If there's one thing more irritating than a smarty pants pupil who thinks they're cleverer than you, it's the discovery that the little darling might be absolutely right. Well, get ready for some bad news. Many academics believe that the current generation of pupils is the cleverest in history. It's part of a phenomenon known as "the Flynn effect" - a year-on-year rise in IQ scores that poses intriguing questions about the meaning of intelligence, as well as the future of education in the developed world.
In Britain, where the yearly tearing open of the results envelope invariably precipitates grumblings about dumbing down and grade inflation, the idea that children are getting smarter is bound to have many teachers choking on their tea.
Despite national test scores that have marched inexorably upwards since they began in 1995, critics note that our results in international comparisons have wavered or declined since the mid-Nineties. Back in 2006, a London University study even claimed that the average Year 7 pupil was more than two years behind their equivalent from the previous decade. So what's the truth behind these confusing, and often contradictory, figures?
A good starting point are the findings of Jim Flynn, Professor of Political Studies at Otago University in New Zealand, and author of What is Intelligence? In the Eighties, Professor Flynn embarked on IQ research to disprove theories alleging that black Americans were inferior to their white counterparts. But his findings were to have implications beyond US racial politics.
In a nutshell, he discovered a phenomenon that had been sitting right under his colleagues' noses for decades, but which they'd failed to notice. Since the inception of intelligence testing in the early 20th century, average IQs have risen by about half a point each year in the developed world. Professor Flynn realised that, not only were today's test takers scoring higher than ever (the British alone gained more than 27 IQ points between 1945 and 1992), but that our ancestors were getting grades that would have marked them out as mentally impaired by present standards. Did this mean that modern schooling was producing ever more accomplished children? Or something else entirely?
As you'd expect, academics haven't been slow to produce hypotheses. Some theories, like natural selection and nutrition, have been shelved or disputed; the former because rising IQs are considered too rapid to be explained purely in terms of breeding, the latter because although human beings have undeniably grown in height and head size over the past century, Professor Flynn believes that IQ scores have improved, even where nutrition hasn't.
The academic establishment's pet theory, and it was first espoused by Professor Flynn, is that children have got better at some abstract reasoning, such as categorisation, drawing similarities, and thinking hypothetically.
"Most people living around 1900 had a utilitarian attitude," says Professor Flynn. "They thought about what they could see, feel, hear, taste, touch or manipulate. And you had few abstract symbols then: in fact, only musical notation and playing cards."
In today's world, where children are brought up in a whirl of TV, internet, films and books, not to mention the increasing promotion of thinking skills by formal schooling, it's perhaps no wonder they are more in touch with their inner Plato (who once longed to know "not ... the changing world of sensation ... but the unchanging reality which is the object of knowledge").
Indeed, Professor's Flynn's theory is backed up by a detailed analysis of test scores: the sharpest rises occur on sections of major IQ tests that measure abilities such as puzzle-solving and drawing similarities, rather than skills that depend on instruction, such as arithmetic and vocabulary (see panel overleaf). But the gains aren't universal.
Whereas average IQ scores have gone up overall, studies suggest this is mostly down to improvements at the bottom end of the ability range.
"Modern education is directed at the average. But the standards of high achievers haven't increased much, possibly because exams are easier and less challenging nowadays," says Professor John Rust, the director of Cambridge Assessment's Psychometrics Centre.
Of course, not everyone is convinced that rocketing IQs should be taken as anything other than proof of the unreliability of intelligence testing itself. Indeed, when Alfred Binet, the French psychologist, developed the tests in the early Nineties as a device for streaming pupils, he warned that they should not be taken out of context because, "intellectual qualities ... cannot be measured as linear surfaces are".
Steven Rose, director of the brain and behaviour research group at the Open University, concurs: "IQ is an arbitrary measure, so an IQ of 100 refers to the average score on a test of a particular population in a particular cultural and environmental context. As environment and culture change, for example, longevity, education, nutrition, access to the internet and test questions devised decades ago may no longer reflect the average score of today's children," he says. "There's no reason why they should unless you believe the test tells you something fixed and absolute about the child outside time."
But while you might not necessarily believe that today's children are really cleverer than their forebears in absolute terms, IQ gains do seem to be pointing to rapid improvements in certain kinds of reasoning - whether or not these are driven by environmental factors.
John White, a Professor of Education Philosophy at London University's Institute of Education, attributes this to the schooling system Britain inherited from the reforming puritans, which emphasised abstract categories of knowledge, and which has become widespread since the late 19th century. "They had an encyclopedic view of knowledge, based on classifications and dichotomies. They introduced the modern curriculum, made of science, maths, geography and so on, which we have today."
Where does that leave the present generation of classroom clever clogs? Well, sadly for them, there is evidence that IQ gains have reached their limit in some parts of Europe (studies indicate they have flattened out in Denmark and Norway since the Nineties), as academics speculate the human race has reached the ceiling of its abilities.
Is this a bad thing? Not everyone thinks so. The levelling off of IQ scores could present a golden opportunity for the younger generation to cultivate a different kind of intellectual ability, believes Professor Flynn.
He is developing a new test, called Socrates, that measures critical thinking rather than traditional IQ points. "It's sad how little we have capitalised on IQ gains in the sense of developing real wisdom," he says. "You can have a very high IQ and still believe fervently in any old conspiracy theory. If we can do more to give pupils what they need to think critically beyond their speciality, the 21st century may be one in which we realise the potential latent in our new habits of mind."
HISTORY OF IQ TESTS
Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, published the first intelligence test in 1905. It was primarily developed to identify children, aged three to 15, who needed extra help with the curriculum.
Since then, a number of alternative IQ tests have been devised, including Raven's Progressive Matrices (1938) and the Weschler Intelligence Scale (1949). They have a chequered history, and were popular with supporters of eugenics, who believed the human race could be bred to become cleverer.
The average IQ score is 100. But should you break into the top 2 per cent (132-148 depending on the test) you can join Mensa, the world's oldest and largest high-IQ society, whose illustrious members include the journalist Gary Bushell. Should you fail, or simply agree with Professor Stephen Hawking that "people who boast about their IQ are losers", you can join Densa, the world's biggest low-IQ society, aimed, says its website, at "people who've maintained a closer relationship with lead paint than is considered healthy".