Skip to main content

IQ tests are for the dumbos

The BBC's Test the Nation mentality is an insult to people's innate talent and perpetrates the myth that giftedness can be measured, says Barry Hymer.

s a lover of docusoaps, reality-TV-fests and naked curling championships, I would be slow to accuse television controllers of dumbing down. But the BBC's Test the Nation goes too far. IQ tests are yesterday's news, especially when taken out of context. They are morally and practically questionable, and as a guide to an individual's life and people skills, they are pretty much useless.

They were invented by two Frenchmen as a way of predicting which children were at risk of school failure. They do that pretty well. But we have known for decades that the correlation between IQ and achievement or happiness (however defined) in later life is lamentably small. Effort and motivation seem to be stronger predictors of achievement than "innate ability", and past happiness a better predictor of future happiness.

IQ tests can provide a useful overview of an individual's profile of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, but only as part of a much wider and more holistic assessment, and with the tests' own strengths and limitations made explicit.

As an educational psychologist I have spent more than a decade administering individual IQ tests. Intelligence, like giftedness, is an idea, not a "thing". We don't discover, measure, or reveal it - we invent it, for a particular purpose at a particular time to meet a particular need. All that we can measure is a pale reflection of whatever intelligence is - and even that depends on who's defining it. Binet and Simon invented the sort of intelligence that lends itself to "measurement" and that corresponds well with academic performance in and outside school, and others developed and created a 20th-century industry around it.

Arguably the most brilliant definition of intelligence in the 20th-century was E G Boring's (1923) "Intelligence is what intelligence tests test", brilliant mostly for the banality of its (probably unintended) irony.

Finally, it is just not acceptable simply to pass off the apparent Test the Nation triumph of men over women, students over blondes and blue-eyes over brown as light-hearted entertainment, which every "intelligent" viewer will understand as "a bit of a laugh". The myth of IQ has invaded the national mind too successfully for that. Did you sense the shocked reaction of the studio participants to the revelation that "One of you has an IQ of 70" (usually taken to denote significant generalised learning difficulties)?

Shows like Test the Nation do nothing to introduce the nation to far richer, less pessimistic, less simple-minded and more motivating theories around intelligence, giftedness and creativity - such as those developed by Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Nor do they give hope to those schools which are trying to shake off the dead hand of determinism, and introduce truly inclusive conceptions of giftedness.

There is no natural law that has decreed that giftedness must for all time be shackled to an inherently comparative concept, such as IQ. When we allow ourselves to challenge this "law", the psychometricians and the existing order, and to wonder if we can't all be gifted - because we are all relatively good at something - then wonderful and surprising things become possible. And Test the Nation won't be among them.

Barry Hymer is a teacher and chartered psychologist. His book, Gifted and Talented Learners: Creating a Policy for Inclusion, is published by David Fulton in July. His views are personal.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you