IQ tests are not the ultimate method of evalutating human potential

The news article dated March 6, 2013, declaring that an Indian schoolgirl in the U.K. has an IQ higher than Einstein’s is likely to draw the attention of parents and educators. The article goes on to claim that young Neha Ramu “is more intelligent that physicist Hawking, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and scientist Einstein”.

This statement actually reflects a deep cultural malaise that elevates IQ scores as the arbiter of human potential. In fact, even everyday comments and questions that parents pose to children reflect this flawed perception. “Who is the smartest in your class?” or “If you can’t learn your tables, how will you go to the next class?” or “You spend too much time chatting with your friends; remember that friends are not going to get you admission into college”, etc. When parents make these comments, they are driven by a desire to motivate their children to succeed scholastically; however, they may not realise that they are inadvertently reinforcing narrow and rigid views of ability and intelligence.

While I am not undermining little Neha’s achievement, we must not overplay IQ as the be-all and end-all of human potential. When we place IQ on a pedestal, children are less likely to find their true areas of strength and flourish in unique ways. It is essential for parents and teachers to be mindful of the implicit messages we give children when we make sweeping comments about their aptitudes and inclinations.

In fact, contemporary theories of intelligence suggest that the notion of a single, fixed, innate ability is just that — a notion that has been dispelled by data and ground realities. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI) was groundbreaking in that it pluralised the term ‘intelligence’. Instead of viewing only verbal and logical-mathematical abilities as the pinnacle of intelligence, Gardner broadened the concept of intelligence to embrace abilities as diverse as dancing, music and getting along with people.

Acknowledge other intelligences

However, even though MI has been received with wide acclaim, his theory has not changed the way parents view their children, mainly because schools continue to focus on the 3 R’s. But even though the pace of change in educational institutions may be glacial, parents can help their children gain a wider perspective on their talents by acknowledging and appreciating other intelligences. As psychologist Madeline Levine says, “From the beginning it helps our children to know that there are many ways to be smart, many ways to be successful, and many ways to lead productive, meaningful lives.”

Contrary to what we may think, subtle changes in our phrasing can have a profound impact on how a child views herself. For example, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that when we praise children for their abilities, we tend to push them into a “fixed mindset”, wherein they believe that their talents are fixed and static.

The growth mindset

On the other hand, if we appreciate their efforts, we propel them towards a “growth mindset” that tends to value personal striving over accomplishment. Thus, when a child who normally does well in Maths fails a test, she will interpret the setback in different ways depending on the mindset that has been inculcated in her. A child with the fixed mindset may start doubting her mathematical ability, whereas the child with the growth mindset will view failure as a wake-up call to put in more effort.

Another doyen who has done extensive research on the subject, Robert Sternberg, further broadens our perspective on intelligence. He says that intelligence involves three components.

The first, analytical intelligence, as the name implies, is involved in typical academic tasks, whereas creative intelligence deals with using existing knowledge and skills in novel and unusual ways. Finally, the ability to adapt to the challenges of everyday life is captured by practical intelligence. As schools tend to elevate mainly analytical intelligence, parents can foster children’s creativity by encouraging self-expression in diverse media and providing open-ended activities. Further, when a child adapts with ease to various life situations, we have to recognise it as form of intelligence that will hold the child in good stead in the future. As Sternberg and his colleagues put it, “Although intelligence as conventionally defined may be useful in everyday life, practical intelligence is indispensable.”

Nurture curiosity, independence

The very fact that there are diverse theories of intelligence suggests that this construct is much broader in scope than we have been conditioned to think by educational institutions and society at large. Educationist Ken Ronbinson describes intelligence as “diverse, dynamic, and distinctive”. As parents we must accept that intelligences not only come in many forms but can be displayed in a variety of contexts. Levine says parents can support children’s development by nurturing their innate curiosity, encouraging questions and allowing them to take academic risks by not relying on rote learning. Performance on school and IQ tests are definitely not the sole indicator of a child’s abilities. In fact, Einstein himself was not a stellar student in school. In fact, equating intelligence solely with test performance suppresses inner passions and stifles the collective spirit of society. Thus, we need to question our assumptions of what intelligence is and embrace a broader vision of human potential so every child can flower.

(The author is Director at Prayatna. Email: arunasankara@gmail.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion