Monday, April 22, 2013

Nature v nurture in intelligence

My previous post looked at cognitive training.  The main point was that training is effective, but of course only at improving tasks that are fundamentally based on the cognitive skill.  It is unrealistic to think that training on a specific cognitive skill would magically improve activities across the board.

This post is related, but perhaps even more important. 

There is a general finding that there is a strong genetic component inherent in the kinds of intelligence measured by IQ, SATs and similar tests.  But some recent research findings summarized in an April 8 Scientific American blog written by Scott Kaufman, especially a study by Nandagopal, Roring and Taylor, find that there is a powerful mediation from learning strategies.  Essentially, genetics has a strong impact on the strategies and techniques that people use to learn - and it is these strategies that have the strong effect on IQ and SAT performance.

Why this is important is quite simple.  If it was genetics that makes you smart (or not), then there wouldn't be much you could do about it.  Either you had it or you didn't. 

On the other hand, if genetics pushes some genetically endowed children to instinctively use particular learning strategies, which is what makes them perform well on IQ and SAT tests, then we have an alternative pathway.  We can teach all children to use these strategies and give them all the same advantages as those genetically endowed with the instinct.  All children become equally capable at developing their intelligence - at least the kinds measured by IQ and SAT tests.

The strategies that were identified by Nandagopal et al are not too complicated either.  Active learning strategies, making connections between new material and pre-existing schema, seeking help when needed, studying early (rather than cramming at the last minute) - these are not too complicated or earth shattering ideas. 

Pretty cool if you ask me.  These results suggest that we can level the playing field pretty easily with the right intervention.