early childhood education; and by changes in the larger culture. How smart we and our children ae as individuals, and how smart we are as a society, is under our control to a marked degree.

As years of schooling rise — from eight years in 1910 to an average of 14 in 2010 — IQs rise too in what’s known as the “Flynn effect.”

. . . in nations that were fully modern and industrialized by the beginning of the 20th century, IQ has increased by about 3 points per decade from the end of World War II to the present.10 That amounts to a gain of 18 points, which is equivalent to moving from a 50th percentile score (IQ equal to 100) to a score at the 93rd percentile (IQ equal to 118).  . . . Nations that have only recently begun to modernize, such as Kenya, Sudan, and the Caribbean nations, have begun to show extremely high rates of gain.

In addition to more years of schooling, curriculum asks more of students and society has become more complex, making greater demands on  intelligence, Nisbett writes.

Culture matters. A study of high school graduates in 1966 found Asian Americans had slightly lower IQs than whites but scored 33 points higher on the SAT — they took more math in high school — and achieved more career success.  ”The picture that results is that Asian Americans capitalize on a given level of intellectual ability much better than do European Americans,” Nisbett writes.

Children from low-income families may not match the achievement of children with educated parents, but “most children in poverty aren’t living up to their genetic potential,” he writes. In experiments, “persuading minority students that their intelligence is substantially under their own control” can raise their academic performance.

“School affects intelligence,” Nisbett concludes. “Better schools produce better effects, and . . .  the caliber of the individual teacher is of great importance.”

 

Fluent on facts, weak on abstraction

Fluency in addition and multiplication isn’t everything, writes Education Realist.

. . . plenty of solid math students don’t have fluency and—here is the important part—many exceptionally weak math students have strong fact fluency.

Ed Realist’s “math support” students, who are trying to pass the exit exam and graduate from high school, tend to be very literal and easily thrown by symbols. Ed Realist  asked students to read a simple equation as a sentence. When a student turned x + 6 = 14 into “what number do I add to six to get 14?” the answer was clear to most of the class.

One student, Gerry, still didn’t get it.  He said he could only do math if it doesn’t have letters.

 “You need to look at these problems from a different part of your brain.”

. . . “X + 6 = 14. This is when you have to do stuff to both sides, right? I can’t do that.”

“Read it again. But instead of saying x, say ‘what’.”

“What plus 6 = 14? 8.”

Gerry said he couldn’t do fractions. But when he turned x/5 = 9 into “what divided by 5 is 9?” he got 45 right away.  “I feel like a math genius,” he said.

“You know a lot more math than you think you do,” the teacher said. ” You just have to figure out how to ask the question in a way your brain understands.”

Not everyone is capable of understanding abstractions to the same degree, Education Realist concludes.

Some people do better learning the names of capitals and Presidents and the planets in the solar system. They’d learn confidence and competence through interesting, concrete math word problems and situations, and enjoy reading and writing about specific historic events, news, or scientific inventions that helped society. Instead, we shovel them into algebra, chemistry and literature analysis and make them feel stupid.

She quotes psychologist James Flynn on why IQ’s have risen steadily and significantly since the start of the 20th century (the “Flynn effect”).

Modern people . . .  are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities.

. . . A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call “utilitarian spectacles.” Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call “scientific spectacles.” Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.

Well, some of us do. Flynn has a new book out, Are We Getting Smarter?

Teaching creativity

While IQ scores rise over time, creativity scores are declining in the U.S., write Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Newsweek. It’s not clear why, though Bronson and Merryman think passive TV watching and video game playing may be crowding out creative play.

Other nations are trying to encourage students to think creatively and solve problems, while U.S. schools often concentrate on teaching basic skills.  Creativity is seen as something that happens in art class. Here’s where the article got interesting for me:

The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening — ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

. . . Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way.

Problem solving requires using both sides of the brain, switching rapidly between convergent to divergent thinking, Bronson and Merryman write. The solver considers known facts and strategies, then scans “remote memories that could be vaguely relevant,” searching for  “unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.”  The brain locks on to a possible answer — aha! — then evaluates whether it’s worth pursing.

(Yesterday, my husband, an electrical engineer who holds many patents, told me his advice to a friend who’s working for an inventor with a divergent idea. “Try to impress the investors with your competence so they’ll recommend you for a job when this fails.”)

Creativity training helps students learn to solve problems, say researchers at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron that admits students by lottery, teaches problem solving as part of its STEM mission. Fifth graders were given four weeks to design proposals for reducing noise in the library, which has windows looking out on a public space.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding — anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them — sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Teachers had designed the project to meet Ohio’s curriculum standards. That was reflected in the school’s first-year test scores, which placed it third among Akron schools.

Sixth-grader Brandon Smith’s Hamster Cleaner 3000 made the finals of a local TV stations’ Coolest Creations contest, after competing at the Invention Convention at the Cleveland Great Lakes Science Center.

Making the most of what you've got

Asians, Jews and West Indian blacks have succeeded because of their diligence, respect for education and family stability, argues Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.


Richard Nisbett cites each of these groups in his superb recent book, Intelligence and How to Get It. Dr. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, argues that what we think of as intelligence is quite malleable and owes little or nothing to genetics.

. . . the evidence is overwhelming that what is distinctive about these three groups is not innate advantage but rather a tendency to get the most out of the firepower they have.

One large study followed a group of Chinese-Americans who initially did slightly worse on the verbal portion of I.Q. tests than other Americans and the same on math portions. But beginning in grade school, the Chinese outperformed their peers, apparently because they worked harder.

The Chinese-Americans were only half as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, and by high school they were doing much better than European-Americans with the same I.Q.

The weapon against poverty is “education, education and education,” writes Kristof. And family culture, which is not so easy to influence.

Indian-Americans have won seven of the last 11 national spelling bees, notes James Maguire in the Wall Street Journal. It’s not enough to be a workaholic.

Top spellers must be able to make an educated guess about obscure words using their wide-ranging knowledge of etymology, science, geography, history and literature.

So a top speller needs a rise-at-dawn work ethic and a multidisciplinary education. Still, you ask, why are there so many Indian winners given the fact that people of Indian descent only make up around 1% of the U.S. population? Surely there are American kids of all backgrounds who are hard workers with a great education.

Of course there are. Yet an outsized share of Indian pride is attached to achievements in traditional education.

Top spellers’ families tend to be bookish, Maguire writes. “Yet it was the Indian parents that consistently repeated the mantra: For us, it’s all about education.”