Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Exam Result Kerfuffle, Part 98

So that's why girls do well in exams...

Perhaps We're Just Getting Smarter?

Why are Britain's kids doing so well in their exams? Every year at this time the A level results show improving scores. Every year, at this time, various experts trot out their pet explanations: from pupils choosing easy subjects, to exam questions getting simpler, to kids cribbing essays off the Net, to the government’s angry contention that ‘schools are getting better at teaching more and more children’.

Firmly excluded from this debate is the apparently ludicrous idea that the kids are simply getting cleverer. Yet this is the one explanation that has serious scientific evidence behind it, thanks to the seminal work of James R Flynn, a professor of Political Science in Dunedin, New Zealand.

'In the 1980s I analysed old IQ data in America,' says Flynn, 'and what I discovered was remarkable: "intelligence" has been rising by about 3 IQ points per decade ever since the 1900s.' This may not seem impressive; it means that a brainiac found in the top 10% of IQ scores a century ago would be medically defined as a moron today.

So bizarre were the results, Flynn and others scrutinised historical IQ scores, right across the globe, 'from Britain to Kenya, Canada to Japan'. They fund that the same IQ increases were happening everywhere (though Belgians do seem to be gaining in smarts much quicker than the Danes).

Since Flynn published, battalions of boffins have picked over the theory. Some reckon the so-called 'Flynn Effect' undermines the whole idea of IQ tests. Other scientists believe intelligence levels are rising, and they look to improved nutrition, or the challenges of new technology, for an explanation.

Could the famous 'Flynn Effect' explain the recent exam successes of British kids? Professor Flynn himself is hedging his bets: 'Remember that the rise in IQ is complex. In large areas of intelligence, like arithmetical reasoning, or general vocabulary, there's been no serious improvement. In certain narrower fields, like verbal comprehension, and abstract problem solving, we've seen significant increases. Inasmuch as UK exams assess these latter aspects of a pupil's intelligence, yes the rise in IQ might be an explanation.'

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this debate is the outraged way people react to the very idea of 'rising intelligence'. As Flynn puts it: 'Nobody has a problem with better housing or improved nutrition making female breasts larger, or our kids taller, but when we are asked to believe that in certain ways our minds are getting quicker, we angrily refute the notion.' Which is something to think about, next time you ask your ten-year-old son to set the DVD recorder.

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