How to make your child more intelligent

If you were hopeless at maths at school, you probably blamed your family, which has been hopeless at maths since time immemorial.

You may already have passed the idea on to your children that when it comes to maths, they too will be hopeless. Numeracy, and intelligence generally, many people believe, is “in our genes”.

That idea was shared by scientists, too. Over recent years most experts have concluded that intelligence is largely genetic in origin, and that nurture does relatively little to raise an individual's potential.

That same thinking, logical enough in itself, even spread into debates over race. Intelligence tests repeatedly suggest that Jewish and Chinese people are likelier than most to be smart.

The implication that many of us are genetically predestined for failure and that entire racial groups are inherently superior to others sounds poisonous. What has kept such views going is science. Major studies seemed to support them.

“I wish I could exempt myself,” said Richard Nisbett, author of the new book Intelligence and How to Get It, “but unfortunately for many years I bought the claims of the hereditarians that family environments don't matter much.

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

Nisbett's is a message of hope. He believes that, far from having their IQs determined at the moment of conception, people's potential intelligence is almost infinitely flexible.

For 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.

And for society it means the low achievements of some social groups are most likely cultural in origin, not genetic – so we can change them.

Where, though, did the idea that intelligence is so dependent on genetics come from? Why has it held sway over our educational systems and parenting practices for so long? ONE of the main reasons for the belief was the study of identical twins separated and adopted at a young age. On being tested much later, they showed remarkably similar intelligence.

Researchers concluded that this must be innate because the only thing the twins shared was their genetic make-up.

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein said as much in The Bell Curve, as did Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner drew the same conclusion in Freakonomics: “A child's academic abilities are far more influenced by the IQs of his biological parents than the IQs of his adoptive parents.”

Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, wants to restore to nurture a significant role in the development of intelligence. This is science with a hugely political twist – because if he succeeds he shoves responsibility firmly onto policymakers to ensure that children are given the best environment in which to achieve their potential.

What, though, is his evi-dence? First, he has taken a much closer look at the separated-twin studies and concluded they were deeply flawed.

The researchers presumed that the families that adopted were unlike each other. In practice, families selected for adoption are highly motivated and equipped to give children a good start. “Adoptive families, like Tolstoy's happy families, are all alike,” he said.

This is why adoption is one of the most powerful interventions you can make to increase a child's intelligence.

“Raising someone in an upper-middle-class environment versus a lower-class environment is worth 12 to 18 points of IQ – a truly massive effect,” he said.

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.

Demolishing the findings of the twin studies is part of the argument against genes controlling intelligence.

Another, far more positive, comes from the work of James Flynn, who has collated IQ tests performed all over the world over most of the past century.

What he found astonished him at first: in each decade, the IQ of the latest generation of young adults seemed to have risen, on average, by three points above that of the preceding decade.

Over the past century, this implied, the IQs of westernised people had risen by about 30 points. On a scale where 100 represents the norm this “Flynn effect” is astonishing. Flynn, a professor in New Zealand, believes this knocks the “mainly genetics” argument on the head.

“How could this be possible? No one has been selectively breeding human beings for high IQ. Environmental factors must have enormous potency.”

His conclusion is that in recent decades we have all been taught to think in a different way from our forebears.

Some of this comes down to education: classes are smaller, teachers are more skilled and we spend 14 years in school rather than the seven or so of the past. This makes a particular difference for poor and minority children.

However, our lives have become far more complex in many other ways. Television, computers, books and newspapers – all are available on a scale that would have amazed people just 50 years ago. Each of them exercises and challenges the brain in new ways and for many more hours.

Flynn said: “Our ancestors' intelligence was anchored in everyday reality. We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical,” he said.

In an IQ test, he says, we might be asked what rabbits and dogs have in common. “The correct answer, that they are both mammals, assumes that the important thing about the world is to classify it in terms of the categories of science. To an American in 1900, that would seem absurdly trivial.”

Flynn illustrates his belief that our thought patterns are different from those of our recent ancestors by quoting dialogues between sociologists travelling the globe with IQ tests, and peasants unfamiliar with the concept.

One is asked to use logic to crack a puzzle about white bears in lands where there is snow. The peasant replies: “I have seen only black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.”

What's more, those trends towards ever greater complexity in the way we collectively think and use information are continuing.

Smaller families could mean, for example, that children interact more with adults. Others may spend time online or playing games whose complexity baffles their parents. Even television shows have become more complex: the simple narratives of 1950s programmes look flat and predictable compared with modern, multi-stranded shows such as 24.

Not all the changes are advances: phones that store favourite numbers have worsened our ability to remember numerical sequences and satellite navigation rots our capacity to read maps.

