The Origins of IQ

By Ralph Lelii, English department, IB coordinator

In Theory of Knowledge class, I often explore with students the question of “IQ”, its origins, its implications and its legacy and continuing impact in education. It is usually a compelling and provocative topic because many of the students in the class were tested for “IQ” as the criterion for placement in gifted programs. Students who were not tested often have a jaundiced view of the practice, and those who were tested sometimes retain a sense of inherently superior intellectual status.

It is interesting to note the origins of the IQ tests. In the early 1900’s, the French government passed laws requiring the education of all children. They commissioned psychologist Alfred Binet to construct some sort of measurement that might sort out the students who would need special training from those who could move more rapidly through the system. Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon wrote a series of questions that focused on things that had NOT been taught in school such as memory and problem-solving skills. He quickly realized that some children were able to answer more advanced questions that older children were generally able to answer, while other children of the same age were only able to answer questions that younger children could typically answer. Based on this observation, Binet suggested the concept of establishing a mental age, or a measure of intelligence (IQ) based on the average abilities of children of a certain age group (Kerry, History of Psychology). The theoretical premise of this first test is still the basis for current intelligence tests.

Interestingly, Alfred Binet himself did not believe in the predictive, static truth that is often associated with the tests. Binet stressed the limitations of the test, suggesting that intelligence is far too broad a concept to quantify with a single number. Instead, he insisted that intelligence is influenced by a number of factors, changes over time, and can be shaped by environmental forces. I think, however, that the notion of IQ as a fixed intellectual “birth mark” continued throughout the twentieth century, and still persists somewhat today.

In TOK class, we view the students themselves as texts. The goal of the class is to help provide young people with the analytical and philosophical tools to explore why they believe what they believe, what they mean when they say they know something is true, how they can come to live calmly in a world where the amount of knowledge doubles every 14 months. If a student has been assigned an IQ number which is disappointing to them, I have observed that they often stay affected by it, despite the affirmation of parents and teachers and the reassurances of the irrelevance of the test to the larger meanings of their lives.

Until relatively recently, science told us that intelligence was a relatively fixed, heritable trait, and the belief was that the brain was fully developed by the end of adolescence. Current neuroscience tell s us that in fact the brain is still developing into our late twenties, and it retains a significant level of plasticity throughout our lives. What is challenging now, it seems to me, is for educators to try to learn from the newer research while still maintaining some sense of authenticity about their pedagogical and philosophical world view. There is something comforting, I think, about the fixing of intelligence at a particular point, the measurement serving as a kind of predictive insurance. The problem is that the word “intelligence” itself is an epistemological hurricane. What do we mean by it? Often times, it is easy to assume that intelligence is that thing or things that we value in our own mind, or writers or professors we admire. It may be that, but it likely depends on your frame of reference. Is moral acuity a sign of “intelligence”? What of compassion? The Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman published his book Emotional Intelligence in 1995 in which he argued, among other things, that emotional intelligence, the ability to work with others in a positive fashion, to form alliances and to empathize, may be more predictive of life success than traditional academic notions of intelligence. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research focuses on our perception of the mind’s ability to grow and our nurturance of it as the basis for intellectual development. For her, the labeling of a child with a static number leads not to more intellectual development and independence but less. Praising students endlessly for their perceived “innate intelligence’ causes less risk taking and results in less, rather than more, self-confidence than encouraging students to work hard at developing intellectual skills over the course of a lifetime.

In TOK class, I urge students to take a broad view of this sexy thing we call intelligence. In technological societies like ours, it seems to be the trait among all others most likely to draw praise and adoration, but it is my view that we really do not have any consensual agreement about its meaning, its permanence or its predictive power. Epistemology is the discipline of inquiry, the process where in questions are far more compelling than answers, and the goal is clarity more than certainty. In this case, we might do well to start by asking in what ways might our myriad attempts to quantify intelligence help us to answer Plato’s eternal question, “How then shall we live?”

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