By Gary Thomas
Frank Spencer’s famous assertion to Betty that ‘Every day in every way, I am getting better and better!’ is true. We are indeed getting better and better all the time.
At the primary schools athletics championships for New South Wales in December 2012, a 12-year-old boy, James Gallaugher, ran the 100m sprint in 11.72 seconds. This is a time that would comfortably have won him the gold medal in the 100m at the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
The phenomenon of continual improvement extends to IQ. Amongst psychologists the Flynn effect (so-called because it has been extensively studied by the New Zealand psychologist James Flynn) is well known: it refers to the large increases in IQ that have occurred over one hundred years of intelligence testing. Intelligence tests have an average of 100, and they do so unfailingly. You would be wrong, however, to conclude from this that intelligence remains constant in the population. The consistent average IQ of 100 is the result of the work of the psychometricians, who toil to maintain the figure of 100. The tests and their marking regimes have to be continually reconstructed to bring the average to 100 and to make the distribution of scores conform to shape of the bell-shaped normal distribution curve.
The reconstruction is needed because our performance is improving all the time. When people are asked to take intelligence tests from a previous generation their scores are consistently above those of the earlier cohort.
Which brings me to GCSEs and A levels. The results keep improving there as well. They keep improving because, unlike with IQs, no one was working (until now) to hold them at a consistent figure. If the kids answer the questions well, they get an ‘A’.
It’s all part of the narrative that rubbishes schools that says that the steady improvements in examination results are down to ‘grade inflation’. There may be an element of grade inflation, but my guess is that most of the improvement is down to a variant of the Flynn effect, which also explains James Gallaugher’s extraordinary sprint speed. You can imagine why this happens: with IQ, it’s because so much more information and so many more tools for thinking and learning are about now — kids have access to machines and experiences that previous generations couldn’t even dream of.
Instead of watching Crackerjack on the TV, as I used to do when I got home from school, today’s generation are straight onto their computers. Scattered amongst the games and the music will be the occasional Internet search, which will lead to something else … and something else — they interact with their machines. Kids are encouraged to think, to find things out, to write and communicate in a dozen different ways. They go places, see things and have access to knowledge to which once upon a time only the most privileged had access. It’s no wonder they are getting cannier.
And James Gallaugher’s extraordinary 100m sprint is just as easy to explain. Children are better fed, taller, healthier, have access to better facilities and coaching, which in turn benefits from a hundred years of research into ways of improving running. Running shoes are marvellously improved and tracks are made of high-grip material rather than ashes. Why are we surprised that things continually improve?
So, today’s kids are not only healthier, they are also more articulate and more knowledgeable than those of previous generations. Schools are better: not only are classes smaller, but children and young people are encouraged to think where once they would have been drilled in handwriting, Latin, and the names of national heroes from history. Teaching is improving all the time: today’s teachers are better educated and better trained, understanding the ways in which children learn. The differences between schools of today and those of my generation, forty years ago, are huge. This is why IQs, exam results — and sprinting speeds — continually improve.
Gary Thomas, Professor in Education, University of Birmingham. He has spent his career working in education, first as a primary school teacher, then as an educational psychologist, then as an academic in five universities. He is the author of Education: A Very Short Introduction.
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