Marks out of 10 - A matter of environment

30th July 2010 at 01:00

Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

Richard E Nisbett

W.W. Norton Co, #163;12.99

By Martin Spice

When I trained to teach in the mid-1970s, the nature-nurture debate was a hot topic. It seemed to me then, and still does, that teachers have little option but to fall on the nurture side of the divide. To believe intelligence is modifiable is to have faith in one's professional capabilities and in the power of schools to help pupils to improve. By contrast, the heredity argument effectively renders teachers almost powerless in a battle against genes that they are destined to lose.

Social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett, a professor at the University of Michigan, clearly intends to dismiss the view that intelligence is a matter of heredity.

He is particularly devastating in his analysis of the famous research comparing the IQ of identical twins brought up in different adoptive families, pointing out that the adoptive environments tend to be very similar and rich in the environmental factors that nurture intelligence. Thus, the heredity explanation for the twins' similar IQ despite separation simply falls apart.

Nisbett is clear and honest about the treacherous nature of the ground he is treading on: "IQ is not the be-all and end-all of intelligence, and intelligence ... is not the only important factor influencing academic success ... and academic success is itself only one predictor of occupational success." Nonetheless, he marshals a persuasive case that the influence of heredity has been significantly overstated. His view is that the heritability factor in IQ "may be less than" 50 per cent as against the 75-80 per cent claimed by hereditarians, and he points out that raising someone in an upper-middle class environment is worth an extra 12-18 points of IQ - "a truly massive effect".

If Nisbett is right, the power to effect an increase in intelligence, and thereby achievement, lies in the manipulation of environmental factors - which is where schools come into it, particularly intensive programmes aimed at children from low-income families.

Sadly, their success rate is not high: "gains in IQ fade and the academic achievement effects are not very large," he says. The exception is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of public schools in deprived areas of the US, an account of which occupies some of the book's most interesting pages. The key features of KIPP are extended school attendance, insistence on high standards of behaviour, close home-school ties and, more controversially perhaps, the power of principals to hire and fire teachers.

Coming to this book for the first time, I would be tempted to start at the end, where Nisbett summarises his findings, then work back to the sections that are of particular interest in order to review the evidence. Despite a bid to be reader-friendly, Nisbett is an academic and the nature of his task requires him to write like one. His key findings are described in the final chapter and the epilogue.

The most exciting thing about Nisbett's work is that it offers a strong basis for believing positive interventions by schools and teachers are capable of changing lives. As he says: "Believing that our intelligence is substantially under our control won't make us smart by itself. But it's a good start."

The verdict 910.

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