For all the debates around the most effective teachers, curriculua, school structures, and so on, a massive new research analysis finds that formal education, in general, remains “the most consistent, robust, and durable method yet to be identified for raising intelligence.”
Children who have a higher early IQ are more likely to stay in school longer, according to a meta-analysis in the journal Psychological Science. But more importantly for teachers, for every year of education, students also gain on average one to five IQ points, with gains that continue into old age. To put that in perspective, about two-thirds of adults have an IQ between 85 and 115, and only about 2.5 percent of adults have an IQ above 130.
Researchers led by Stuart Ritchie, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, looked at nearly 30 studies involving some 600,000 people. Some were broad longitudinal observational studies, tracking individuals’ intelligence scores at various points in their lives. Others examined natural experiments created when the mandatory number of years of schooling changed in different areas. Still others used school admission-date cutoffs to compare students whose birth dates led them to have an additional year of school compared to similar students with slightly later birthdates.
Across the studies, researchers found additional years of school were associated with higher intelligence. Interestingly, there wasn’t a significant difference based on how old children were when they started school, but the researchers did not look at students under age 6 so the results don’t identify potential effects of early education.
“We couldn’t really pinpoint any ‘critical periods’ for educational effects,” Ritchie said. However, the researchers did find that intelligence gains from additional schooling remained for people into their 70s and 80s.
Educators and researchers have been arguing about how education affects intelligence practically since intelligence tests were invented, and certainly since psychologist James Flynn documented the steady rise of IQ scores across countries over time. While this analysis cannot definitively mark schooling as the cause of that rise, “I think it’s plausible that our finding provides one mechanism of the Flynn effect in general,” Ritchie said.
“There shouldn’t be so much debate about IQ,” he added. “It’s an extremely useful and predictive measure that has a hugely strong evidence base. If used as one piece of information—it’s far from the only thing you want to know about a person—it can be very useful.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.