Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Problem with Bell Curve-Thinking

From Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray's WSJ article last week:

"Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings. Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile.

We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.

Now take the girl sitting across the aisle who is getting an F. She is at the 20th percentile of intelligence, which means she has an IQ of 88. If the grading is honest, it may not be possible to do more than give her an E for effort. Even if she is taught to read every bit as well as her intelligence permits, she still will be able to comprehend only simple written material. It is a good thing that she becomes functionally literate, and it will have an effect on the range of jobs she can hold. But still she will be confined to jobs that require minimal reading skills. She is just not smart enough to do more than that."

Now what is wrong with this picture? Or why should sociologists be banned from donning teachers' robes?

Murray's problem is that he assumes too much for the idea of g - or general intelligence. From our previous post / Kevin's Intelligence Blog, should remember that "...IQ tests, on their best days, predict 40-50% of school achievement (Applied Psychometrics 101 – square the correlations and multiply by 100 to get the percent of variance explained). This is very good. Yet…50-60% of a person’s school achievement is still related to factors “beyond IQ!”

We all have different limitations by our jobs and personal perspectives, but the particular problem with sociology is that most researchers spend little time with the students whose scores they study in their research reports. I don't fault them for it, it's just the nature of their profession.

In fact, to confess, it's really the nature of our profession, too. Conventional MD's rarely are given adequate face-to-face time with their patients, and tasks like assessing mental status can be streamlined to 5-10 minutes. But this is a big mistake.

One of the most eye-open discoveries we made when we radically changed our practice to spend more time doing one-on-one testing with kids, was to see how many different ways smart could present itself, and how pencil-and-paper testing captures only a small slice of intelligence and talent. Children with language disabilities notoriously score poorly on conventional IQ tests - but so many times we see their brightness shine through - whether it's cleverness at deducing a solution with incomplete information, recognizing an interesting association, or applying a metacognitive strategy. The pencil-and-paper tests don't test anything having to do with procedural or other specialized types of expertise, and they certainly don't delve into skills associated with social perception and wisdom.

We'd like to close with an excerpt from this low IQ-scoring, but high life-achieving individual's website:

"Bob first became interested in psychology because, as a child, he performed very poorly on IQ tests. He did so poorly that in sixth grade he was sent back to take the test with fifth-graders because the school thought the sixth-grade test would be too hard for him.

His early years in school were a proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. His teachers, seeing his low IQ, expected little from him, and got little. In fourth grade, he had a teacher, Mrs. Alexa, who believed he was capable of doing better. And so, starting in fourth grade, he became a high achiever in school. Bob dedicated his book, Successful Intelligence, to Mrs. Alexa. They had their first reunion in 40 years just a year ago, when Bob's elementary school invited both him and Mrs. Alexa back for Bob to give a talk and to have a celebration of how teachers can change the lives of their students."

Who is this? This is Dr. Robert Sternberg, former president of the American Psychological Association, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University. Good thing he didn't have Charles Murray deciding his classroom placement...

WSJ: Intelligence in the Classroom
ENL Blog: Who is Smart?
Robert Sternberg's Website

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