There are some flaws in these arguments. One is that intelligence is hard to define and to measure. Indeed, one of the great academics in the field, Arthur Jensen, got so fed up chasing a definition of intelligence that he vowed in 1998 never to use the word again (he broke the vow).

Flynn offers a droll paradox: “If intelligence is what current IQ tests measure, we could never invent a better IQ test because the new test, by definition, would be a departure from what measures intelligence.” NISBETT accepts that the measures are flawed, but he believes they are good enough to guide parents and schools in finding ways to raise children's potential.

We can talk to children, read to them, teach them to catego-rise, compare and contrast. Give them stimulating after-school activities, including plenty of exercise.

Teach meditation exercises (breathing, posture, body awareness) that have been shown to improve IQ scores after just five days.

Encourage self-control: offer gratification in the here-and-now (one biscuit) or better rewards later (two biscuits) because self-control is a better indicator of high marks in exams than IQ scores.

Don't praise intelligence, only effort, or they'll focus on things they do well and avoid working on tasks they have trouble with. Don't reward them for doing things they enjoy: you'll turn play into work. In fact, don't praise much at all, or they'll feel constantly evaluated. Don't criticise small mistakes.

One recommendation won't be welcomed by women: have bigger babies. “Bigger babies grow up to be smarter adults than smaller babies. We don't know if it causes higher intelligence or is merely correlated with it. But why take a chance?”

Also: breastfeed “for up to nine months”.

This does seem a rather frantic merry-go-round, but Ian Deary, professor of differential psychology at the University of Edinburgh, thinks it is worthwhile: “It's a good thing that people be encouraged to realise their potential.”

Analyses such as Nisbett's and Flynn's may also offer hope in understanding why some social groups, such as men of African origin, do worse at school and in the jobs market, as well as being highly over-rep-resented in the prison population (about 11,000 of Britain's 90,000-strong prison population are of African origin.)

Flynn, whose data are based on American populations, wrote recently: “For the past 30 years or so, intelligence tests have shown an average gap of 15 IQ points between black and white Americans.”

He believes, however, that the reasons for this gap lie in the types of childhood, not in the genes. Black and white children seemed to be born with similar potential but then a gap opened.

He said: “Black American children steadily lose ground on white people with age. At just 10 months old, the average score is only one point behind; by the age of 4, it is 4.6 points behind, and by the age of 24, the gap is 16.6 points.”

This, he suggests, is because a far higher proportion of black youngsters are brought up in economically deprived single-parent homes where mental stimulation is at a minimum.

For further proof he points to research on the children of servicemen raised on American air-bases in Germany in the 1950s, where they were cut off from black sub-culture. Tests at the ages of six and 13 showed that children of all races had broadly similar Iqs.

There is, however, another side to all these arguments, which is that intelligence can be assessed only by comparison with others, so for every person deemed to be intelligent another will be found to be defective.

Measuring intelligence

- The first person to try to measure intelligence was Francis Galton in the late 1800s. He believed mental traits were linked to physical factors and tried to link intelligence with head size and visual acuity, which have nothing to do with IQ. He failed but his attempts inspired others.

- The first IQ test was devised by Alfred Binet in the early 1900s to assess French schoolchildren and find those who needed extra help. His approach still influences IQ testing today.

- In 1917, when America entered the first world war, the military needed to assess conscripts so it called in the psychologists Lewis Terman and Arthur Otis, who adopted the phrase intelligence quotient, and devised a test to measure it. By 1919, 2m Americans had taken it.

- The need for better tests, especially by the military, prompted David Wechsler, an American psychologist, to create the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, first published in 1955 and updated ever since. It measures the major elements of intelligence, including verbal comprehension, working memory and reasoning. Wechsler defined intelligence as the “capacity of a person to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with their environment”.

- IQ is affected by many factors. Breastfeeding for at least nine months can raise it by seven points. Musical training has also been found to raise IQ. Genetics is also important – some gene variants have been linked to poor cognitive skills.

- In the 1940s the belief in our ability to measure IQ changed British education, leading to the grammar school system where pupils took the 11-plus exam, a modified IQ test. The system was largely abandoned as “politically incorrect” in the 1970s.

- Mensa, the high intelligence society, was set up in 1946 for people whose IQ scores are in the top 2%. It has 100,000 members worldwide.

- The highest IQ scores ever are thought to have been achieved by Marilyn vos Savant, now 62, who was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for five years in the 1980s under “Highest IQ” with a top score of 228 (the global average is 100). The listing was dropped following controversies over the measurement of high IQ.

2106 words. First published 17 May 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.