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Headmaster's Blog: Three cheers for effort and enterpriseInborn intelligence (‘potential’ would be shorthand) vs taught (and therefore learned) knowledge

Date published: Mon 16 Oct 2017  

It was on Question Time that I heard the possibly untrue story that President Trump had challenged his Secretary of State over which of them has the higher IQ. In some ways it hardly matters whether it’s true or not, but it does make me think about the relative importance of inborn intelligence (‘potential’ would be shorthand) as against taught (and therefore learned) knowledge.

I’ve gone on for years to universities about the very considerable body of research which shows that attainment (how you do in exams) really is the top predictor of success, when they have often complained about how difficult it is to spot ‘potential’. Now I see that some London day schools are proposing replacing traditional 11+ exams with cognitive ability tests, seeming also to promote the idea that the ability you’re born with is king.

You can see why this is attractive. If the Holy Grail of a copper-bottomed ability test could be found, you would only have to do it once as an 11-year-old (the result would be the same whichever school you sat it at), and hey presto, an end to multiple-entrance-exam stress.

But I’m afraid I don’t buy it. Because what an ability test won’t capture is application: the attitude which works through stuff, applies effort and makes progress – the ‘value add’ of character if you like. I am 100% pro measuring basic ability (verbal, mathematical, logical etc.) – and as an HMC school we buy into the excellent work of Durham’s CEM Centre, which has basically transformed assessment in our schools this last decade or so. But the measure of ability is half the story: the other half is what you do with it. Sure, if you lined up any cohort in any school from ‘top’ ability score downwards (which, by the way, I would never, ever do!) and mapped on exam results, you’d get quite a good match.

But not a perfect one. There would be ‘talent wasters’ (in some schools) and ‘over-reachers’. And the trick for a great school is to minimise the former, by using the knowledge of ability to keep them up to the mark, and maximise the latter, by … well, we know instinctively don’t we? By great relationships, aspiration, strong ethic and surroundings, clear and fair systems. And many other ways too, of course.

So three cheers for effort and enterprise. Shown by none more than George Jaques (U6), who set up his own theatre company this year, hired and performed a play of his own, involving Harry Seager and Macauley Keeper (both U6) as well as others, and did so, by the way, for charity as well as for the commitment to the work. That truly is special.

  • HM Blog Oct2017

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