Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Are all children capable of academic success?

The latest issue of Standpoint magazine features a provocative article by Charles Murray on the question of whether all children have the potential to be academically successful. Murray was co-author of the controversial book "The Bell Curve", published in 1994, which explored issues of race and IQ in America.

Murray's new article is a response to what he describes as "educational romanticism", encapsulated by the beliefs of the UK's former schools minister Andrew Adonis. In August, Lord Adonis wrote "There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today, virtually all getting five or more good GCSEs and staying on in education beyond 16."

Murray argues that study after study has shown that improving schools actually makes very little difference to children's academic success. For example, he cites the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, an American project which compared 11 of the best pre-school interventions. "The consortium's bottom line" he writes "was that 'the effect of early education on intelligence test scores was not permanent'".

He also discusses The Coleman Report, published in 1966, which observed the relation between school quality and academic success among 645,000 students. "To everyone's shock," Murray writes, "the Coleman Report found that the quality of schools explained almost nothing about differences in academic achievement." Instead, family background was by far the most important factor explaining academic success.

Murray argues that IQ is the strongest influence on academic success and that some children simply aren't equipped to excel at the highest levels, no matter how excellent the schooling they receive. The children of parents from the professional classes tend to do better academically, he proposes, because they inherit higher IQ from their parents, and because the households of professional couples are more conducive to learning - for example, more intelligent parents are more likely to read to their children.

"This is not a counsel of despair," Murray concludes. "The implication is not to stop trying to help but to remove the ideological blinkers and stop pretending that all children can or should pursue the academic track. There is a healthier and attainable goal of education: to bring children to adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well. The goal applies equally to every child, across the entire range of every ability."

What do Digest readers think? Does the psychological literature support Murray's controversial claims? A previous Digest item that seems to undermine his claims described a study showing that self-discipline matters more than IQ when it comes to academic success.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Other related Digest items include:
The long-term effect of streaming on children's self-esteem.
Reading to babies gives them a head-start.
How ambitious mothers breed successful daughters.

Link to Charles Murray's article: We can't all make the grade. 

12 comments:

  1. Irrespective of the merits of the theoretical underpinnings of his argument, or the quality of his empirical analysis, Charles Murray can expect to be jumped on for his argument that some kids simply aren’t built to do as well, academically, as some of their peers. To put it another way, Murray is arguing that some kids are smarter than others, and this difference is manifested in academic achievements (and perhaps specifically maths and reading, which might be grouped together under critical thinking skills and comprehension, construed broadly).

    For many people, this line of thinking is, no doubt, a ‘taboo cognition’, as psychologist Phillip Tetlock would put it. There are many other examples of taboo cognitions, such as questions about whether men and women differ in their average intellectual or cognitive aptitudes (not to say that one is ‘better’ than the other), whether there are genetic differences between populations around the globe (and, even more controversially, whether these might be related to cognitive differences), and whether the evolutionary history of men could make them predisposed to rape.

    I’ve deliberately picked hot-button issues that are likely to make you sit up and say “What? That’s an outrageous suggestion!” (and I don’t claim that there are clear answers to any of them). The point is that these are empirical issues, yet merely raising them is too much for some people to bear: because the answer may not turn out as one would like it, the very act of asking the question is demonized. And the questioner is then usually imputed with various nefarious motives (advancing sexism, racism, the status of the poor and so on). Yes, sometimes people do have an agenda to push, and empirical evidence about human behaviour can, and has been, manipulated and misrepresented to advance deeply immoral causes. But that doesn’t mean we should simply stop asking certain questions - or worse, ducking the answers provided by empirical studies. If your position on some important social question is based on ignoring the empirical evidence, then it might be susceptible to easy refutation by the evidence.

