Inborn IQ vs. Hard work makes a difference vs...? -- Guidance Needed

The Massachusetts Union of Teachers (M.U.T.) tries to be pro-active about educational policy. Their executive is aware that advances in genetics have captured a lot of media attention and reinforced the idea that most human characters are governed by a genetic blueprint. This has combined with the push for high-stakes testing (i.e., high stakes for public school funding, not only for students) and with more than two decades of cut-backs in government funding for social programs. The result seems to be widespread scepticism about the possibilities for education to boost children's intelligence. Yet one argument for high stakes testing is that it is needed to motivate harder work among students as if hard work can make a difference. The executive is also aware that a teacher's preconceptions about students' potential (or lack of it) can be self-fulfilling. Moreover, generalizations about groups (e.g., African-Americans or ESL immigrants) often get translated into preconceptions about individual students, even though almost everyone speaks about addressing the needs of diverse learners.

One member of the executive, Jocelyn Smith, had heard that some professors at UMass Boston teach about biology and quantitative reasoning in their social context. After some inquiries, she contacted me. I explained that my commitments prevented me doing the work myself, but the she agreed that I could ask my class to work on the project on a pilot basis for two-three weeks. The idea is not to recommend to the executive how to solve the problems of educating students in an unequal society. Instead, the executive want a compilation of short briefings that the M.U.T. can distribute "to help teachers who are confused about the arguments on intelligence being inborn versus changeable." She hopes it will be possible for a subset of the executive to attend our class, hear live presentations, and collect the written briefings on [date to be determined].

This is a new kind of project for the M.U.T. so Ms. Smith did not have any more specific guidelines about the form and content of such briefings. Indeed, she was quite relieved that students would undertake this project as an ill-defined problem. This said, it is important to note that one reason Ms. Smith agreed to let me ask a class of mine to tackle the project is that I let them know about resources I could offer you depending on the direction you (individually or in small groups) take the overall challenge. In fact, if you give me a few days notice that you want in-class time to go through any of the readings, I'll oblige. Some of the resources I have include readings, which are briefly annotated in the bibliography. Note, however, that the particular flavor of those readings should not deflect you from the directions you are interested to follow.


American Psychological Association (2001). "New model of IQ development accounts for ways that even small environmental changes can have a big impact, while still crediting the influence of genes." 15).

Angier, N. (1995). "Gene hunters pursue elusive and complex traits of mind." New York Times(Oct. 31): C1, C3 -- attempts to identify the genes for characters in which many genes have an effect

Goodman, A. (1997). "Bred in the bone?" The Sciences(March/April): 20-25 -- why race is so difficult (impossible) to define, even for those who take many more factors into account than skin color.

Horgan, J. (1993). “Eugenics revisited,” Scientific American (June): 122-128, 130-131

Horgan, J. (1995). "Get smart, take a test." Scientific American(November): 12, 14 -- about the Flynn effect, in which experts are baffled by a long-term rise in IQ scores

Lewontin, R. (1976). “Race and Intelligence (and Jensen's reply, and Lewontin's reply to that).” In The IQ Controversy: Critical Readings, ed. N. J. Block and A. Dworkin. NY: Pantheon, 78-112 -- a famous debate c. 1970 between an educational theorist (Jensen) who believed that IQ was inherited and difficult to change and a geneticist (Lewontin) who argued that Jensen's method was flawed and who believed that society hadn't tried very hard to boost intelligence. (See precis of debate.)

Lewontin, R. (1982).“Mental Traits.” In Human Diversity. New York: Freeman Press, 88-103 -- a chapter from a book for a popular audience explaining why IQ scores are not an explanation of socio-economic status.

Lewontin, R. C. (1992). "All in the genes?," in Biology as Ideology. New York: Harper Perennial, 19-37 -- a strident critique of biological determinism, that is, attributing social inequalities to inborn biology

Schiff, M. and R. C. Lewontin (1986). Education and Class: Oxford University Press, 221 -- on the selective citation of studies that indicate heritability of IQ and other traits over studies that indicate that adoption into a different social class can have a significant effect.

Suplee, C. (1997). "Genes play a surprisingly large role in mental ability in life, study finds." Washington Post(June 6): A4.

The Nation (1994). "Inequity Quotient." The Nation (Nov. 7): 516.

Winn, M. (1990). New views of human intelligence. New York Times Magazine, Part 2. 16-17, 28-29 -- on multiple intelligence theory and its application in one school

Woodhead, M. (1988). “When psychology informs public policy.” American Psychologist 43(6): 443-454 -- on the reasons headstart programs have a positive effect of many counts, but not necessarily through a sustainable boost in IQ or for reasons that policy makers tout.

(original page by pjt)