The able and the bright: On assumptions of intelligence and ability

By Anna May (Editor)

“If we are going to succeed as an economy and as a society, we have to make more of our most able young people. We need them to become the political, commercial and professional leaders of tomorrow.”
(Michael Wilshaw, HM Chief Inspector of Ofsted)

Ofsted, the English education regulatory agency, recently warned that state schools were failing bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to Ofsted, schools need to recognize the potential of their students early in order to ‘stretch’ and challenge them to aim higher. Only then can the most able state school pupils compete on equal terms with privately educated pupils for prestigious university places and jobs [1].

In this post I want to highlight some long-lived and, in my opinion, problematic assumptions regarding the nature of human abilities and their distribution in society, assumptions I have frequently encountered in media discourse, personal discussions, and which underpin even more progressive calls for equality of opportunity in education.


Souls of gold, silver, brass and iron

The quest to detect and distinguish human abilities goes back far in history. In his “Republic” Plato was already describing an ideal society which rested on a tripartite class division where souls were made of different metals which correspond to different social functions as rulers, warriors, workers etc.. The idea of that intellect was heredity was later taken up by the British cartographer and statistician Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Impressed by the theories of Charles Darwin, his cousin, in the ‘Origin of Species’ (1859), Galton pursued further studies to prove that physical and mental characteristics were correlated and also hereditary in humans [2]. He created the discipline of ‘eugenics’ (Greek for ‘well-born’), designed to ‘perfect’ the natural selection of the human race [3].

Advancements in measuring intelligence were made during the first half of the 20th century, and these had considerable influence on education, policy-making and practice. For example, such advancements were involved in determining admissions to English grammar schools at the age of 11 [4]. Pre-1960s European school systems relied on divisions which separated academic, technical and vocational school tracks, reflecting the view that there were certain types of mind (‘academic’, ‘technical’ and ‘manual’), that differed in their level of ‘general’ ability. Children needed to be sorted into appropriate tracks early on to prepare them for their predestined labour market and social class positions [4].

Today, openly eugenic views of intelligence which posit that intellect is passed on through generations and within racial or class boundaries have been relatively discredited (although not completely, see the controversy around the book ‘The Bell-Curve’ [5]). Instead, contemporary mainstream educational psychology, and numerous political debates, are instead underpinned by versions of psychological nativism. This means abilities are seen as ‘native’ to the brain, but also as distributed randomly throughout society. As talent can occur in all social classes, the aim is to detect the ‘bright’ children of disadvantaged economic or ethnic backgrounds and channel them into appropriate educational pathways (e.g. through scholarships for elite schools).


But what is wrong with that?

Agendas to broaden equality of opportunity in education still rest on the problematic idea that children differ in their innate abilities and that this be effectively measured. IQ testing has long been criticised on conceptual, methodological and normative grounds. Intelligence as an innate and fixed concept supposes a limit on how much a person can learn and develop in life. This assumption is questionable, given our constantly expanding knowledge regarding the human brain. Instead it has been suggested that intelligence could be understood as a much more fluid concept – something that is actually ‘learnable’ [6][7][8]. One of the most commonly used IQ tests, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, assesses verbal comprehension, visual-spatial processing, working memory, perceptual reasoning, and processing speed. The operationalization of intelligence as sets of cognitive abilities seems a narrow concept that ignores important human qualities (practical, social, emotional …). Finally, the possibility of measuring (life-long) ability in an objective (and not culturally and socially biased) way has been questioned theoretically and empirically [6][7]. In sum, intelligence testing has been criticized as androcentric, class-biased and ethnocentric, reflecting a limited understanding of what human beings are capable of and what abilities are individually and socially useful.

Concerns with intelligence testing have been voiced since the 1960s and 1970s. With the introduction of comprehensive schooling in most European countries, selection and differentiation in schooling was postponed until students were 16 years or older, in the hope that such a delay would overcome class barriers and allow all children more time to develop their abilities[4]. However, class divisions in education are still very visible today and schools are frequently accused of contributing to an overall 'levelling-down' of educational standards and of failing their 'bright students' by teaching children of different abilities together[1].

