A Surprising Finding from the IQ World: Educational Implications

Notes by Howard Gardner

As a principal proponent of multiple intelligences, I have often been critical of scholarly work on the traditional notion of a single intelligence. From a scientific point of view, I think that multiple intelligences theory accounts better for the range of human performances. From an educational perspective, IQ testing is much better at classifying people than at helping them. It is an extraordinarily blunt instrument.

An article in Psychological Science reports a surprising finding. As the title of the study indicates, in primary school, literacy and numeracy turn out to be more heritable than psychometric (IQ) intelligence. The term "heritability" can be off-putting; technically, it refers to the sources of variation within a population. But in practical terms, it simply means that a certain proportion of one’s performance can be attributed to one’s genetic background: if we know about the performances of your grandparents on a set of tasks, it will help us predict how you will perform on similar tasks.

The surprise is that school is supposed to teach you literacy and numeracy, while it does not concern itself directly with improving intelligence (which is thought by many to be largely heritable and hence difficult to nudge upwards). And yet, it turns out that more of performance on literate and numeracy test can be attributed to one’s genetic background.

The authors speculate on the possible reasons for this unexpected finding. It may be, as they believe, that because school focuses on the Three Rs, it actually levels the playing field across individuals, and, according to behavioral genetics theory, that leveling actually increases the potency of the heritability factor. (Put differently, when there are no successful interventions, then environmental factors emerge as more powerful.)

But I am interested in this result for a different reason. Rather than focusing simply on IQ, as so often happens in psychometric research, the scientists are looking at more specific factors--in my terms, at linguistic intelligence and at logical-mathematical intelligence. (And, at least in principle, they could look at spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, etc.)

Moreover, to the extent that students show different strengths in these different intelligences, it suggests two things:

1) We can identify student intellectual potentials in more specific areas; and

2) We can experiment with educational approaches that are more specifically addressed to specific capacities, such as those involved with language and number.

To read the article in its entirety click here.