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Being Smarter About IQ

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Shake us. Is this 2012? We are having a serious case of déjà vu. Are we still debating whether IQ is fixed or whether it is malleable and can be pushed around? Are we still fighting the nature versus nurture battle? We thought this had been resolved ages ago. In fact, 30 years ago. In 1980, Sandra Scarr and Richard Weinberg, mavens in the study of IQ, published a paper describing how IQ is always a product of nature and nurture, environment and genes. Their title was, "Calling All Camps! The War is Over."

A recent article in the magazine section of The New York Times shows us that this debate is nonetheless alive and well. The piece discusses research on the ability to reason quickly and abstractly called "fluid intelligence." Researchers from the University of Maryland and from Temple University argue that with practice, people can improve on memory tasks that reflect fluid intelligence. The big question for this new research is whether training on a taxing memory task generalizes to other tasks that require memory and problem solving. This is where the controversy lies. One of the psychologists quoted in that article is dismissive of the enterprise, likening claims of increasing IQ to the flap and disappointment the scientific community felt over the possibility of cold fusion. He goes on to claim that fluid intelligence is innate, the biological part of intelligence; trying to change it is fruitless.

That view is so yesterday. Research with children tells us we can modify IQ. Research shows that if Johnny is adopted by a rich family, even though his biological family is poor, his IQ will be over 10 points higher than if he had been adopted by another poor family. In 1999, Lauren Resnick, a renowned educational psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh wrote an article entitled "Making America Smarter" where she highlighted two decades of research supporting the idea that intelligence is not set when you leave the womb.

Though the new research is only in its infancy, it is consistent with findings suggesting that with practice we can improve on virtually any task -- from playing the violin, to kicking a soccer ball, to making love, to memorizing our favorite SAT words like syzygy and synergy.

So why are these findings a big deal? The story line emerging is that we can modify adults' fluid intelligence. And more importantly, if we intervene early we can change the trajectory children follow -- especially for low-income, at risk kids. If you teach children to hold more in their memory as they work, and to focus more on the task at hand, you will increase their capacity to learn. Adele Diamond and colleagues published a paper in the prestigious journal Science showing that a preschool curriculum called "Tools of the Mind" helps kids build these skills -- nested in the brain's frontal lobes -- and often considered together under the lofty term "executive function." Think of executive function skills as a fancy name for learning how to learn. In fact, the Tools curriculum worked so well that the study had to be suspended and the treatment given to the control group! Executive function skills are really important because they correlate more highly with school achievement than IQ. Yes, the ability to focus, to control your behavior, and to hold things in working memory contributes more to how you do in school than IQ.

Over a hundred years ago in 1899, the brilliant psychologist Edward Thorndike wrote in The School Journal, "Undoubtedly the general power most important for school life from six to 10 is the power of attention or concentration." Thorndike had it right. But what science has learned is that the big payoff in "learning to learn" skills comes even before children enter school. Even preschoolers can practice their way to being more intelligent.

It's time to shake off old ideas about the immutability of intelligence and embrace what science tells us about how minds work. It's time to get smarter about IQ.