    And in any case, certain prescriptive ideas – such as promotion of equality between the sexes – don’t require complete biological and cognitive identity between the sexes. Even if there were on-average differences between the sexes, overlap in the distribution of the trait in question (which we’d expect in every trait from height to mathematical skill) would undermine sexist morals drawn from such a finding. Imagine if studies showed women to be better carers than men; it would be still be unethical and irrational to discriminate against a given man going for a job as a carer based on the average skill in caring of men generally. A given man could, despite this hypothetical average difference between men and women in caring skills, be an excellent carer. He should be judged as an individual, and not as a representative of some mean group average. That’s the problem: judging people not as individuals to be assessed on their own merits, but according the group which you assign them to.

    But just as empirical questions about differences between the sexes get swamped by a variety of socio-political considerations (even if, as I suggest above, they are unwarranted), so too will questions about the inherent intelligence and academic potential of children in a society that rightly places a stress on equality. But does treating everyone as equally valuable human beings really mean that we have to believe that everyone is equally smart? The celebration of excellence, natural talent and extreme ability in sports and many other domains is not taken to be an affront to notions of equality, so why so with intelligence?

    To wrap up with one specific point. Murray does not think intelligence is all that matters:

    “This is not to say that those two are the only abilities relevant to success in school. Intra-personal ability in the form of self-discipline and perseverance is also important. But all the self-discipline and perseverance in the world won't help if enough underlying academic ability isn't there. Think of the relationship of academic ability to academic success as you think of the relationship of height to success as a centre in a professional basketball team. Height isn't the most important factor - for people who are at least 6ft 10in (just over 2 metres) to begin with.”

    Here he mentions self-discipline, which is the subject of the study that supposedly undermines Murray’s argument. In my view it does not. The fact that self-discipline accounts for a large proportion of variance in academic achievement, and even more than IQ, does not by itself undermine the idea that there are inherent differences in IQ among children, and that these differences may find expression in differential academic performance. It just means IQ is not the whole story, as Murray admits.

    And what if the differences in self-discipline follow a similar pattern to differences in intelligence (that is, showing variation around a mean)? Then the problem Murray outlines would remain the same, and his conclusion could amended as follows (see addition in square brackets): “It is time to recognise that even the best schools under the best conditions cannot overcome the limits on achievement set by limits on academic ability [which are in turn related to differences in intelligence and the capacity for self-discipline]”.

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  2. Can schools do anything for self-discipline?

    How about for locus of control?

    And more importantly, will any of them work for a 31-year-old graduate student?

    I am actually sincere in asking each of these. It seems that school does not exist solely to increase intelligence. Intelligence correlates well with income, but it is certainly not deterministic. This means there may be a host of other factors that school could work to improve besides intelligence.

    (And yes, I am a 31-year-old graduate student desperate for answers.)

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  3. Hi Dan,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments.

    I agree completely your assertion that we shouldn't stop asking certain empirical questions just because the answers may be awkward.

    However, regarding Murray's specific claims, I wonder if you've been persuaded too easily.

    First of all, let's take Murray's analogy with height. How tall children grow is of course affected by environmental factors like diet. But given certain minimal environmental requirements we can all agree that a child's ultimate height is pretty much set in stone.

    Can we really say the same thing about IQ and academic success? Perhaps a better analogy would be with strength rather than height. Our IQ is surely constrained by our genetic make-up, but just as with strength there's probably a lot we can do to maximise our potential.

    That's why the study on self-discipline is so important. Even more than IQ, self-discipline sounds like something that can be taught (obviously these is an empirical question ripe for further investigation) and Murray's height analogy begins to look even more inappropriate.

    Second, let's look at the notion that we must accept some people will be better academically than others. Let's assume that population variance stays the same (it needn't but let's just assume it does), and that relative differences between individuals therefore remain intact. This doesn't mean that raising overall standards will have no benefit. The idea is that certain key skills such as reading, writing and maths will become possible for more children - arguably having a profound impact on their lives, irrespective of these children's relative attainment compared to the most successful children.

