Intelligence cannot be defined by exams
“Many highly intelligent people are poor thinkers. Many people of average intelligence are skilled thinkers. The power of a car is separate from the way the car is driven.” - Edward de Bono
Each year at this time, the pressure cranks up in the race for school and university places, as SATS and A-levels prepare to feed another raft of league tables. As these help determine our standing on the world stage, through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), our obsession with measuring children takes centre stage.
Confident in our system of public examinations, that is broadly designed to separate those more ‘intelligent’ from the less ‘intelligent’, we can feel content that we are filtering out our most able for higher education and all the opportunities that entails. Sounds simple enough, if it was really that easy.
The problem lies with the word intelligence. The common definition, that of possessing ‘a quickness of understanding and an ability to apply knowledge and skills to a high level’ – should give us pause to ask how well equipped our current examination system is to deliver?
Many ‘intelligent’ students, so identified by the data emanating from various intelligence tests (which incidentally too often reinforce teacher expectations), are frustrated by papers that trot out the same questions in a different garb. These allow for little or no original thought and even actively discourage creative thinking and intelligent responses.
Simply stated, measuring intelligence through examination is, inevitably, as limited as the examination itself. Whilst it might prove a reasonable sieve – perhaps even the best we can provide – it will not identify many of those we instinctively know to be intelligent.
There are simple reasons for this, apart from the failure of examinations to measure divergent thinking and creativity (due in part to the need to keep marking as objective and, therefore, as inflexible as possible to remove any room for subjective judgment).
The problem of measuring intelligence per se is that it is an inadequate guide to human capability, and that many of the ways we use to measure working intelligence are woefully inadequate. Surely those we should be seeking to identify and nurture are students with the capacity of effective or applied intelligence, those who can do something with what knowledge and skills they acquire?
Too many ‘intelligent’ children, often bored by conventional learning, slip through the net. Others just think differently to the straitjacket dictated by ‘one size fits all’ exams. For instance, the list of those luminaries with learning difficulties who found it difficult to express themselves in conventional examinations makes for sober reading.
This poses the question as to just how many are badly served by traditional examinations, despite all the assistance offered through extra time, reader-writers and the use of technology. We only have to reflect on some of our leading public figures who dropped out of school and have ended up in prominent positions in public life to know that the traditional system of assessment was not capable of measuring their particular abilities, their sense of purpose, work ethic and creativity.
There are also many ‘intelligent’ people, as measured by our schools, who have the historic indicators of intelligence, viz. a quickness of understanding and the ability to perform cognitively at a higher level but are painfully deficient in other aspects.
These people can lack initiative, the ability to ask difficult questions (and solve them), EQ, cooperative and communication skills and the organisational discipline crucial to make intelligence an active, rather than a passive, trait.
Because our perceived definition of intelligence is so closely linked in with an ability to be measured by exams, many intelligent people are disfranchised.
Our measure of who is intelligent depends more on giving expected and appropriate answers rather than showing any initiative or creative spark, this is probably the reason for the clutch of third class degrees accumulated by such luminaries as Michael Morpurgo, W. H. Auden and Carol Vorderman.
By measuring intelligence this way, we get some of the crop, but not all, and those that fall by the wayside can be the most important of all. Hence while neurosurgeons, judges and nanotechnologists emerge from the current system, one only has to look at the vast numbers of highly successful – and intelligent – people who failed to shine at school to see how random our measure is. As Winston Churchill aptly demonstrated, it is possible to win the Nobel Prize for Literature despite a mediocre school career and no tertiary qualifications.
Part of the problem may be how we value and reward intelligence, as identified through traditional testing. The word ’intelligent’ has a cache that other words, like ‘industrious’ do not. For instance, we richly reward those whose appointments are based on their academic qualifications; judges, diplomats, bankers and brokers, financiers, consultants, senior bureaucrats and the like. However, those people who make create, who tinker and take intellectual risks, are scantily rewarded in comparison.
We might well ask, are our schools guilty of promoting a passive form of intelligence, asking ‘what do you know’ rather than ‘what can you do’ simply because of the limitations of assessment? We might also pause to recognise that many ‘intelligent’ people may lack the very qualities we need from our leaders, be it emotional intelligence, wisdom or even common sense. Ability, talent, intelligence on their own are lumps of coal – they need setting alight to have any value.
Of course we need our most able to fly; we need an intelligentsia to keep challenging us and leading us forward. And they will probably still come from the traditional route until we widen our criteria and improve our tools for identifying talent, although when I read that 7 per cent of Oxford’s student population are receiving counseling along with 728 postgraduate students, I wonder how too much focus on academia can stunt emotional and social development. As a society, we benefit most from those with effective intelligence, who are able to channel their intelligence and use it, rather than merely parade it in the safety of institutions and selected professions.
We lose too many talented and intelligent people by defining intelligence through tests that are wholly inadequate and constricting. We need to look wider and encourage the entrepreneur, the inquisitive, the creative and the downright cussed in our schools to make the most of who we are and to bring out the richness and diversity of thought and ideas in our society.