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Are Chimps Smarter Than Fifth Graders?

By Susan Graham — December 10, 2007 2 min read

It was only a matter of time! First there was Jeopardy! I’m sure I would do as well as Ken Jennings. Then there was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which has some pretty baby questions and lets contestants ask for help. It’s almost as if we have a devolving frame of mind about our abilities. And for further evidence of that possibility, now there is Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

I am proud to say that I am smarter than a fifth grader, by the way. I know because I played online three times and won every time and never had to ask a 10-year old for help. However, I’m not sure that knowing that Seattle is more populous than Tacoma, or that all elm trees are not indigenous to the North American continent, or that Salt Lake City, Utah is closer to Phoenix than Pierre, South Dakota makes me all that smart. However, I felt pretty good about being Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.

But now it looks like I’d probably go down in flames if I had to go up against a chimpanzee trained by Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzaw of Kyoto University. The story appears in National Geographic News

One memory test included three five-year-old chimps who were taught the order of Arabic numerals 1 through 9, and a dozen human volunteers. Participants saw nine numbers displayed on a computer screen. When they touched the first number, the other eight turned into white squares. The test was to touch all these squares in the order of the numbers that used to be there. Results showed that the chimps, while no more accurate than the people, could do this faster. The people against whom their skills were measured were college students who had been training for six months. All the chimps could beat the humans, but the younger chimps were faster than the older ones.

So what, exactly, does this research mean? Well, it depends on what you want to prove. Here are some possible conclusions that the media might draw:

Chimps are better at math than humans
College students are not as smart as chimpanzees
Schools should model instruction on behavior modification techniques
Planet of the Apes was a visionary look at the future of our civilization

But AP writer Malcolm Ritter reports that Dr. Matsuzaw

Thinks two factors gave his chimps the edge. For one thing, he believes human ancestors gave up much of this skill over evolutionary time to make room in the brain for gaining language abilities. The other factor is the youth of Ayumu and his peers. The memory for images that is needed for the tests resembles a skill found in children, but which dissipates with age.
So what do we learn? Maybe this study just puts some more questions on the table.

Is recognition and recall learning or training?
Does increasing speed of response without increasing accuracy of response matter?
Could the cognitive assessments that value recall above all else (so popular among some school reformers) be less than optimum measures of meaningful learning?
Is the loss of visual recall really a “loss” or does it indicate a “gain” in abstract thinking?

All of these are interesting questions and ones that Dr. Matsuzaw would probably be willing to discuss with other serious-minded people. But the truth is that “Chimps Outsmart College Students” is just so much more fun than “Research Indicates Trained Chimps Demonstrate Faster Response to Numerical Sequencing Recall Than Humans”—just like playing Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader is more amusing that seriously considering what is critical for a 10-year old to know. Too bad so much of our public discourse on evaluating learning boils down to entertainment, sound bites and memory games.

Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous. Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC), The Confucian Analects

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.