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  4. Hi Bobvis
    Certainly psychologists are beginning to test interventions aimed at increasing factors like self-discipline and attention that are now recognised as playing a pivotal role in achievement. Check out this Digest report for an example: http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2008/06/biofeedback-training-can-boost.html

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  5. A reply to the Digest reply to my comment. First, the suggestion that “[R]egarding Murray's specific claims, I wonder if you've been persuaded too easily.”. I wonder whether anyone can actually tell what degree I’ve been persuaded of his claims, as I didn’t defend any of his claims. My key point was just to illustrate that the sort of argument that Murray makes is likely to come under fire for reasons over and above the theoretical/empirical issues at hand (to make doubly clear, I’m not suggesting that he is, in fact, right, and I don’t have to be persuaded of his arguments to make the point I did).

    My other point was simply that Murray does not have an exclusive focus on intelligence in discussing academic success (see his line “This is not to say that those two are the only abilities relevant to success in school. Intra-personal ability in the form of self-discipline and perseverance is also important.”). And I suggested that studies showing that self-discipline might be even more important than IQ in accounting for variation in academic success do not undermine the claim that there is variation in IQ that can account (to some degree) for the fact of differential academic success (it would be one factor among many in a multi-causal model, perhaps).

    Given that these were my original points, the other parts of the Digest reply are interesting but largely beside the point (in relation to what I was saying, that is). I’ll reply though, in the spirit of communal debate.

    “First of all, let's take Murray's analogy with height. How tall children grow is of course affected by environmental factors like diet. But given certain minimal environmental requirements we can all agree that a child's ultimate height is pretty much set in stone.”

    The point of the analogy with height is not, as I read it, anything to do with environmental effects on traits or malleability of traits or constraints of genetic make-up. Murray was just pointing out on a professional basket ball team, height might not have much of a relationship with success on the court (that is, the tallest players are not necessarily the best). However, that doesn’t mean that height is unimportant in basketball, which is why basketball players are enormous compared with other sports people. Skill enables you to capitalise on your height, and vice versa (I’d argue that self-discipline helps you capitalise on intelligence, and vice versa – and I think Murray would agree (though again this convergence of conclusions does not mean I support Murray’s argument in its totality – I’m not going into the empirical issues of effectiveness of educational programs or interventions).

    I’d also take issue with the idea that “given certain minimal environmental requirements we can all agree that a child's ultimate height is pretty much set in stone”. I’m not entirely sure what that could mean, but I assume it’s got something to do with how much variation in height can be attributed to environmental and genetic factors (that is, to do with heritability estimates). Well, the heritability of height is somewhere around 60-80%. Figures for the heritability of IQ – more controversial, I realise - typically come out around 50-70%. So why one conclusion in one case, and a different one in another case? (That is, if heritability estimates lead to the conclusion that the heritability of height means it is set in stone, then why not say IQ is sculpted out of wood (reflecting the slightly lower heritability estimates for IQ compared with height)? And if heritability has nothing to do with the “set in stone” idea, what motivates the claim? I realise, of course, that it is a basic error in interpreting behavioural genetic data to read off the causal importance of genes or environment in producing traits, or their scope for being altered through life. I only bring heritability up as it seemed to be implicit in the comment I was addressing.

    “Can we really say the same thing about IQ and academic success? Perhaps a better analogy would be with strength rather than height. Our IQ is surely constrained by our genetic make-up, but just as with strength there's probably a lot we can do to maximise our potential.”

    Can we say that IQ and academic success are set in stone? Not really, but I wouldn’t say that about height either. And to repeat the point above, the analogy in Murray’s example is not between the development of height and the development of intelligence (still less about their malleability). It is about how a given factor (height or self-discipline) can be important while being less than all-important (height without skill being useless on the basketball court, self-discipline without intelligence being useless in the classroom – this is Murray’s analogy, and I’m not endorsing his point, merely reiterating it).

    And the point about maximising potential is in line with Murray’s argument, and in fact is covered by the preceding point: self-discipline may help you maximise your potential (intelligence), but people have different potentials and therefore you get different expressed levels of intelligence among people.

