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Raising someone in an upper-middleclass environment versus a lowerclass environment is worth 12 to 18 points of IQ

The question of whether intelligence is determined by genetics or environment has been hotly contested over the last century and the complex debate has hit the headlines again.

Richard Nisbett, a prominent professor of psychology at the University of Michigan has recently published the book ‘Intelligence and How to Get It’, arguing forcefully and articulately that environmental conditions have a far greater effect on intelligence than the impact of genes.

John-Paul Flintoff and Jonathan Leak, in a recent Sunday Times article, have looked at the evidence on which Nisbett bases his theories and the advice he offers parents and educationalists.

Nisbett believes that people’s IQs are not predetermined by their genes but that nurture still has a significant role in the development of intelligence. Initial thinking that intelligence was linked solely to genetics stems from early studies of identical twins, who after separation and adoption still showed very similar intelligence much later on in life. The conclusion seemed to be that, because the only thing the twins shared was their genetic makeup, intelligence must be innate.

No child is doomed to repeat parents’ failures. No child should be written off

“Such thinking is extremely unfortunate,” says Nisbett, “because it implies that hard work can produce little in the way of improvement. Fortunately it is now becoming clear that this view is quite wrong.”

Professor NIsbett revisited these twin studies and believes that they are flawed, finding that the adoptive families were all well equipped to give each of the children a good start. Flintoff and Leak note that for natural parents: “this means no child is doomed to repeat their failures. For schools it means no child should be written off – the right environment will not just teach them facts but also make them brighter.”

Nisbett has found that raising someone in an uppermiddle- class environment versus a lower-class environment “is worth 12 to 18 points of IQ – a truly massive effect.” The children of middle-class parents are read to, spoken to and encouraged more than children of working-class parents – and these are all experiences that influence intellectual development.

Flintoff and Leak also highlight the fascinating findings of New Zealand professor, James Flynn, who, after collating IQ tests taken all over the world during the last century, found that in each decade the IQ of the newest generation rose by about 3 points over the previous generation. Flynn believes this is because we are now taught differently to our ancestors. At school, classes are smaller, teachers more skilled and we spend longer in education. In addition, our lives are far more complex, with TV, computers, multimedia all competing for our attention and exercising our brain in new and different ways. In the Sunday Times article, Flynn notes: “Our ancestors’ intelligence was anchored in everyday reality. We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical.”

Professor Nisbett recognises that there are limitations on the environmental theory but believes that the findings can at least serve to guide both parents and schools in how to raise children’s potential.

His tips to achieve this potential include: talking to children, reading to them, teaching them how to compare, contrast and categorise, giving them stimulating activities and lots of exercise. Meditation appears to improve IQ and exam results as does the encouragement of self-control and delayed gratification. Nisbett advises not to praise intelligence but instead effort, being careful not to make children feel constantly evaluated or turning their play into work.

Perhaps it’s not just parents who can take on these findings. The new learnings could put pressure on government policymakers in apportioning to them the responsibility of ensuring that children are given the best learning environment in which to achieve their potential