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Learning To Be Smarter

As my family recently worked on cleaning out my late father-in-law’s home, we came across the busy box that used to hang on my children’s crib.

I watched my highly accomplished adult daughters, both of whom graduated from top-notch universities, sit on the floor and play with the various colorful dials, buttons and spinners the toy offered. It was fascinating to see them reacquaint themselves, if only briefly, with this childhood fixture.

For children who grow up in homes like ours, that’s what early childhood is like. It is full of busy boxes, and shape sorters, and stacking rings. And, perhaps most importantly, adults who are available to spend time exploring these activities with their babies. Most of us have an intuitive sense that this sort of learning and attention is important later on. It is not a huge surprise, then, that recent research shows that these enrichments in a child’s environment can translate directly into greater facility with the abstract thinking and problem-solving skills measured by IQ tests.

In a recent column for The Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik explains that the old “nature-nurture” debate is no longer a valid framework for considering the question of so-called innate talent or intelligence. Instead, biologists today concern themselves with the complicated ways that the genotype contained in an individual’s DNA expresses itself, or not, in the characteristics that individual displays as a fully formed adult.

For instance, a study conducted in 2000 by a researcher at McGill University considered whether swapping mother rats’ babies would affect the young rats’ ability to solve mazes. If genes were the key to intelligence, attentive mothering should not have made any substantial difference; if environment were the answer, attentive mothering should have made all the difference. In reality, however, neither of these outcomes fully explained the experiment’s results. Instead, the baby rats who were genetically primed to do poorly improved with attentive mothering, yet the baby rats predicted to be genetically predisposed for success stayed relatively smart, even with neglectful mothers.

In studies of human twins, researchers have found that IQ was highly correlated among identical twins, suggesting it to be gene-driven or “heritable.” But when these studies, initially conducted with the children of well-off families, were repeated in poorer families, IQ was less heritable. As Gopnik explains, a poor environment can swamp genetic advantages. When children are given rich, stimulating environments, those who are able to thrive do so. In environments where opportunities are scarce, small improvements in those opportunities come to trump any genetic edge.

In other words, we can learn to be - and to make our children - smarter through culture. But only to a point. No tree grows to the sky, no matter how rich the soil. No amount of enrichment will turn most people into a Mozart or an Einstein.

So there is only a superficial contradiction in the idea that, in some advanced societies, the Flynn Effect seems to have leveled off. The Flynn Effect, named for James Flynn, describes the observation that average IQ test scores have risen significantly over time, necessitating the test be periodically recalibrated in order to preserve an average score of 100. While psychologists debate what the Flynn Effect actually means, the phenomenon is well-known. Yet in recent years, some countries have seen average IQ test results level off, or even decrease slightly, causing alarmists to posit a variety of causes, blaming everything from lower birth rates among well-educated parents to the increasing prevalence of screen-based entertainment.

The truth may be that those societies have simply done quite well at enriching and educating more and more of their children. If this is so, it is likely that scores will stabilize in these places, and that other societies may catch up over time. The very top of the curve might hit a plateau, but there is no reason we can’t increase the opportunities for more and more children to succeed.

We don’t really have to worry too much about making the really smart kids even smarter. Instead, we want to make the most out of the possibilities that might exist for large numbers of children who currently grow up in poor environments, whether in developing nations or here at home.

We should consider the ways in which we can offer opportunities to those who lack them, whether by combating the idea that talent is innate in the first place or by trying to give a leg up to kids whose parents are not able to provide environments that are as richly stimulating as those available to their future classmates. In a sense, that is what the debates over universal preschool are about.

But watching my daughters examine their childhood toy made me wonder whether, before we invest too heavily in universal preschool, we first ought to try to provide every baby with a busy box.

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