Intelligence: all we’ve learned or our future potential?

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge, discusses why we shouldn’t conflate intelligence with knowledge

In an English Literature lesson discussing Great Expectations, should a tutor be permitted to reference Charles Dickens’ other works, alluding to plot twists, themes and characters, to illustrate a point about the author’s writing style? 

The answer depends on the context of the lesson. Are the students in a Year 7 classroom, encountering Dickens for the first time? Or are they in their final year as undergraduates and the novels have been covered recently enough on the same course? Teachers at all levels should be wary of referencing Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, for example, if they can’t be confident that the students are all familiar enough with the texts that all can equally benefit from the parallels drawn, unless they are prepared to take the time to sufficiently elaborate about each one, providing a brief synopsis and sharing the relevant excerpts for students to read before the parallels are drawn. 

If a teacher fleetingly refers to the similarity between Dickens’ ‘Nancy’ and ‘Amy’ without ensuring all students know the required context of both novels, the classroom becomes an uneven playing field, with those students who have encountered Dickens in school or at home at a younger age being better able to ‘access’ the parallels being drawn than students who have not, through no fault of their own. Educators who don’t take account of students’ different backgrounds and carefully consider what can safely be assumed to be a group’s ‘shared knowledge’ are doing a disservice to the students who are then going to miss out on some of what they are being taught. 

The same is true when it comes to testing, and trying to measure students’ ‘intelligence’. There is certainly much for educators to reflect on about both the current frequency of assessment in schools, and the oppressive emphasis that is often given to students’ results, but it is worth bearing in mind that regular, well-conducted assessment can help educators to identify students who might benefit from additional or tailored tuition in a particular area too. It is worth considering, then, the role of ‘shared knowledge’ in trying to measure intelligence. 

Take IQ tests as an example, which are used in different forms by numerous institutions to assess applicants, and which commonly assess different areas of ‘intelligence’ from short-term and long-term memory, and knowledge, to abstract thinking, and puzzle solving. You can see examples of the sorts of questions asked by taking the online quiz on the Mensa website and, as well as being asked to find the odd one out in series of patterns, and to work out which number or letter comes next or is missing in sequences, there are questions that can only be answered if the participant has some particular prior knowledge. For instance, one question in the quiz is “HIVE is to BEE as DEN is to: a) ZEBRA, b) LION, c) CAT or d) ELEPHANT”. 

This isn’t a question that requires any extraordinary ‘intelligence’ as we might think of it, so much as it simply requires some ‘background knowledge’ of the animal kingdom as it is commonly described in the English language. There could conceivably be some very intelligent people who, for whatever reason, such as English not being their first language, or just not having had any coincidental reason to learn the phrase ‘lion’s den’ previously, who would not be able to answer this question in the Intelligence Quotient test.

There is a place for measuring what knowledge students have acquired during their time at school, but assessing someone’s knowledge of a particular subject is quite a different task to ‘measuring intelligence’, and it is important to note the difference. If students are applying for a higher education place, universities may require a certain amount of prior knowledge, and so a certificate that demonstrates their familiarity with a particular subject will prove useful. Students applying to the workplace will often wish to prove their ‘capacity’ to succeed in the role in question, and in this instance a certificate to prove their depth of knowledge about World War II may not be as useful as a certificate that would show their ‘intelligence’ or ‘capacity for success’ more generally. 

Charlotte Avery

We ought to be careful then when we think about ‘intelligence’ not to conflate this with ‘knowledge’. We should also consider what other factors affect people’s test scores, such as having the confidence to present their knowledge to others, being effective communicators, and having the ability to remain calm under pressure when problem-solving – all of which are useful skills to have, and to be able to demonstrate when making applications for work. 

So although IQ test scores have been used for years by teenagers in the playground (and, no doubt, some parents) as they boast about their ‘innate intelligence’ – and have even been used in 2017 by world leaders, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un battle it out to claim the title of ‘most intelligent world leader’ – the downside is that it can be extremely difficult to create tests that don’t simply assess someone’s current knowledge. As current knowledge correlates in the main to the opportunities and experiences students may have been fortunate enough to have, or unfortunate enough not to have, we should instead be trying to gauge young people’s capacity for future success, in order to work out how we can most usefully support them in achieving excellent outcomes. 

It is this capacity for future success and excellence that we are focusing on at St Mary’s School, Cambridge, based on a belief that outstanding outcomes are achievable by all students, regardless of their background, existing subject knowledge, entry point or previous experiences of and attitudes to learning. In 2017 we embarked on the High Performance Learning (HPL) initiative, which seeks to incorporate a range of different Teaching & Learning approaches – including developing growth mind-sets and removing barriers to progress – into one framework for schools. HPL is a proven, research-driven and pedagogy-led approach to education that is underpinned by the belief that high educational attainment is not only the reserve of those who might perform best in IQ tests. 

Rejecting the belief that some students are naturally more intelligent, HPL works instead from the premise that, in a school that provides a challenging but nurturing environment, intelligence is a skill that can be learned and high performance is an attainable target for everyone. HPL identifies the generic characteristics and attributes that all students need in order to succeed in learning and categorises these into Advanced Cognitive Performance characteristics (ACPs, or ‘thinking skills’), and Values, Attitudes and Attributes (VAAs), which are the vital building blocks in creating higher cognitive performance.  

The purpose of education and training is, to state the obvious, to learn. So, to put any premium on innate ability, talent or prior progress seriously misses the point. It is essential that, as educators, we celebrate progress and not the ease with which people achieve a task on first attempt. We mustn’t allow the perception to prevail that natural talent is more important than mastering a particular challenge. Neither should we allow assumptions that some academic subjects or pursuits require a prerequisite ability that can neither be learned nor taught. Modern research into the brain’s plasticity is unequivocal; neural pathways can be laid down at any time of life. There is literally nothing that children cannot get better at with repeated practice. Intelligence should, therefore, be redefined as an understanding that some children are early starters compared to others. In the long run, it is the skills required to commit to honing a craft and overcoming difficulties that will be most useful in years to come.

We think it is much more important to encourage learners to take pride in developing advanced thinking skills and positive attitudes to learning, working hard, and mastering skills, rather than their test scores, however impressive they may be. Building a capacity for future excellence is a much worthier pursuit. 


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