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Scitech | Tiering the masses

The problems of separating children along intellectual lines

McGill was recently ranked 1st on Maclean’s list of medical-doctoral granting institutions in Canada for the twelfth year in a row, and is consistently ranked among the top 25 universities in the world. Our campus is believed to be made up of some of the top students from Canada and around the world.

It is estimated that about one in every 10,000 children will pass testing criteria to be considered “gifted” according to the work of Julian Stanley, the founder of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). This research initiative, which began in 1971, has been tracking the growth and accomplishments of thousands of intellectually talented individuals over the past 45 years.

The SMPY study defines as those between 12-14 years old scoring within the top 3 per cent to 0.1 per cent of the Standard Aptitude Test’s (SAT) mathematics portion. The SMPY’s reliance on the SAT’s mathematics component as the sole test for picking out remarkable children demonstrates a narrow-minded focus on quantitative ability over any other forms of intelligence. A contrasting but still popular theory of intelligence is Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests that intelligence can be broken down into distinct and disparate categories; within Gardner’s framework, one can excel musically and struggle mathematically, but the different IQ levels for these two forms of intelligence do not overlap.

The SMPY database was used in a meta-analysis conducted in 2010 by Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, studying the correlation between early cognitive ability and adult achievement. Wai claims, “[that] the kids who test in the top 1 per cent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires.” He bluntly concludes that “whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society.”

If that statement leaves you with the feelings of disdain, you’re not alone. Many have taken issue with the conclusion that innate cognitive ability is the greatest predictor of lifetime achievement. In searching for a way to define and measure childhood genius, Stanley and his colleagues zoned in on one aspect of intelligence: mathematical reasoning.

Through history, intelligence has been defined variously and according to different standards. Intelligence testing dates back to the late 19th century, beginning with Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, a renowned statistician, and the founding father of eugenics. Eugenics is loosely defined as the set of beliefs or practices that aim at improving the perceived quality of the human gene pool. Galton valued intelligence above other traits; his earliest work was on the very subject of greatness and genius, entitled “Hereditary Genius” published in 1869. He attempted to design ways to empirically measure intelligence often relying on physical attributes, such as cranial shape and “colouring,” as well as behavioural characteristics like criminality, and sex workers.

The eugenics movement is the insidious theoretical foundation upon which intelligence testing rests.

It’s plain to say that not all were equal within Galton’s “testing system” although at the time his work was used to aid in the ‘screening’ of potential American immigrants landing on Ellis Island, and later backed regimes dictating and policing which characteristics could remain in society’s gene pool, which included the German Nazi party. In fact, it was the dispersal of eugenics ideals by the Nazis that turned the rest of the world sour to the concept not even a hundred years ago. The eugenics movement is the insidious theoretical foundation upon which intelligence testing rests. This remains a common thread in the study of intelligence as we continuously strive to segregate peoples into different statistically justified groups according to attributes deemed desirable by some.

People possess varied levels of intelligence and capacities for academic pursuits, however it is crucial to acknowledge that other factors such as identity, personality, and social environment play an important role in dictating one’s success. The children selected into the SMPY study have many advantages conferred on them prior to and during the study. During the study these children are provided with personalized education programs that suits and encourages their abilities, which would likely confer success on any child. Moreover, these children likely stem from a homogenous pool of those who have access to early opportunities and advantages, which excludes children from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. The influence of early childhood access to academic and extracurricular opportunities cannot be overstated, but too often these opportunities are afforded according to society’s many hierarchical structures: socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability. Access to these advantages helps cultivate ‘gifted’ qualities, contradicting the notion of ‘hereditary genius.’

In considering how to better treat children of different abilities in the classroom, Carol Dweck, a professsor in the psychology departmant at Stanford University, suggests that labelling children can be damaging and counterproductive to their growth. Dweck suggests that labels can interfere with motivation and can contribute to a “fixed mindset” of intelligence, wherein the child believes that their basic qualities, including intelligence, are immobile and unalterable through practice. Instead, she suggests cultivating a “growth mindset” where children believe their inherent abilities are only a starting point that can be cultivated through hard work and intellectual risk-taking.

Labelling children can be damaging and counterproductive to their growth.

The failure to prove the real and lasting differences between children of varied IQ’s was demonstrated in a study by Lewis Terman, whose infamous work on the genetics of genius relied on IQ scores to identify gifted teenagers that were subsequently tracked over their lifetime (began in 1921, it is one of the longest running longitudinal studies ever conducted). Albeit the fact that some of Terman’s subjects, or “Termites” as they came to be known, reached eminence in their fields, sociologist Pitirim Sorokin pointedly found that the “Termites” (with IQs at or above 130) did equally as well over their life course as a random group of individuals from comparable family backgrounds.

Within our complex and layered world requiring talents of all kinds, the glaring focus of Stanley’s study on mathematical intelligence and scientific potential strongly shows that this is what society values among its ‘best and brightest.’ SMPY mutates intelligence into an economic resource upon which to hone in to create the world’s next leading group of leaders and intelligentsia, and the narrow focus on scientific achievement excludes or ignores other forms of achievements. Imagine a world highlighting only the brilliance of Newton and Einstein, but devoid of Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, Frida Kahlo, or Yo-Yo Ma.

Essentially, if society was truly determined and crafted at the hands of the “scientists and academics, Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires,” highlighted in SMPY, our world would be far less vibrant, diverse, and interesting. Future research into educational achievement and intelligence should denigrate (or at least acknowledge) classist logic that splits youth into distinct and visible hierarchies according to typologies deemed most ideal by society.


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