Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Flynn Effect & The Pokemon Generation

There's an interesting article in the May issue of Wired entitled 'Dome Improvement', that explores how IQ scores seem to be going up around the world. The subject of the article, the so-called 'Flynn Effect', describes a newly observed phenomenon - average IQ scores in every industrialized country have been increasing steadily for decades.

Now I'm a bit of a push-over when it comes to blindingly simple explanations for complex phenomenon. Take for example the theory of metabolic ecology, which explains why when you correct for size and temperature, the metabolic rates of a hummingbird and a shark, or indeed a tomato plant and a tree are remarkably similar. The answer lies in a mathematical relationship between metabolism and body mass - called a quarter-power scaling law - that relates the fractal geometry of metabolic systems like lungs and blood vessels to the body mass of living things. I love that stuff. Guess I'm an Occam's razor kinda guy.

So when I read about the Flynn Effect, I had an 'aha moment'. What Flynn discovered is that every 4 years or so the standard IQ tests get redone, and that people who took the new test and retook the old test actually did better on the old test. When he enlarged the sample size and expanded it to cover tests given in a variety of countries over a 30 year period, he documented a trend that scores are increasing.

Now an IQ test is a kind of pattern recognition test. The most well-respected ones do not depend on language skills at all. So what would explain the improvement: genetics or environment? Are pattern recognition skills improving, and if so, why?

Most experts associate performance on IQ tests with genetic factors. They point out that twins living apart score closely, while different adopted children raised together do not show any relationship in their scores. But Flynn noted that small differences in genetic factors can often be 'amplified' by environmental factors. The example given is of a tall boy who is recruited for the high school basketball team, and eventually makes it to pro basketball. Here, a small genetic advantage is not enough to make him a great basketball player, but it is enough that environmental factors (eg- the attention of a good coach) conspire to groom him for a superlative capability in basketball.

His conclusion is that the wired world we live in requires us to become adept at pattern recognition, from learning to programme our VCR to learning to syncronize downloaded radio programmes to our iPods. I certainly agree with that. And he suggests that children with small advantages in visual acuity or motor response may not only be able to win at Pokemon, they may also be pushing the IQ average higher.

So, aside from the fact that I largely agree with Flynn's conclusion, I am excited at the potential of analyzing learning trends. An IQ test is the ultimate snap quiz (in the US every soldier is given the test upon induction), and yet we give it even more weight than an SAT in terms of determining success in life. Yet Flynn looked beyond the absolute value of an IQ test to its value as a trend-spotter when reviewed over a longer period of time.quiz handset allows students to respond to questions from the instructor

Suppose for example that students were given a quiz handset that they could use to answer questions presented by their instructor during every lecture. They would certainly be more engaged, and the instructor would be gathering metrics that he or she might use to spot trends. After all, the most significant challenge in teaching is to identify laggard students, so as to intervene early enough that support and remediation can be applied to pull laggards up to the level of the rest of the class.

Computerized classrooms have failed by almost any measure. Call it my simplistic approach, but I believe quiz handsets can help 'fast track' classrooms in ways that a desktop PC can't rival. Certainly they will provide us with continuous assessment metrics that are currently absent. And they are an engaging tool for the Pokemon generation.