We don’t need no education! Do we?

#freshfromthelab. Dr Stuart Ritchie on the impact of education on lifelong intelligence. Over the past few years, you may have seen the media awash with new scientific conclusions on how clever a person will be is already mapped out in their genes from birth – and the environment, such as schooling and upbringing, may contribute only by a small amount.


Nonetheless, that small amount, claims Dr Stuart Ritchie, is still very much significant when we consider education as the environmental factor that affects intelligence. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Pfft, education? Well, obviously that is going to make someone cleverer! We don’t need a scientist to tell us that!”. But I am not talking about one’s ability to regurgitate the whole of Shakespeare's Othello in one sitting. Though impressive, this would be considered as knowledge; it is information acquired from experiences – something that the British education system very much revolves around. I am instead referring to one’s inbuilt intelligence – the collection of abilities that would have enabled a person to accomplish such an achievement.

In psychology, intelligence spans a wide variety of cognitive abilities such as problem-solving, adapting to new situations, spatial understanding, reasoning, processing speed, planning, emotional regulation – the list goes on! We measure intelligence with an IQ test, higher scores indicating greater intelligence. Higher IQ is associated with a number of beneficial lifelong outcomes, such as greater career achievements, less criminal activity, reduced the likelihood of hospitalization due to mental health, and even increased life expectancy!


If you are reading this as a mum, dad, grandparent or carer of a young child - and considering how much a higher IQ can benefit your little one’s future – I am guessing you will be over the moon to learn that in a recent paper published by Stuart (and colleagues) education demonstrated significant contributions to increased IQ scores.


But in order to come to such conclusions, a lot of work had to be done. Stuart and his team first had to traipse through a whole load of different studies to find only those with the highest quality research, and then with these remaining studies, they could run a series of tests to examine how education impacts IQ scores. Taking advantage of naturally occurring events in society – such as certain individuals choosing to study for longer than others, or governmental policies changing the age of when a person can finish schooling, or the arbitrary cut of age of starting schools (for example those born September 1st and August 31st will be considered in the same year of school) – Stuart examined if the length of education impacted an individuals’ IQ score.


And it did! Results showed that for every year of education, IQ increased by approximately 1 to a whopping 5 points. And not only this, education had a lifelong impact on IQ, meaning that once the person left education this increased IQ could be seen all the way into a person’s 70thyears. So, I am sorry Pink Floyd but school is very much in, and it is in forever!


By removing scores associated with school-related abilities from the IQ test results, Stuart further revealed that the effect of education on intelligence wasn’t due to the education system “teaching to the test”. The higher IQ scores were not just due to the individual’s education teaching them specifically what the test was assessing but due to some other mechanism that education exposes an individual to.


So, what is this mechanism? Well, quite frankly, we don’t know! It could be that being in education for longer teaches us how to learn and this is increasing IQ scores. Or it could be that education allows us to think in different ways, such as abstract reasoning, which is what the IQ tests require. Or it could simply be that those who are in education for longer have different attitudes to being tested, for example, they may care more so apply themselves more when completing the IQ test. We just do not know… but with more research, we are getting there. So, watch this space.


Author: Laurel Fish

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