Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Reflections on IQ, cognitive development, and distributed learning

If you and your students think you face “high stakes” for standardized tests taken at school this year, consider the case of Daryl Atkins, whose life was literally on the line based on his repeated test performances. His story is instructive not only because of the heavy weight it shows our society sometimes places on test scores, but also because of what it suggests about intelligence and the ways we measure as well as cultivate its development.

Stephen Murdoch is the author of “IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea” and shared a presentation about IQ at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on April 16th, 2008. The complete video of his presentation is available from I listened to a brief excerpt of it on my iPhone while driving in the car today, and several things Stephen said piqued my interest. (I subscribe to the free – Daily FORAcast (short form) podcast.)

According to WikiPedia:

An Intelligence Quotient or IQ is a score derived from one of several different standardized tests attempting to measure intelligence.

We’ve all heard of IQ tests and many of us have likely taken them, and/or had our students or our own children take them. As an aside, I remember that my mother (who was an educational diagnostician) would never tell me what my own IQ test score was. As I recall, I think that is because she didn’t want my perception of that score to shape my own ideas of my capabilities and intelligence. I’ve always been glad she made that decision, because I resonate with the idea that as a human being I can exceed the performance expectations and valuations which others may attempt to place upon me. This podcast reinforced that view, to a degree.

In his presentation, Stephen discussed the criminal law case of Daryl R. Atkins, which was ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. During the series of trials which led to a ruling by the highest court in our land, Atkins repeatedly took IQ tests and his scores increased seventeen points over a period of several years. From a criminal defense and prosecution standpoint, this was very significant, since Atkins’ IQ score went from a 59 (below 70, which was considered “mildly mentally retarded”) to 76. With that score, Atkins was “competent to be put to death under Virginia law.” He was eventually sentenced to life in prison (rather than executed) for reasons other than his IQ test scores, but the stakes of his IQ tests could not have been higher.

Why did the IQ test scores of Daryl R. Atkins increase over time, when educational diagnosticians (at least those who are fervent disciples of IQ test integrity and value) might argue they should not have done so? Stephen Murdoch suggests that perhaps:

  1. The more times Atkins took the IQ test, the better he got at the test, because he become more experienced and used to the test. (Does this sound familiar in states which have been subjecting students to high stakes testing for years?)
  2. Atkins may have actually received a better and more worthwhile (authentic) education during the years of his trials and trial preparation than he received in formal school environments, and those experiences actually helped him to become smarter.

I find both these suggestions worth pondering. I had a conversation this past weekend with someone who staunchly defended the regime of high stakes testing in Texas and now across the United States thanks to NCLB, because “clearly they have raised test scores.” My response was, even if the test scores have improved, what does that really MEAN? Have the drop out rates gone down? What can the students who are graduating from our schools actually DO in terms of their skills? How can we place faith in aggregate test scores, when the tests themselves are highly variable state-to-state and are regularly changing even within most states?

Conclusions about aggregate test scores are different than conclusions about an individual’s test scores, however, and this case DOES seem to suggest that something significant had taken place cognitively with Atkins over the course of his criminal trials. I found Murdoch’s second suggestion quite thought provoking as well. Perhaps a criminal trial procedure provided Atkins with more opportunities to develop his vocabulary and capacity to both understand and communicate in our world than his years of formal educational had. What expectations did Atkins’ teachers have of him, being “the student in the room with a 59 IQ?” When I taught fourth grade, one year I taught a student who also had an officially measured IQ of less than 70. I was told, “He is too low to qualify for special education.” It was a real challenge to help him stay engaged and focused in class, but I think the fact that he had regular opportunities to learn with and interact with other students his age was a great benefit. Mainstreaming is not always beneficial for every child with special needs, but often (as the law prescribes) the “least restrictive environment” for children is the one with the most educational opportunities. Whether in a mainstreamed or pullout classroom setting, however, I think the EXPECTATIONS of the teacher are critical in shaping the sorts of learning and interactive opportunities to which students are given access. I am a big fan of real-world problems solving contexts and project-based learning environments for students. Whether classified as “gifted and talented,” “special needs,” or “too low to qualify,” I think all people learn best in real-world contexts where the relevance of learning tasks is immediately apparent rather than elusive and simply theoretical. This is a key element of constructionist learning, as I understand it. Let’s not just talk about things in theoretical terms, let’s actually make things. Let’s make stuff. In making “stuff” together, particularly in engineering solutions to problems and challenges which learners can readily understand and relate, learning becomes much more situated and therefore impactful.

The final issue raised in this presentation excerpt from Stephen Murdoch regards the issue of “cognitive development.” For years, from what I understand, scientists and doctors believed that the number neurons in our brains was finite, and as we grew older we we progressively lost more and more brain capacity. This is a pretty depressing conclusion, but it is one most scientists and doctors held for years.

