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The long shadow of the IQ empire

There's an Eric Idle song which concludes: "Let's hope there's intelligent life out there in space, 'cos there's bugger all down here on earth". Maybe it was this sentiment that led to all the excitement in the summer about the discovery of life on Mars. Exciting though it was, I somehow doubted the potential intelligence of that small life-form embedded in an unlikely-looking piece of rock: my only hope is that it might one day play cricket for England.

For intelligence, we might need to look slightly closer to home. In 1978 in Venezuela, Luis Alberto Machado was appointed Minister of State for the Development of Intelligence. It is natural to assume that what this really meant was that he was Minister for the Shady Underworld and oversaw the Venezuelan equivalent of M15.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Machado's job was precisely what it said it was: to develop the intelligence of the Venezuelan people. A team from Harvard was invited to develop a programme called Project Intelligence and young Venezuelans were taught modules on "The Foundations of Reasoning", "Problem-Solving" and "Inventive Thinking".

In 1982, a change of political control meant a loss of government interest in the programme. Even so, evaluations showed that Project Intelligence students had higher IQs at the end of the project than at the beginning and performed better across a whole range of assessments than a control group. Whatever else Machado achieved, he had demonstrated that intelligence can be taught.

In this country, by contrast, what Harvard psychologist David Perkins calls "the IQ empire" still casts a long shadow. Across our society, and even sometimes in the teaching profession, there is a tendency to cling to the old-fashioned but deeply embedded belief that intelligence is general, inherited and fixed.

A few months ago I was discussing the national targets for education and training with teachers in the Midlands. They were concerned that the targets were too ambitious: "There aren't that many bright children," said one.

Anyone who takes that view would have to explain why there is a higher proportion of "bright children" in Japan or Germany than here, since both those countries have surpassed the British targets. Unless we are to believe that the British are born less clever than the Japanese or the Germans, then the target is theoretically achievable.

Whether or not we achieve the target in practice depends on many things, including the effectiveness of schools and levels of resourcing. But most of all it involves doing away - once and for all - with the notion that intelligence is general, inherited and fixed. Fortunately, the past 20 years of psychology research have comprehensively demolished that deterministic view.

In Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence, published this year, David Perkins opens up a radically new picture of intelligence. He accepts that an important part of intelligence is "neural" and is strongly influenced by inheritance. Even this neural element of intelligence, however, is not absolutely fixed. Perkins points to research which shows that whereas the IQs of first generation Italian-American children were well below average, now, a century later, they are above average, in large part because of increased access to education.

IQ is by no means the best predictor of success in life or performance at work. What matters in real life is not so much intelligence in the narrow IQ sense, but intelligent behaviour. What Perkins calls "experimental intelligence" and "reflective intelligence" contribute at least as much as neural intelligence to bringing this about.

Experimental intelligence results from the development of expertise in a given field. It is why we say there is no substitute for experience and why in job advertisements, employers tend to emphasise the importance of experience.

The piece of research which revealed experimental intelligence most dramatically examined what made the difference between a grandmaster and a club player in chess. One might expect in such a purely abstract and intellectual pursuit that IQ would be the decisive factor, but not so. The biggest difference between the two groups was that grandmasters, through the time and dedication they gave to the game, had built up a much more substantial body of experience. As a result, they were able to summarise rapidly any new situation and generally make excellent decisions. The good news about experimental intelligence is that, if people have the right attitude, it is learnable. Through learning, in other words, they can become more intelligent.

The same applies to Perkins' third aspect of intelligence, "reflective intelligence". By this, he means the strategies and attitudes which enable people to make better use of their minds. The skills of making the best use of your mind - of thinking about the thinking process - can indeed be learned. Reflective intelligence is the key to dealing with unfamiliar situations. It is also the kind of thinking that enables people to challenge assumptions and expected norms. It includes strategies for memorising, problem-solving, reasoning and generating imaginative options.

In the past decade, schools' expectations of their pupils have increased dramatically. There are countless success stories of schools whose pupils are achieving performance levels that only a few years ago they believed were impossible.

At Seven Kings High School in Redbridge, Greater London, where I spent a training day at the start of this term, far from resting on the laurels of their tremendous success in recent years, the staff were meeting in departments to examine ways of doing even better next year. The question they asked me to address was "Raising Standards - How Far Can We Go?" The answer is that we don't yet know but, if Perkins is right, we ain't seen nothing yet. One day we might even prove Eric Idle wrong.

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