    “That's why the study on self-discipline is so important. Even more than IQ, self-discipline sounds like something that can be taught (obviously these is an empirical question ripe for further investigation) and Murray's height analogy begins to look even more inappropriate.”

    Self-discipline sounds like something that can be taught? Does it? Maybe this is a common intuition, but in the absence of any data I’ll keep my guesses to myself. And I don’t see what relevance this has to Murray’s height analogy, which, to repeat for a final time, has nothing to do with malleability or changeability or teachability.

    “Second, let's look at the notion that we must accept some people will be better academically than others. Let's assume that population variance stays the same (it needn't but let's just assume it does), and that relative differences between individuals therefore remain intact. This doesn't mean that raising overall standards will have no benefit.”

    I certainly made no claims that raising overall educational standards would provide no benefit, so I guess I don’t really need to answer this charge. However, I don’t read Murray as saying this either. In fact, in some domains it seems he’s saying the reverse, as Murray writes: “How much can an ordinary English school do to raise the academic performance of its students? If the question is framed in terms of teaching them bodies of factual material about history, politics and citizenship, science and the arts, the increases in learning across the board could be dramatic. But if the question is reading and maths, the answer is that the quality of the school makes surprisingly little difference.”

    “The idea is that certain key skills such as reading, writing and maths will become possible for more children - arguably having a profound impact on their lives, irrespective of these children's relative attainment compared to the most successful children.”

    I think the ‘big picture’ focus of Murray’s is getting lost somewhere. Nothing in what he says suggests that we can’t or shouldn’t try to ensure that more children can read and write – key skills with an important impact on life no doubt. Murray would agree that practically all children can be taught these skills. Murray’s argument is about whether it’s a realistic ambition to make everyone high academic achievers. We wouldn’t automatically think that we can make everyone highly musical or highly athletic; why assume that we can academically? And what of the negative effects this obsession with making people achieve academically has on those who, either by disposition or aptitude, aren’t cut out for high-end academic studies? What is so wrong with acknowledging that this route isn’t for everyone, and that there are other things of value one can do apart from continuing education?

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  6. Hi Dan

    Thank you for your very thorough comments.

    I think the interesting empirical issue is whether academic ability is as immutable as Murray implies. This is central to his case. He draws an analogy between academic ability and a basketball player's height. I wonder if he's right to do so?

    Besides wearing higher-heeled shoes, the player can't do much about their height (this is what I was trying to get at before). By contrast, new studies are showing that factors like attentional control, working memory and self-discipline are predictive of academic success - and unlike height, these factors can be changed (e.g. see here and here). I'd be interested to hear if anyone knows of any further pertinent studies in this area. If academic ability is more amenable to training than is suggested by Murray's account, do his conclusions still stand, or do Lord Adonis' comments start to sound more feasible?

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  7. Anonymous1:42 am

    Dan, well put.

    My only problem with Murray is that he is a republican. Surely some intelligence lacking there.

    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2008/09/charles_murray.php

    An interview between Murray and Deborah Solomon (via frontal cortex, above):

    Q: What do you think of Sarah Palin?

    Murray: I'm in love. Truly and deeply in love.

    Q: She attended five colleges in six years.

    Murray: So what?

    Q: Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism?

    Murray: The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we've had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.



    As Jason Kottke noted, "the cognitive dissonance inside Murray's head must be deafening."

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  8. Anonymous11:34 am

    Thanks to Anonymous for reminding me of Murray’s comments about Palin (and the good line about Murray’s cognitive dissonance) – I must have purged these from my mind they were so cringe worthy! And it gives me a chance to point out that I have no love for Murray’s politics or social views, and have absolutely no desire to defend them. But that’s part of the point: not to indulge in a knee-jerk reaction to views that are at first glance unsettling or come from someone with different political and social views than your own (to be clear, I’m not accusing the Digest of this).

