More Evidence that Practice Does Not Make Perfect: Music and IQ

Notes by Howard Gardner

For close to a generation, claims have been made that musical training makes one smarter—either raising IQ (general intelligence) or improving performance in school (grades, test performance). Almost always, these claims are based on correlations between amount of time individuals have practiced and how do they on various measures. However, these correlational claims do not exclude the possibility that individuals are willing to practice for a reason—ranging from having more talent to being more motivated to learn in general.

Now, using the tools of behavioral genetics, Miriam Mosing and colleagues have released a study which provides evidence that it is not practice per se that improves cognitive performance, but rather the power of genetic influences. Comparing twins who have practiced a musical performance with those who do not, the authors find no difference in intellectual performance or level. As the authors conclude, "the relationship between practice and IQ was mostly due to shared genetic influences."

While the study does not  focus directly on musical intelligence, I believe that this research has implications for MI theory. Specifically, the advantages of musical practice are most likely to occur for individuals who have musical talents, or in my terms "musical intelligence." Of course, we should never discourage individuals from pursuing an interest in music. But we should also not assume that simple involvement in music has a magical and inexplicable transfer to other cognitive realms.

To read the full study in Developmental Science, click here to access a PDF.

Reference: Mosing, M. et al. (2015, April). Investigating cognitive transfer within the framework of music practice: genetic pleiotropy rather than causality. Developmental Science. pp. 1-9.

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.

The Brain Trainers

Notes by Howard Gardner

We are well advised to be skeptical of claims, particularly on the part of commercial enterprises, that they have accomplished educational miracles. Were this the case, we’d all be geniuses! In fact, genuine educational miracles take place over decades, even centuries; not through some kind of training that unfolds over a matter of weeks.

That said, there’s little question that we can benefit from some kinds of brief training, whether in physical fitness, diet, or some kind of self-control, as in the exercises described here. Of course, we have to keep up the training. And we know that the major purchasers of diet books are those who have failed on numerous previous regimens.

But even if so-called ‘brain training’ proves effective, we need to determine the limits of the training. Even the strongest advocate would not claim, for example, that such training makes you more ethical or more beautiful! As I read this study, I agreed with Douglas Detterman. Probably these trainings help you to do better at certain kinds of tests, maybe even including certain kinds of IQ tests. And if you have never had that kind of training, it is valuable and legitimate to obtain it. Indeed, that is the contribution of the Israeli psychologist, Reuven Feuerstein, whom I much admire. But whether the exercises equip you to be more effective at the workplace, or to make more sense of the world, is doubtful in the extreme.

To read the article in its entirety click here.

IQ Tests Hurt Kids, Schools

This article provides documentation that different intelligence tests yield different scores for the same person.  Even more intriguingly, even the same intelligence test, administered multiple times, may yield different scores. The article also and appropriately underscores the importance, in life, of non-cognitive skills, or skills that do not fall comfortably under the IQ measurement.

That said, as I read it, Kaufman still holds onto the hope that, someday, if we are clever enough, we will be able to provide an ultimate and fully reliable and valid test of intelligence. I am skeptical about this. What we value as individuals and as a society changes; and so do the resources and contexts of life also change. And so, in my view, intelligence, or more properly, intelligences, are a moving target. A search for the Ultimate IQ test is like the search for a Fountain of Youth; it may be motivating but it is doomed to fail.

To read the article in its entirety click here.

The Nature and Nurture of High IQ

Notes by Howard Gardner

It’s long been known that as one gets older, the genetic contribution to measured intelligence (IQ) is higher. Put concretely, the IQ of the 70 year old is more likely to resemble the IQ of his/her parents and grandparents, than the IQ of the 10 or 20 year old. But this study adds a new page to this chapter. It turns out that individuals with higher IQ actually have a longer period in which non –genetic (environmental) factors are significant, than those with lower IQs. As such, the study raises an intriguing possibility: Anything that we can do to raise IQ in young persons is likely to increase the length of time in which the effects of the environment (e.g. peers, mentors, experiences) are significant. And since we know that measured IQ has gone up a huge amount in the past century (see the Flynn effect), these results are a very hopeful sign.

To read the article in its entirety click here.