A parent anxiously goes up to an early years practitioner during an open afternoon. She is desperate for information. Not about what her three-year-old has been doing, his friends or favourite games, but about his intelligence. She wants to find out whether or not he is likely to pass the school entrance test when he is 11.
Sadly, this is not a scenario from a bygone era. Today, testing has become a significant part of children's lives and up and down the country. A child's secondary education will be influenced by the results of their tests.
What is intelligence?
A good starting point for parents such as this anxious mother is to understand that the whole notion of 'intelligence' is not only complex, but very controversial. The words 'bright' and 'able' are frequently bandied about throughout the education system, but what do they really mean?
The first stumbling block comes when trying to define what intelligence is.
There are several models of intelligence, each of which have been based upon different assumptions.
Piaget, who is famous for developing a theory of how children learn, viewed intelligence from a biological angle. He saw it as a process rather than a set of abilities, and believed that intelligence was about the way in which we are able to adapt our thinking, and thus actions, according to the information that we receive.
Interestingly, this approach to intelligence does not see it as a commodity, unlike the psychometric approach which sees intelligence as something that can be measured.
This model is based on the assumption that intelligence is a personal characteristic and can be measured. Underlying it is an assumption that intelligence must be something we are born with - which provokes a whole new debate.
There are many difficulties with this approach. First, there is the question of whether intelligence tests are testing skills that are already there (achievement), or a child's underlying potential. Many people believe that measuring potential alone is impossible, as most tasks involved in testing require some prior experience. A child who is asked to look at a picture, for example, needs to have experienced 'pictures' before and understand that they are visual representations.
Then there is the larger issue of what it is that is being measured and whether this is intelligence. Is someone who can see a pattern in a list of numbers more intelligent than someone who can see subtle changes in the behaviour of animals and knows that it will soon rain? At the end of the day, most critics of intelligence tests believe that achieving a high score only indicates that a person is good at intelligence tests. They only test certain skills.
In view of the difficulties with intelligence testing, you might wonder why it is still being used. However, educational psychologists use intelligence tests, seeing them as a tool. Most intelligence tests give a verbal reasoning as well as a non-verbal reasoning score. A child who scores well on non-verbal reasoning but less well on verbal reasoning may be finding it hard to use language to help them think, and so may need extra support in this area.
While the biological and psychometric approaches to intelligence have been around for many years, a relatively new one, focused on information processing, is being developed. This looks at the strategies that are involved in storing and using information in our minds and considers how we go about solving problems. This way of looking at intelligence has resulted in the idea that there is not one single type, but may be several strands.
Theories suggesting several types of intelligence are now being explored by psychologists. They might explain why someone who is amazing at mathematics might find it hard to express their feelings, or how a child once put in the 'bottom group' of their class grows up to run an extremely profitable business.
Making a difference
Whatever the approach taken towards intelligence, it still leaves the question of whether children are born 'intelligent'. As with most aspects of psychology, the nature versus nurture debate rattles on, although it is worth pointing out that there are some clear indications that the environment that children are in really does make a difference.
Recent developments in neuroscience show us that stimulation is vital to the developing brain. This means that good early years practice should be about providing equipment and activities that can fascinate, intrigue and encourage children's playfulness.
Finally, research also shows us that achievement and self-esteem are connected. It has been known for some time that adult's expectations can radically alter children's view of themselves and so influence their achievement.
While some young children are quick to acquire skills and concepts, others need more time. Labelling children early on as 'bright' or 'slow' is not only discriminatory, but also potentially very damaging to their self-esteem and accomplishments. The scientist Einstein is reputed to have been a late developer, and we might wonder, had he been labelled as 'slow', if this would have influenced his career.
THE FIRST INTELLIGENCE TESTS
The first test to measure intelligence was developed by Simon and Binet in 1905. The French government was keen to find a way of identifying children who would have difficulty at school. The tests were geared towards the skills that a child would need in order to cope at school. Later these tests were translated and further developed. They were arranged according to tasks that children of different ages might be expected to achieve.
These became known as the Stanford-Binet tests. The term IQ, or intelligence quotient, was used to describe a child's performance on these tests. This term is still used today.