From an IQ of 110 to 140 in 20 Years and What it Teaches Us About Education

Let me start by saying that I don’t see much value in traditional IQ tests. I know that organizational psychologists and those who set MENSA qualification standards might disagree, but I’m convinced that this simple numeric summary of a person’s intelligence does more harm than good in many instances.

When I first read Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind, where he introduced the concept of multiple intelligence, I saw what seemed like a much more reasonable and helpful way to talk and think about human intelligence. A single number does not work. Instead, each person has multiple intelligence, as can be demonstrated. You can look at people with brain injuries to various parts of the brain, and see that you can isolate the impact on different functions. You can discover musical, spatial, linguistics, mathematical-logical, and other distinct intelligences. This is old information, but I thought that I’d include if in case it is new to some readers.

Yet, even if we assume that a single IQ score, a simple two or three digit number, is a valuable way to communicate a person’s intelligence, there is another issue. For years, many argued that your IQ score is fixed and you can’t do anything about it. Ask most experts today and they will acknowledge that IQ scores do or can change. They can be especially volatile in early years, even through adolescence. They might also enjoy telling you that the average IQ is growing every decade. Somehow people seem to be getting smarter. Think about this for a moment, because both of these facts have important implications for how we treat and educate each student.

Let me make this personal. What I’m about to tell you is true, to the best of my knowledge, but memories can be a funny thing, so it is hard to say with certainty that this actually happened. With that caveat, when I was seven or eight, I was pulled out of regular classes and evaluated. I met with a school psychologist many times over weeks or maybe even months. The psychologist working with me left the room at one point in our many interactions, and I curiously opened a folder with my name on it. I saw a score of 108, which I’m assuming was my IQ. I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but the number stuck with me for years, because I remember thinking that it must be amazing, 8 points higher than a 100! Fast forward twenty or more years. On two or three occasions, I had to take some tests for various employment and other situations. In each of those situations, I was surprised to see an IQ score ranging anywhere from 134 to the low 140s. So, how did I go from a 108 to 140 over two overr three decades?

I don’t have a clue. I know that I read now, and I didn’t read then. I learned a great deal about thinking and learning since then. I’ve developed habits of the mind. My attention span has increased. The life of the mind is something very important to me, and I invest in it daily. Yet, I’m certain that neither a 108 or a 140 accurately describes my intelligence or lack thereof. Given the right circumstances, I’m confident that I can demonstrate mental performance well below what the psychologists might expect from someone with a 108 IQ. My ability to focus, my motivation, my mood, my confidence, and a hundred other factors are at work each time that I tackle a new mental challenge.

I’m not writing this as an expert in psycho-metrics. I’m writing it as a person deeply interested in education that helps people to grow in competence and confidence, discovering lives of rich meaning and purpose, people of character and conviction, people who grow and learn throughout life. I don’t think a focus on IQ or pretty much any other standardized test score is the best way to do this.

I find it hard to believe that my personal story is a solitary exception. Instead, I choose to use it as an important lesson about education. I don’t care what score that young man or woman got on that last standardized test. Every student is more than the numbers that we use to measure them. Those numbers are not destiny. Things can and do change in young people, and the last thing that they need is someone telling them that they have reached the ceiling.

In this way, it makes complete sense to me that we create an education system that treats every student as the next Einstein, Harriet Tubman, Louis Armstrong, Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Moses, Teresa of Avila, Emily Dickinson, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank, and whatever other influential figure comes to mind for you. We do this because, as far as we know, they are. How can we create an environment than helps each young person discover and develop genius, recognizing that genius comes in many forms? This is fundamentally different from a scoring, rating, sorting, and intervention strategy. It starts from an important place of humility, a recognition that we have absolutely no idea what will come from the life of each student in that school.

I’m not referring to some sort of soft “every child deserves a trophy no matter what” mentality. What I am describing is quite different from that. I’m talking about investing in each student, helping them to grow and develop in ways that extend far beyond the next exam, because a numeric score on a test is a poor predictor of a difference maker in this world.

Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation; as well as Founder and CEO of Birdhouse Learning Labs. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.