Plastic Intelligence, EBacc, and the Cognitive Underclass

Roger Titcombe's picture

This is a short version of the full article which appears here

I will address these issues in the reverse order that they appear in the title.

The Cognitive Underclass

Section 2.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘ is entitled, ‘The educational and social consequences of‘failure by definition‘.

If a school is defined as failing for not getting pupils to achieve a C grade in English and maths, what does this say about the pupils that find themselves in this shameful category that is causing the failure of their school and the negative labelling of their communities? The failure label will not be new to most of those involved. The whole of the English education system is now structured with threshold ‘Levels’ that all children, regardless of cognitive ability, are ‘expected’ to achieve from the age of three. In Y6, at the close of the primary phase of education the ‘expected’ attainment in the compulsory SATs exams is Level 4. As with secondary schools and GCSEs five years later, primary schools are designated as failing if they do not achieve the latest arbitrary target.  A persistent proportion of children, especially in poor areas, fall into this failure category regardless of how obedient they are, however much they strive and how many hours, days and months of drilling and revision they have been subject to, only to find themselves on the same relentless treadmill towards GCSE ‘failure’ in their new secondary school.

At the start of the new school year of 2016, as I write this, SATs and GCSEs are on the threshold of major changes, but there will be nothing that alters the basic culture of a system designed to create failure.

On 29 August 2016 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report entitled, ‘5 million adults lack basic literacy and numeracy skills’

The most striking point made in the article is as follows.

England is the only country where the average literacy score of the youngest age group (16-18 years) is lower than that of the oldest age group (55-65 years).

 Katie Schmuecker, Head of Policy at JRF, said:

“In a prosperous country like Britain, everyone should have the basic skills they need to participate in society and build a career. But these shocking figures show millions of adults are being left behind in the modern economy, holding back their potential and the productivity of our businesses suffering as a result. Businesses and community groups must play a leading role in helping people learn the skills they need to be able to find work and progress into better-paid roles – but this needs to be backed by real ambition on the part of government.”

 This is where the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, repeats the universal error of failing to recognise that what appears to be poor ‘basic skills’ is in reality under developed ‘cognitive ability’.

This is a consequence of the prevailing educational culture being about ‘skills‘, acquired by ‘training‘, rather than ‘understanding‘ that has to be ‘developed‘ through a cognitively challenging pedagogy taught in a way that results in the development of cognition (students get cleverer). The ‘failure by definition‘ paradigm that corrupts the English education system is a consequence of marketisation and the Global Education Reform Movement. It fails to recognise that intelligence matters for students of all abilities and that intelligence is plastic.

The explanation for the shocking conclusion that so many of our school leavers are less capable than their parents and grandparents, is that the latter did not have their education corrupted by marketisation, which is resulting in a ‘training’ culture and the substitution of behaviourist pedagogy for developmental approaches to learning that result in cognitive gains.

The failures of our system are even worse for numeracy than for literacy.

The consequence is that a significant proportion of our school population are already made dimmer by their schools. More ‘skills’ training will just make this worse.

 What is needed is not more ‘skills training’ but better education.

 Why a broad and balanced academic education benefits all students not just the more able

 To help explain this I refer to a recent article from Education Datalab.

Changing the subject: why pushing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to take more academic subjects may not be such a bad thing

 by Rebecca Allen

This is an extract (my bold).

Critics of the EBacc worry it crowds out the creative subjects, it forces less academically-orientated students into subjects for which they have neither aptitude nor interest, and that it distracts the focus on the core subjects of English and maths for low achievers.

 We find no evidence for the last two of these concerns in schools that have already made substantial curriculum shifts: pupils were more likely to achieve good GCSEs in English and maths, achieve higher average grades across the board, were 1.7 percentage points more likely to be taking an A level or other level 3 qualification after the age of 16 and 1.8 percentage points less likely to have dropped out of education entirely.

 We wouldn’t want to make causal claims about the relationship between EBacc entry and GCSE attainment. It is possible that whatever drove the decision to make radical curriculum changes at these schools was also driving improvement in maths and English, for example.

 But there is a perfectly plausible argument that students who have weak literacy skills at age 14 benefit from taking subjects (such as geography) that involve extensively practising these skills over the next two years.

 Rebecca Allen makes important points, buts gets the reasons wrong. It is nothing to do with ‘skills’ and everything to do with the development of cognitive ability. Higher grades GCSE grades are a consequence of cognitive gains, as is the reduction in students dropping out of education.