The past decades have seen a surge in ever more sophisticated standardized tools to measure and rank people’s abilities within and between countries. While IQ-testing is still widely used in the United States [8], more neutral notions of ‘abilities’ or ‘capacities’ have come to replace the notion of intelligence in England (also called the ‘new IQism’ [9]). While England is certainly not the only country obsessed with testing and assessing its children, it might have the most complicated school examination and university entrance system in Europe [10].

While I am not arguing for a complete relativism in educational assessments, I think we need to be more careful with the labelling and ranking of children, and rethink the purpose of learning.

Firstly, we need to be aware that any distinction we create is informed by our personal assumptions and prejudices. As academics we might come to think that analytical thinking is the highest form of human pursuit. After all we (try to) do this every day and are ourselves labelled as the most skilled in this function. This neither means that academics and higher professions are the only ones employing analytical thinking, nor that it is the only or most important human quality.

Secondly, while few would question the need to extend opportunities for ‘bright’ working class kids, what about those children from disadvantaged backgrounds not deemed ‘bright’? Classifying people into skill hierarchies is not a long way from thinking that more than basic education is wasted on the ‘hand-minded’ children (and not long ago on girls, children from the working classes or ethnic minorities). From such an individual notion of ability, competition in education seems fine, as long as selection is based on ‘natural ability’. Patterns of educational inequality could quickly be justified as the outcome of randomly occurring innate abilities while educational structures and teaching practices still exert powerful class-biases. ‘Less bright’ kids are often said to also lack the effort and motivation to learn (very frequent in comments to media articles [11]). Being labelled as lacking abilities and motivation can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, for teachers and policy-makers, this is much easier than investigating complex interplays of social and individual factors that shape school behaviour and performance.

Thirdly, the assumption that people have fixed abilities can also harm those deemed ‘academically minded’. Increasing assessment at even younger ages puts pressure on children to develop in linear ways. Having a ‘difficult’ puberty, experiencing problems at home or developing learning disabilities can quickly get you ‘off track to meet national expectations’ [1]. And being put in a rigid academic curriculum also limits wider opportunities to explore interests in handicrafts, arts, vocational experience, or social and community projects. In increasingly flexible labour markets, where life-long careers are replaced by the need for life-long learning of diverse skills, assuming fixed abilities and the existence of only a few truly ‘gifted’ children is a paradox.

Common notions of ‘equality of opportunity’ which are based on an individual, competitive view of intelligence help to uphold power relations that determine what counts as knowledge and learning and who can strive to achieve it. Educational systems and the science researching human development are not given but embedded in cultural, social and economic contexts. They can be challenged. Instead of putting people in boxes we should think about what purpose education and learning should fulfil in a democratic society and how all children can develop and explore. A world composed of ‘academically-minded’ and ‘hand-minded’ individuals in which only a few people have the capacity to learn, is not only hopeless but frankly quite boring.

[1] Ofsted (2013). Too many bright children let down in the state system.

[2] Galton, F. (1869). Heredetary Genius

[3] Chitty, C. (2013): The educational legacy of Francis Galton. In History of Education 42 (3), pp. 350–364.

[4} Husén, T.; Tuijnman, A.; Halls, W. D. (1992): Schooling in modern European society. A report of the Academia Europaea. 1st ed. Oxford [England], New York: Pergamon Press.

[5] Plucker, J. A.,; Esping, A. (Eds.). (2014): Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources.

[6] Kincheloe, J.L.; Steinberg, S. R.; Villaverde, L.E. (1999): Rethinking intelligence. Confronting psychological assumptions about teaching and learning. New York: Routledge.

[7] White, J. (2006): Intelligence, Destiny and Education. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

[8] Murdoch, S. (2007): IQ. A smart history of a failed idea. Princeton, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[9] Gillborn, D.; Youdell, D. (2001): The New IQism: Intelligence, 'Ability' and the Rationing of Education. In J. Demaine (Ed.): Sociology of Education Today. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, pp. 65–99.

[10] The Telegraph, 23 February 2013, GCSE? EBacc? Confused? You’re not alone...,

[11] The Guardian, 3 September 2014, Compulsory setting: schools face being forced to separate pupils by ability