Raj Persaud: Being clever is pointless if you don't want to learn

The relentless rise in each generation's IQ has been shown throughout the industrialised world

Share

That the pass rate for GCSEs and A-levels has gone up yet again has raised the hoary old question of whether exams are getting easier - as us grumpy oldies like to protest, dimly recalling our own miserable results - or whether today's adolescents are genuine geniuses. The Government, like all governments, would like to claim the credit via its education policy, while the Opposition counters that the results don't mean anything, because employers continue to bemoan the basic abilities of school leavers.

That the pass rate for GCSEs and A-levels has gone up yet again has raised the hoary old question of whether exams are getting easier - as us grumpy oldies like to protest, dimly recalling our own miserable results - or whether today's adolescents are genuine geniuses. The Government, like all governments, would like to claim the credit via its education policy, while the Opposition counters that the results don't mean anything, because employers continue to bemoan the basic abilities of school leavers.

But psychologists have a different, rather surprising explanation. It's easy to forget the two key predictors of performance are basic ability, combined with motivation. Oddly enough, one has been going up while the other has been quietly declining to crisis levels.

Perhaps the most astonishing result from cross-national psychological surveys in recent years is that each subsequent generation since the 1930s has been brighter than the previous one, according to IQ data. This relentless rise in each generation's IQ has been demonstrated throughout the industrialised world, with the average increase in the intelligence of children of the same age being three points per decade. Indeed, James Flynn, the New Zealand psychologist who first drew attention to this remarkable phenomenon (the rise is known as the "Flynn Effect"), has recently demonstrated an acceleration. The IQ of children of the same age is now going up, on average, 3.5 points per decade since the 1970s and 1980s.

Possible explanations for this startling effect include better diet and health, which have also raised average height since 1945, smaller families ensuring more parental attention per child, and higher levels of environmental stimulation.

But others find the IQ data and school exam results hard to swallow. Flynn himself points out that there doesn't appear to be the kind of explosion of scientific and artistic output one would have expected by now, if each generation is so much brighter than the last, added to which teachers themselves do not report their pupils are becoming noticeably brilliant.

Instead, when educationalists in the West are surveyed, they report disquietingly declining levels of motivation among their pupils. Low motivation can be accounted for by a decline in the challenge posed by the education system. If students tend to be brighter than in the past, but schools have not raised the bar sufficiently in terms of their intellectual demands, then learners will not be motivated to try as hard; why should they, if they are going to get better results with less effort?

It is this vital issue of motivation that is being ignored in the debate about national performance. Neil Hufton at the University of Sunderland has led a team of education researchers which, since 1996, has been comparing motivation in schools in Sunderland with eastern Kentucky in the United States, and St Petersburg in the Russian Federation. A consistent finding has not only been lower levels of motivation among Western schoolchildren compared with those in Russia, but also a tendency for Western pupils to overestimate their own level of motivation.

The declining levels of motivation could also explain the other big story this week: Britain's mixed medal performance in the Olympics. While it is intriguing to note the two societies much poorer than the US, but currently snapping at its heels in the medal table, Russia and China, are precisely the two countries where surveys confirm it is very difficult indeed to squeeze praise out of your teacher.

It is perhaps no accident that the true testament to motivation this week was not the generally good results of our pampered adolescents, but the amazing six A grades achieved by Kosovan refugee Vildane Berani, despite recently arriving in Britain, fleeing Serbian persecution, while her family survives on benefits of £90 a week. Her strong motivation accounts for her amazing performance, despite all the obstacles placed in her way by UK officialdom.

Yet Berani might still lose her place at Oxford Medical School due to the slow pace at which Home Office officials are considering her appeal to stay in Britain. The contrast in drive and motivation between those whose futures are uncertain, and those whose Civil Service jobs are assured, could not be starker.

If we want to halt our slide into a nation of quarter-finalists and fourth-place finishers, we have much to learn from those whose lives we currently render most difficult, but who then, as a consequence, outperform us.

The author is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all