Home > Cognition, Culture, Ideas, Parent information, teacher information > Why Kids Are Smarter Today But Can’t Do Things They Did 30 Years Ago

Why Kids Are Smarter Today But Can’t Do Things They Did 30 Years Ago

One of the well-documented aspects regarding IQ on which you can safely make broad generalizations is that it has been rising. Not just here in America or in advanced countries but everywhere (though at different rates), rich or poor, free or unfree, north or south. Moreover, to the extent to which we can assemble records, this societal increase in mean IQ, known as “The Flynn Effect” after researcher James Flynn, has been going on for about a century.

At the same time that IQ has increased, student testing at the national level has not reflected this improvement, at least proportionately; seniors and some parents also notice that children today simply aren’t as good at many practical kinds of problem solving as they were many decades ago. How can these two phenomena be reconciled ?

Flynn argues the change is due to the increasing complexity and stimulation of the modern social evironment – children are getting better at certain kinds of thinking (which impacts IQ scores) demanded by their environment but other kinds of cognitive skills are falling into disuse:

By reverse-engineering the pattern of improvement in IQ tests, you can tell how mental priorities have changed over the century. It turns out that we, far more than our recent ancestors, take seriously the ability to find abstract similarities between objects (Question: how are dogs and rabbits alike? Answer: they are both mammals). And we are better at applying logic to finding abstract patterns, as in Raven’s Progressive Matrices.

“At that point I began to get excited”, says Flynn, “because I began to feel that I was bridging the gulf between our minds and the minds of our ancestors. We weren’t more intelligent than they, but we had learnt to apply our intelligence to a new set of problems. We had detached logic from the concrete, we were willing to deal with the hypothetical, and we thought the world was a place to be classified and understood scientifically rather than to be manipulated.

….The Flynn effect is not a story of pure gains. There are signs that children are missing concrete experiences that help develop some mental abilities. Michael Shayer, a psychologist at King’s College, London, has spent most of his working life studying the foundations of mathematical ability. In 1976 he tested children on their understanding of volume and shape, an understanding thought by many to underlie all future mathematical ability. When he repeated the tests in 2003, 11-year-olds performed only as well as eight-year-olds had done 30 years earlier. “

In the words of Aristotle – ” We are what we frequently do”.  Students get better at what they spend time doing.

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