    And I certainly agree that the degree to which we can boost academic achievement is a key empirical question, and a socially desirable goal. But even if we can boost reading and maths skills, and produce better educated school leavers (equipped with an understanding of the world so they can fruitfully follow and even participate in ongoing and new social, political and scientific challenges), that doesn’t entail making everyone high academic achievers. It remains possible that academic excellence, like excellence in other fields, will be attainable only by a small minority (this seems true almost by definition). And some of the difference between the average and the excellent may turn on inherent levels of intelligence and the capacity for self-discipline and hard work (which probably synergise with each other), as well as educational practices, random bad luck and twists of fate (you could be smart but go to a bad school, where teachers spend most of the time controlling students rather than teaching them, and never get turned on to the joys of learning – in which case you may well remain smart, but never apply this to academic pursuits, but rather excel in something else).

    And that’s my lot on this topic.

    Cheers,

    Dan.

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  9. A few final thoughts from the Digest Editor:

    I think we can all agree that some children will always do better than others - that we're each born with different levels of potential.

    I'm assuming the interesting area for debate is just how much can and can't be done to improve children's academic abilities.

    Adonis thinks all healthy children, regardless of their background, should be able to achieve a certain number of GCSEs and stay on in school past 16 (even if this were possible, it of course raises potential problems, such as the inability to distinguish between the capabilities of 16-year-old children if they're all getting the same grades. But let's leave that to one side).

    Murray, by contrast with Adonis, suggests that large-scale social studies show that actually very little can be done to improve children's academic skills and achievements. He says this is because IQ is the most important factor influencing achievement, and he implies that IQ is relatively unchangeable (he also talks about differences in class family environments playing a role but I won't go into that here).

    As Dan reminds us, Murray argues that children can perhaps be taught more facts but he when it comes to reading and maths ability he re-asserts his evidence-based claims that it appears very little can be done to improve these skills.

    Murray is a political scientist, not a psychologist. He cites plenty of large-scale educational outcome research that supports his arguments. However, this of course is a psychology blog - so, without taking any particular stand on the issue, I wondered if the psychological literature also supports Murray's assertions.

    For example, as I've said, central to his claims is the idea that academic achievement is largely influenced by IQ, which is largely inherited. Yet from my little knowledge in this area I find these claims appear to conflict with new psychology research, showing, for example, that self-discipline is actually more important than IQ when it comes to academic success. Other research has shown that working memory training can boost intelligence scores. Other research still, has shown that attention can be improved through training.

    So to conclude - what bearing do these new psychological findings have on this debate? Yes, some children will always be better than others, and it is surely a mistake for politicians to imply that everyone can be capable of academic excellence. But with training in working memory, attention and self-discipline (presumably not yet tested on a large-scale in schools), might it perhaps be possible to raise the minimum standards reached by the majority of children? This is presumably what the meaty debate here is all about - just how much children's academic abilities can be nurtured, and how much they are set in stone.

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  10. Anonymous1:59 pm

    Thank you Digest for raising this interesting issue, which has stimulated somewhat heated debate in my tutor group. Your last comment has really helped clarify the different view points and highlighted the relevant research, that my kids can now look into. Its so great having such a succinct resource for teaching. I was getting rather lost in the intellectual muscle flexing of previous comments-seems like intellectuals love nothing more than debating the orgins of intelligence. I guess, it keeps us lesser IQs in our place or maybe I'm confusing the ability to follow convulted critical analysis of your digest post or Murray's article (not sure now which is the source of controversy or debate) with general intelligence???

    Thanks The Confused Psychology Teacher

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  11. I believe that all of these factors play their role to a certain extent. However, whether the main factor is discipline or IQ, it shows that maybe not all of us are gifted from the start to achieve academic success

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  12. Austin Thomas11:41 pm

    Excuse me, i'm actually doing a report on compulsory education, and i would like to know if you guys feel that children should stay with other children who are academically achieving in all ways or should they be able to decide if they want to have education. Most children complain about how they say they don't want to be in school so i think, just leave then and let the worthy suceed. I'm only 13 but if i can get some comment that would help.

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