Have years of abstract testing robbed us of our ability to use common sense? We might regain our practical thinking skills via an unlikely avenue: games.
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Recent studies of standardized testing might lead one to conclude that the gamification of educational evaluation might be the best thing about the IT revolution.
Scientists and educators have long been puzzled by the steady worldwide rise of about three points per decade in average IQ, first discovered by James Flynn and commonly called the Flynn Effect. But the puzzle is now more acute and urgent: Longitudinal studies of IQ test results show that the IQ rise has slowed to almost zero in Norway and Denmark. In the U.K., Flynn himself found the effect to be reversing since the early 1990s. A century of people growing smarter seems to be ending.
This is big. In a century, three points per decade adds up to two standard deviations from the mean. That equates to the difference for mental retardation or for giftedness. For about 100 years, the Flynn Effect has forced IQ testmakers to use harder questions and renormalize every 20 years or so.
Even before this change, the Flynn Effect baffled neurologists, psychologists and educators. Historically, it's absurd; it implies that in 1910, half the population should have been "profoundly developmentally delayed" by current standards, unable to learn to read, do arithmetic or remember a 10-minute lecture. On the other side of the bell curve, it means that the geniuses of the pre-World War I intellectual flowering -- Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Dewey, Stravinsky, Joyce -- were about as bright as today's average National Merit Scholar.
Furthermore, the Flynn Effect contradicts the perceptions of supervisors and teachers that the younger generation is less capable.
Stuart Brown has described younger engineers at advanced research facilities who are "good at filling in bubbles" but don't seem to be able to make a machine work. Senior engineers lament that the next generation overvalues its high test scores and undervalues the things that get the job done. Fine arts teachers tailor assignments to students who want to express simpler ideas with easier tools rather than acquire more open-ended and sophisticated skills.
College instructors in general find they assign less work in both quantity and difficulty than a generation ago, and students do a poorer job on it. If they're getting smarter, why don't they seem smart?
The second Flynn Effect mystery is its cause. Changes in popular culture, childhood nutrition, cultural bias, job markets and test familiarity all have failed as explanations in multiple studies.
Flynn himself, and other scholars, now think that the first mystery -- higher scores for less capable people -- might actually explain the second mystery of why the Flynn Effect happens. Flynn argues that IQ tests favor abstract categorization over practical application, and that the world has come to rely on abstraction more and application less. For example, if an IQ test asks, "What do dogs have in common with rabbits?" answering with, "They are both animals" will score higher than, "People use dogs to hunt rabbits." Flynn points out that this favors minds that categorize reality over those who work with it.
Flynn's hypothesis fits well with the common perception that academically proficient people can lack common sense. Malcolm Gladwell cites a study of the Kpelle people of Western Africa, who, when asked to group objects "as a wise man would," put the knife with the potato and the ax with the firewood, thus earning a lower score than they would for categorizing "tools" and "materials." But the Kpelle can categorize; they just call that "thinking as a fool would."
If Flynn is right, IQ and other standard tests have improved our conceptual sorting skills and atrophied our common sense. Back around 1900, when Terman, Binet and Spearman were pioneering the IQ concept, talented and developed abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart, so it was a natural mistake to assign the highest scores to people who thought like professors of rhetoric or philology.
As standardized tests became more important, our education system shifted toward emphasizing abstract thinking; as people became better at abstraction, they substituted it for applicational thinking. Just as the shift in popularity away from baseball and toward football has produced more muscular boys who don't throw as accurately, the feedback between importance and achievement has boosted abstraction skills while application skills atrophied.
Maybe we seek out and reward good abstractors not because we need them, but because we have a century of deep experience testing for abstraction ability, and students develop it because that's where the rewards are.
If so, then the IT revolution might yet save us, because it makes extensive gamification possible. Games require learning, understanding, analyzing and acting in an unprecedented situation, rather than filling in the blank in a familiar text or equation. That means the sort of mind that can cut the potato with the knife, rather than put each thing in its "correct" box. Gamifying evaluation can emphasize "thinking like a wise man."
Imagine the world after a century of people getting more common sense, instead of more sorting, matching and box-checking skills. Maybe then the cabinetmaker who can build a table will finally have an equal place at it with the analytic tableologist.
In my next column I'll tackle what makes a good educational game.
This column was originally published on UBM's Educational IT site.
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