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Intelligence and IQ – It Is More than Just the Genes

When it comes to intelligence, there has always been one fundamental question:

Is it a function of nature? Is it simply encoded in a child’s genes?

Or is it a function of nurture? Is it more about the environment that a child grows up in?

NisbettRichard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, addresses the topic in fundamental detail in his new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It.” And thank goodness for teachers, Nisbett insists that nurture is in fact paramount to intellectual development.

In fact, his message matches almost verbatim what we have discussed previously on our site:

  • Praise the effort, not the achievement
  • Teach the concept of delayed gratification
  • Limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity.

The Nature versus Nurture Question

Nisbett takes exception to the notion that IQ is 75 to 85 percent inherited. Instead, he sees the gene implications at something less than 50 percent.

Nicholas D. Kristoff recently took a look at the nature versus nurture question and came away with enormous support of Nisbett’s book. The NY Times columnist notes the work of Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia who has conducted research that indicates IQ is minimally the result of genetics.

Kristof further cites studies that indicate that “when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their IQ’s rise by 12 points to 18 points.”

As for the importance of school, Kristof also notes that “children’s IQ’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).”

Professor NisbettIn Nisbett’s book, there is a strong push for early childhood education. Here again, Kristof offers support of Professor Nisbett by taking a look at the “Milwaukee Project.”

Assigning African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation randomly to two groups, the project offers enormous support for early childhood education. The mothers of the infants selected all had IQ’s below 80 and in many cases the fathers were absent.

The children were assigned either to a control group that received no additional support or to a group that enjoyed day care and educational programming from 6 months of age until the children were to enter first grade.

By the age of six the children experimental group had an IQ average of 120.7 as compared to the control group’s 87.2

Quality Pre-School for All

We previously noted the enormous educational success of Finland. Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland, indicates that the majority of Finland’s educational success can be traced to major reforms implemented in the 1970s.

One of those reforms centered upon an emphasis on primary education for every single child in the country. In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until at age seven, two years after most American children begin school.

However, prior to entering school, all children have participated in a high-quality government funded preschool program. Interestingly, instead of focusing on getting a jump academically, Finland’s early-childhood program focuses on self-reflection and social behavior.

The early focus on self-reflection is seen as a key component for developing a level of personal responsibility towards learning. It is a focus more in line with the original theory of kindergarten set forth in 1837 by German Educator Friedrich Froebel. His kindergarten, literally meaning a “children’s garden,” was envisioned as a place and time where children could learn through play opportunities.

Ultimately, Finland appears to focus on the nurturing process during the preschool years and that appears to be the first step to eliminating socioeconomic differences within the school setting within the country.

Presidential Support

When it comes to the question of nature versus nurture, the data clearly indicates that the latter is indeed more than 50% of the equation. That is good news for educators, but even better news for society as a whole.

Fortunately, President Obama has come out in strong support of early childhood education, particularly for those children most at risk of school failure. Investing in quality pre-school opportunities clearly helps give children from poverty-stricken areas the chance at a stronger start in school and in life.

If we are serious about helping our children succeed in school, if we are truly interested in “Leaving No Child Behind,” we will take a hard look at this compelling data and begin investing greater sums at the early childhood level.


1 Mustafa { 05.05.09 at 3:01 am }

“Praise the effort, not the achievement”

This is a strong point that is often neglected. Compliments often breed perseverance and greater effort in learning but reprimands may result to fear which sometimes is a failed motivation.

2 Jamie { 05.29.09 at 12:29 pm }

There is some interesting research being done on Executive Function – the brain’s ability to determine what information is important, and ability to flexibly approach problem solving.

Much of the development happens during the age where kids attend preschool, which is an important reinforcement of the idea that a structured preschool curriculum sets up kids for success in learning.

Elanna Yalow discusses it in more detail here:’s-amazing-brain/

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