Tag Archives: intelligence

The History and Future of Bell-curve thinking

The latest issue of Educational Theory, 58(1), includes an article examining the idea of “normal.”

Bell-curve thinking, as a model of distribution of success and failure in society, enjoys a perennial (ahistorical, objective, and law-like) status in education. As such it provides a rationale for sorting (tracking or streaming) practices in education, which has led many educators to criticize both bell-curve thinking and associated sorting practices. In this essay, Lynn Fendler and Irfan Muzaffar argue that the existing critiques of bell-curve thinking ring true for people who believe that the purpose of schooling is to promote a more equitable redistribution of resources in society; however, these arguments do not criticize the law-like character assumed for a bell curve as a representation of social reality. To extend these critiques, Fendler and Muzaffar focus on the history of the bell curve, from a representation of binomial probability, to a bearer of real things in nature, and finally to a set of expectations about how people should behave. They ultimately argue that the acceptance of bell-curve thinking in education is part of a recursive project of governance and normalization.

In related news, the latest podcast to become available free via iTunes from NPR — Intelligence Squared, which features formal Oxford-style debate on controversial subjects — recently zeroed in on Bell-curve thinking as it pertains to race, gender, and equality: the resolution, Is it time to end Affirmative Action?, catalyzed a fascinating discussion.

Taken together, the two media forms present different approaches of a single very difficult problem: How to characterize the realities of achievement. Get more details about the article here; get the debate on mp3 here. They complement each other nicely.

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A New Look at Old Intelligence Tests

James FlynnMalcolm Gladwell, best known for his books Blink and The Tipping Point, has just published an article in The New Yorker about the Flynn Effect and how it may undermine many of the assumptions that ground the past century of intelligence testing. Named after New Zealander James Flynn, the “effect” shows that IQ test scores have steadily risen worldwide at the rate of about 3 points per decade. The effect is masked, however, by the fact that IQ tests are periodically re-normed (i.e., made more difficult) to keep the average score at 100. If Flynn is right, this means that our grandparents, on average, had IQ scores nearly 20 points (!) below our own. Interestingly, however, the apparent gains aren’t the same across all intelligence domains. Math, verbal skills, and general knowledge rise the least. Continue reading A New Look at Old Intelligence Tests

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A Book for The Holidays

John CarsonI have run across a fine book on a popular aspect of the history of psychology that might be of interest as we head into the holiday season. It is The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940 (Princeton University Press, 2007). It was written by John Carson of U. Michigan, a well-known figure around Cheiron meetings and History of Science Society conferences. Carson attacks the interesting issue of why intelligence tests found their greatest success in the US even though the basic methodology used to construct them to this day was invented and first used in France. He finds the answer in differences between the characters of French and American societies. According to the book’s blurb:

Continue reading A Book for The Holidays

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