Socialist Worker

Schools, testing and myths of intelligence

TV shows and diet supplements claim they can improve your children’s brain power but, says Dave Davis, they are based on a false premise

Issue No. 2103

 (Pic: Anouk Prasad)

(Pic: Anouk Prasad)


So evolution “expert” Bruce Charlton has at last discovered why working class students are under-represented at top universities. Is it perhaps the elitist nature of the selection process?

Is it inequalities in the education system? Could it be connected to the fact that those with financial stability are better able to provide a home environment more conducive to study?

No. The good professor informs us the reason is that working class children are less intelligent than the progeny of the middle and upper classes.

Well now that’s sorted we can all relax, merrily slot into our allotted roles and stop trying to outstrip our natural limitations. Except, of course, in practice no one truly believes that. The whole education system is based on the notion that we can all become “more intelligent”.

Indeed there is now a burgeoning private wing of the education system. This consists of home tutors, revision books and resources for numerous exams, TV programmes dedicated to the question of how to make your child more intelligent, so-called brain foods that advertise magical ingredients like Omega 3, and even computer games to enable us to trick our children into learning in their free time.

Parents are under more pressure now to ensure their children become cleverer than perhaps at any time in history.

The horrific obstacle course of school tests that make up the British education system is the main stimulus for this. If our children don’t get their five A to Cs then we, and they, have failed.

During their school life our children sit more exams than any others in Europe. What is the purpose of this?

A desperately poor measure of any child’s potential, the tests have no real educational value and don’t help them to learn. They exist only to provide a hierarchical method of dividing children into rigid categories, and therefore prepare them for a future in the workforce.

Tests are also a completely unrealistic indication of how people function in society. Ask yourself this: would you rather work with someone who when faced with a problem removes themselves into a quiet room and ponders it in isolation for one hour and forty minutes? Or someone who attempts to find the answer by asking other people and looking things up on the internet – in other words, cheating.

In fact, all exams do is test the ability of children to sit tests. However they do perform one crucial function – they help maintain the myth that we live in a meritocracy, and that those sitting at the top of the pile can claim to have superior abilities that justify their superior salaries.

So what is intelligence? How can we measure it? Should we even try to?

Common sense seems to suggest that different people have different abilities. Indeed, however positive or negative our own experiences of school we all know that some found learning easier than others.

Surely intelligence is part of the explanation of these differences?

But it is not as simple as that. The ability to accumulate knowledge and process information is not an easily measurable skill. In the first place it varies hugely over time. Anyone who has had anything to do with adult education can testify to the fact that many people who return to education suddenly discover that they are in fact rather skilled at learning despite their experiences as children.

At university I remember meeting mature students who failed at school but became exceptional scholars later on – in many cases far outshining those who had been more successful at negotiating the school tests minefield.

Perhaps the fact that adult education is voluntary rather than compulsory might have something to do with this.

Learning is very much contextual. Why are we learning and for what purpose? If you do not fit into the one size fits all learning environment of school then the chances are that an “inability to learn” will be seen to be your problem, not one of the education system.

During your time at school attempts will be made to try to reshape you to fit into the correct pupil shaped holes, but little effort will be made to reshape those holes.

Fail to adjust and the school will likely conclude that you lack intelligence and put you in a set or stream that confirms that you are not cut out for this education lark.

But even those who are deemed lacking in “intelligence” will have a range of other interests that disprove the way they have been categorised.

Many people have been told they are no good at maths but can perform complex calculations to see if their football team will stay up next season, or whether they can make their limited money stretch till the next pay day.

Anyone who has ever seen a nursery school playground knows that we all start life eager to learn. It takes a lot to stifle all that enjoyment, enthusiasm and energy, and yet capitalism has developed the precise means to do just that.

Dave Davis is a teacher in east London


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Tue 27 May 2008, 18:52 BST
Issue No. 2103
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