 Confirmation from the academic study of intelligence

I base the following on sections in the latest book by James Flynn, which is subtitled, ‘ Nature, Nurture and Human Autonomy.

Flynn is an internationally respected, towering figure in this field. The ‘Flynn Effect’ was named after him. This is the name given to the year on year increase in IQ that has been taking place in all developed countries for many decades. This is described in Section 1.4 of ‘Learning Matters‘ as follows.

While the relative contributions of possible environmental and cultural factors is fiercely debated, usually generating much more heat than light, growth in societal IQ for non-genetic reasons has been measured and is not in doubt.

This was acknowledged by Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve and these authors first coined the name, ‘The Flynn Effect’ for this phenomenon first described by James Flynn in his studies (1987) of large rises in IQ over time in America.

 However, a study by Flynn (2009) found that tests carried out on British children in 1980 and again in 2008 show that the IQ score of an average 14-year-old had dropped by more than two points over the period. For the upper half of the ability range the performance was even worse. Average IQ scores declined by six points.

 This apparent recent reversal of the Flynn effect in England is confirmed by a parallel study carried out in 2005/6 by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg (but not published until 2009), and gives weight to a key contention set out in this book that educational standards in England are falling as a consequence of the degrading of the education system caused by marketisation. The decline in KS2 noted by Shayer, Coe and Ginsberg (2007) showed an even bigger effect than that recorded by Flynn: the 11 year-olds were testing at the level of 9 year-olds in 1976.

 The Flynn effect has been widely researched and explored in the context of rising IQs. If environmental factors such as good developmental teaching can account for growth of cognitive ability over time then it follows that poor teaching of the wrong sort can account for a decline. Shayer and Ginsburg found such a decline.

 This is a key concept in the argument developed in this book that the English education system could be ‘making our kids dimmer’ at the same time as stuffing them with qualifications. [In other chapters], I show that this can be explained by qualitative shifts in the teaching and learning approaches in the English school system arising from its increasing marketisation. The re-emergence of behaviourist, ‘drill and practise’ teaching has replaced developmental approaches with disastrous consequences.

 Section 5.10 of ‘Learning Matters‘ discusses this ‘Anti-Flynn effect’ further in the context of spurious market-driven ‘school improvement’.

Flynn himself has changed his view on the stability of IQ, which he now believes, like me, is much more plastic than has been previously accepted by academics that study intelligence. He appears not to have given much thought to the impact of school pedagogy, but he has come to strong conclusions about the plasticity of intelligence in adulthood.  On p27 he writes as follows.

“More important still, my analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

 How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives! University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

 “I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 My point is that if this is true for adults, how much more true is it for school students in KS4?

 Flynn’s latest book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’.

 Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation, but which have ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution.

The consequence is that school students still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life and the demands of employers.

My argument is that marketised schools driven by GCSE grade ‘C’ performance thresholds are forced to prioritise achieving these at all costs. For a large proportion of the school population this is addressed through behaviourist approaches that do not develop the cognitive ability necessary to function in the modern adult world, but crucially, they are simultaneously cheated out of the slower paced developmental learning of basic English and maths enjoyed by their parents and grandparents. This deficit then inhibits access to a cognitively developmental broad and balanced (eg EBacc) curriculum resulting in a vicious circle of failure and alienation.

The only way to break that vicious circle is not more ‘skills training’, but more cognitive development at all Key Stages, but especially in KS4. This is a key argument for a broad and balanced curriculum for all students of all abilities up the age of 16.

  What is the evidence of cognitive plasticity at KS4?

 It can be found in the background research carried out by GL Assessment, commercial provider of the Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) widely and increasingly used in the English education system.

 This has concluded that CATs scores are not stable and that significant gains can be made during the secondary school years. Be clear: this is not gains in attainment. It is gains in intelligence.

 In its FAQs, GL Assessment makes the following statement.

Reasoning scores can and do change over time. For a minority of pupils, these changes may be quite substantial. The mean scores for a group of pupils or even a whole school can also change substantially, for example where there has been an intervention such as the National Literacy or Numeracy Strategies (NLS/NNS), or Cognitive Acceleration through Science (CASE) or Philosophy in the Classroom thinking skills approaches.

 So school students can be taught to be cleverer. It depends on them receiving the right kind of educational experience.

 More ‘Basic Skills Training’ in KS4 as advocated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will just result in more of the wrong kind of educational experience.


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