Today, however, we understand that neuroplasticity means our brains are far more flexible than we had previously believed to adapt and change. Even when we are very old, our brains still have the capacity to make new neural connections as we are exposed to novel experiences and have opportunities to experience growth via different experiences, especially cognitive dissonance. In his presentation, Stephen Murdoch stated that it is ridiculous for elite private schools to use IQ tests on young children to measure their actual and potential intelligence, because those young people are still experiencing “cognitive development.” If I am understanding current brain research and ideas like neuroplasticity correct, however, it seems that none of us are ever entirely “finished” with our cognitive development unless we choose to stop learning, or we are placed in such a controlling and limiting environment that continuing cognitive development is impossible. (Solitary confinement in prison for years might qualify.)

I have read and heard that average IQ scores have been rising around the world for many years, but the jury is out about “why?” Perhaps our access to greater levels of information and new ideas is permitting us, as adults, to continue our cognitive development beyond the levels which were “normal” for the everyday citizen (as opposed to a cultural elite) in previous eras? I’m not sure. In any event, I certainly found Stephen Murdoch’s presentation excerpt to be thought provoking, and I look forward to hopefully hearing his entire presentation online or on my portable audio and video player sometime soon.

As the recently released North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) report “Blended Learning: The Convergence of Online and Face-to-Face Education” concludes, blended learning is one of the only instructional reform proposals which can genuinely help educators reclaim the #1 most precious resource in their day today: TIME. I was not in San Francisco in April to hear Stephen Murdoch share this presentation, but I was able to hear part of his message today in my car as I drove across the plains of central Oklahoma. It is a blessing and a gift to live in our present age of digitally-powered blended learning experiences. The educational and learning opportunities which lie before us are astounding to both contemplate and personally experience. Armed with content like this lecture from, I’m sure my own cognitive development can continue indefinitely as long as my physical body cooperates. The web is empowering new opportunities for distributed learning which prior generations of educators, learners, and leaders likely never imagined were possible. This environment is ours to both enjoy and to shape.

It is no understatement to say we’re on an incredible journey.

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3 responses to “Reflections on IQ, cognitive development, and distributed learning”

  1. Lisa Parisi Avatar

    You have some good points here. 1. Your mom made a great decision not telling you your IQ score. Mine did not follow suit and knowing my “IQ” had been a barrier to me all through school.

    2. Children do get better on tests when they can practice. There is a reason why IQ tests cannot be given within three years of each other. Research has shown that the children can remember and do better within that time frame.

    3. Environment and education play a huge role in “IQ”. Look at all the studies showing what can happen to inner city children when you start reading to them at an early age. Does reading actually make them more intelligent or does an IQ test really mean nothing at all but how much you know at the time you are given the test?

    Good points to consider when working with children. I have always been a teacher who is hesitant to speak with the teachers from the prior year to find out about my students. I don’t want my opinion to be jaded by someone else’s viewpoint. And I don’t want to know IQ scores so early in the year.

    Thank you for the post.

  2. Charlie A. Roy Avatar

    I’ve hear alot about bias in the IQ testing world based of social status. Something about comparing the words davenport and haberdasher that doesn’t ring well with the lower classes. It would be interesting to know how much truth there is to this claim. Intelligence seems to be rather relative and often times culturally specific. As far as testing goes I think you raise some excellent points. I’ve been waiting awhile for someone to do an expose into the origin of the testing movement. I’m pretty convinced it has to do with corporate greed in the end.

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    While corporations and individuals are making a great deal of money at the expense of our children thanks to high stakes accountability, I think the movement overall was initially motivated by more political reasons. Politicians (specifically George W. Bush) wanted a way to point at schools, demonstrate they were/are “failing,” and devise a way to “fix” them and prove that the fix worked. The standards movement did not start with politicians, I think it came about because of a lot of things including Nation At Risk. Academics and educators have played a significant role in promulgating the standards movement. I do not equate the standards movement and high-stakes accountability, but co-joined they have led to an untenable situation for educators. I believe we need to change our educational course with respect to our focus, and take it away from the laundry list of standards as well as the high stakes assessments which are focused primarily on content knowledge and fact recall. We need to focus on comprehensive, portfolio assessments of students which reflect their authentic abilities to communicate ideas, solve problems, work with groups, and successfully use information in different contexts for varied purposes. The testing movement will never take us toward this this goal, in my view, because it is rooted in a 19th century framework of learning.

    In terms of your specific point about corporate greed, I encourage you to read some of the articles and blog posts which come up from a Google keyword search for “reading first controversy. Many of those articles are from 2006, but a lot of what was revealed in the IG report on Reading First as well as other inquiries revealed the dark side of the supposed focus on “scientifically valid reading methods.”