The debate rumbles on

Early interventions do matter

Non-Cognitive traits important for high level intellectual functioning


The measurement of intelligence is seen by some as one of psychology’s greatest achievements and one of its most controversial.

Critics complain, with some justification, that no single test can capture the complexity of human intelligence, all measurement is imperfect, no single measure is completely free from cultural bias, and there is the potential for misuse of scores on tests of intelligence. There is also a growing debate about multiple intelligences and the different types of intelligence that can be identified and nurtured- in schools, for instance. Robert Sternberg and his colleagues (Sternberg, 1999, 2006) have studied practical intelligence, which they define as the ability to solve concrete problems in real life that require searching for information not necessarily contained in a problem statement, and for which many solutions are possible, as well as creativity, or the ability to come up with novel solutions to problems and to originate interesting questions. Professor Howard Gardner has questioned the idea that intelligence is a single entity, that it results from a single factor, and that it can be measured simply via IQ tests.  Some children are, for instance intuitively brilliant at acting but cant add up. A pupil might be a master of a musical instrument and sight read music at astonishing speed but be weak at expressing themselves on paper. Another child might have highly developed interpersonal skills, make friends easily but be a hopeless sportsman.  The multiple intelligences set out by Gardner represent a broad range of culturally valued achievement recognised in the outcomes of schooling. Gardner’s multiple intelligences have therefore been utilised to justify the development of broader curriculum opportunities and increased differentiation in teaching. Gardner defines intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting” (Gardner & Hatch, 1989). Using biological as well as cultural research, he formulated a list of seven key intelligences. This new outlook on intelligence differs greatly from the traditional view which usually recognizes only two intelligences, verbal and computational. Some academics, including the authors of a new report-  claim that the measurement of intelligence—which has been done primarily by IQ tests—has utilitarian value because it is a reasonably good predictor of grades at school, performance at work, and many other aspects of success in life ( see below but also   Gottfredson, 2004; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994).  The world of IQ tests and the way IQ is measured has never quite recovered from the publication of a very controversial book about intelligence by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray called The Bell Curve. The book argued that IQ tests are an accurate measure of intelligence; that IQ is a strong predictor of school and career achievement; that IQ is highly heritable; that IQ is little influenced by environmental factors; that racial differences in IQ are likely due at least in part, and perhaps in large part, to genetics; that environmental effects of all kinds have only a modest effect and that educational and other interventions have little impact on IQ and little effect on racial differences in IQ. For good measure the  authors were sceptical about the ability of public policy initiatives to have much impact on IQ or IQ-related outcomes. A new report Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments has produced some new and fascinating findings that include the following:  ‘(a) Heritability of IQ varies significantly by social class. (b) Almost no genetic polymorphisms have been discovered that are consistently associated with variation in IQ in the normal range. (c) Much has been learned about the biological underpinnings of intelligence. (d) “Crystallized” and “fluid” IQ are quite different aspects of intelligence at both the behavioural and biological levels. (e) The importance of the environment for IQ is established by the 12-point to 18-point increase in IQ when children are adopted from working-class to middle-class homes. (f) Even when improvements in IQ produced by the most effective early childhood interventions fail to persist, there can be very marked effects on academic achievement and life outcomes. (g) In most developed countries studied, gains on IQ tests have continued, and they are beginning in the developing world. (h) Sex differences in aspects of intelligence are due partly to identifiable biological factors and partly to socialization factors. (i) The IQ gap between Blacks and Whites has been reduced by 0.33 SD in recent years. We report theorizing concerning (a) the relationship between working memory and intelligence, (b) the apparent contradiction between strong heritability effects on IQ  and strong secular effects on IQ, (c) whether a general intelligence factor could arise from initially largely independent cognitive skills, (d) the relation between self-regulation and cognitive skills, and (e) the effects of stress on  intelligence.’


The report asks -What is it about school and preschool that enhances intelligence and academic abilities? Content knowledge (e.g,, learning about climate in different places in the world) and procedural knowledge (e.g., sorting shapes) are of course important, but increasingly scientists are recognizing the importance of developing self-regulatory skills and other noncognitive traits as requisite for high-level intellectual functioning . Self-regulatory skills include behaviours such as being able to wait in line, inhibiting the desire to call out in class, and persevering at a task that may be boring or difficult. There are many terms in the literature for the general idea that people can recognize, alter, and maintain changes in their behaviours and moods in ways that advance cognitive performance. These terms include self-discipline (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005), the ability to delay gratification (Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988), and self-regulated learning (P. A. Alexander, 2008). Self-discipline and ability to delay gratification predicted success across a variety of academic measures (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007).  What is particularly interesting about this latest study is that it addresses head -on sensitive  issues such as race, gender and intelligence. And, of course, highlights the importance of non-cognitive skills in order to succeed at school and in the workplace.

Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments; Richard E. Nisbett, Joshua Aronson, Clancy Blair, William Dickens, James Flynn, Diane F. Halpern, and Eric Turkheimer; Online First Publication, January 2, 2012. doi: 10.1037/a0026699



  1. Many people try to explain accademic success by invoking cognitive abilities or a high intelligence. These are important for being successfull in school or in social life, but self-regulatory skills you mentioned lately such as patience, self-discipline or the ability to delay gratification are essential for getting success in any field, and at any age. And the good thing is that these traits , or non-cognitive abilities, can be developed both in school and in family.

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