Test that insults the nation

Open minds to see that everyone is gifted and a richer world unfolds, says Barry John Hymer.

As 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 both morally and practically questionable, and as a guide to an individual's life and people skills, they're 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've 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 performances 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 EG 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)?

How many are wandering around certain that they're the one, and pathetically grateful that the presenters stopped short of their exposure as "the thicko"? Even the "celebrities", who are supposed to mainline on knicker-waving attention-seeking, were slow to volunteer to have their scores revealed, and who can blame them?

IQ has become damagingly and falsely caught up in our culture with un- or barely-related ideas like self-concept, self-belief, self-worth and achievement. 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 to school communities. There is no natural law that has decreed that giftedness must for all time be shackled to an inherently comparative concept, such as IQ. As long as we believe such a law exists, we will forever be restricting ourselves to an actuarial approach to giftedness. 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're 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 to be published by David Fulton in July. He is expressing personal views in this article.

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