Evolving Cognitive Skills: The Flynn Effect

The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day. When intelligence quotient (IQ) tests are initially standardized using a sample of test-takers, by convention the average of the test results is set to 100 and their standard deviation is set to 15 or 16 IQ points. When IQ tests are revised, they are again standardized using a new sample of test-takers, usually born more recently than the first. Again, the average result is set to 100. However, when the new test subjects take the older tests, in almost every case their average scores are significantly above 100.—Wikipedia

IQ Curve
IQ Curve

Based on the results of new test-takers on standard IQ tests James Flynn (see Ted talk, 2013) has postulated that we are getting cognitively more intelligent with time. What is interesting are the ways in which our cognitive skills seem to be evolving.

Flynn cites three main evolving cognitive skills:

  1. the ability to classify
  2. the use of abstraction shaped by logic
  3. taking the hypothetical seriously

These are illustrated by examples. In the first case, a man of a previous generation is asked, “What do a crow and a fish have in common?” The man sees nothing in common: one flies, one swims, and so on. When asked if the crow and the fish are not both animals, the man says, “no, one is a fish and one is a crow”. He sees only how the creatures exist in his own concrete world and cannot see the common features that would enable their classification as animals.

An inability to use abstraction governed by logic is illustrated in this example. A man is told, “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany. Are there any camels in Hamburg?” The man speculates that there might be, if the city is large enough. He is incapable of following the logic of the verbal abstraction.

In the third case a subject is told, “At the North Pole there is always snow. Wherever there is always snow the bears are always white. What color are the bears at the North Pole?” The subject replied that one would have to go and verify. He, himself, had only ever seen brown bears. He wondered why anyone would waste time on such a problem. As a further example of a lack of respect for the hypothetical he describes the reaction of his racially-biased parents to the question, “How would you feel if you woke up black and were treated as inferior?” The response was laughter and, “When was the last time someone went to bed and woke up black?”. No respect for the hypothetical.

These three cognitive skills, the ability to classify, the use of abstraction shaped by logic, and taking the hypothetical seriously appear to be the major factors which differentiate our cognitive abilities from those of our grandparents. These same skills are essential to doing science and, as Flynn maintains, engaging in moral argument.

He also notes that now fully a third of us are engaged in cognitively rich professions and that most professions are undergoing upgrade to become more and more demanding of the cognitive skills described above.

Related: PISA: New Skills Measured in International Student Test


Screens and Children

A revolution encompassing all humanity. Nothing will be as it once was. We are facing some real mutants. — psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik

Screen Baby
Screen Baby

Teachers and parents know that today’s children are not quite like their predecessors. Much has been said about the impact of digitally powered  screens on the capabilities, attitudes, and habits of today’s young people. The views fall into three categories: appreciation of new talents, horror at the current state of childhood, and simple resignation.

Babies are born into a world of “screens”. Some indications suggest that at school age children will spend five hours a day using one. In college, they will use a laptop to send over 80 text messages a day.

The optimistic observers see “digital natives” who are curious, energetic, fluid, and rapid. They point out that new technology anxiety goes back to Socrates and his fear that writing would adversely affect people’s memory.

Nonetheless, Oxford neurology professor Susan Greenfield claims, “When they surf the Web or play on the Web, their brain, which is under construction, is exposed to an activity that is so intense that it disrupts their development.” This can result in difficulties concentrating, communicating with others, projecting themselves, and lack of empathy. Some claims have even been made about a general decline in IQ. (This is a contentious assertion. For an intelligent discussion of our cognitive history see James Flynn’s Ted Talk.)

Other researchers examine the effects of different tools on the brains of children having observed that pianist- and violinist-brains are imprinted differently. Unlike the brain of the “print” era (reflective, linear, slow, accumulating intelligence) the screen brain is more fluid, rapid, fragmented, and automatic. These changes correspond to a shift in the location of brain activity from the pre-frontal cortex (site of self-awareness, judgment, and abstraction) to the posterior regions, involving visual and sensorial parts of primary intelligence.

Other brain-based concerns focus on the addictive use of screens. Excessive use (according to some, more than nine hours per week) leads to an increase in the size of the brain’s reward system. Some research shows that children addicted to screens secrete dopamine in a way similar to other addicts.

There are other fears as well. A child addicted to screens may be less motivated to exercise his body or his imagination, to produce his own mental images, to amuse himself, or to tolerate suffering or frustration. He may no longer know how to play, an activity essential to developing imagination, a sense of humor, and ultimately, a means of avoiding depression.

Parents, and many others, accept the proliferation of screens as simply inevitable and a sometimes cure for children’s boredom. The take-away from all of this may be that the human brain, like all other elements of our physiological, psychological, and societal structures, evolves in response to changing times. This raises the question, “What is it about the nature of our times that favors brains that are more curious, energetic, fluid, and rapid as opposed to reflective, linear, slow, and intelligence accumulating ?” Educators must wonder, as well, what does teaching entail when the basic learning apparatus has changed from the days of their youth.

The Great Idea of Parker Palmer

Current pedagogical debate often focuses on the shift from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning. The former is characterized by the Mathematics professor who says, “Our primary responsibility as mathematicians is not to students but to mathematics: to preserve, create, and enhance good mathematics and to protect the subject for future generations.” At the other end of the debate, we risk “mindless relativism” and teachers yielding “too much of their leadership; it is difficult to confront ignorance and bias in individuals or the group when students themselves comprise the plumb line.” —Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Parker Palmer
Parker Palmer

To understand Palmer’s view requires an understanding of the “Great Idea”. He says,”If we want a community of truth in the classroom, a community that can keep us honest, we must put a third thing, a great thing, at the center of the pedagogical circle. When student and teacher are the only active agents, community easily slips into narcissism, where either the teacher reigns supreme or students can do no wrong. This can lead to disinterest and poor engagement on the part of learners or to a teacher’s capitulation to relative truths where everyone has their own truth. A learning community that embodies both rigor and involvement will elude us until we establish a plumb line that measures teacher and students alike—as great things can do.”

This is what Palmer calls a subject-centered approach.  The great idea is the topic, or the discipline, under examination. In Physics it might be Newton’s Third Law, in Literature it might be the use of foreshadowing in a Shakespearean play. Such great ideas have motivated great teachers when they were students. They are the concepts, theories, and techniques that teachers love to teach because they hold some special value or significance in the world.

Putting the Great Idea at the centre of classroom activity means that the idea itself becomes the source of all truth about it. Teacher and students are co-learners who can never exhaust all the worthwhile inquiry into the subject. In this way the subject ceases to be a second-hand account of some isolated and distant reality and comes alive as yet another important human phenomenon.