Putting the body back into school


Blog on Intelligence in the Flesh- new book by Guy Claxton, Emeritus Professor, University of Winchester

When schools were originally being designed, they incorporated the then-widespread view that minds were totally different from and smarter than bodies. Everything to do with human intelligence at its best – logical reasoning, linguistic fluency, aesthetic appreciation, mathematical sophistication – were exclusively to do with the mind, and had nothing to do with the body. Bodies were just ways of getting your mind from place to place, and of taking care of the physiological housekeeping. Thus the curriculum was built around a hierarchy of esteem for different kinds of human accomplishment, with the most abstract and rational at the top and the most bodily at the bottom. The more intelligence you had, the more you would, almost as a law of nature, aspire to the realms of mathematics and grammar, and disdain the lowly pursuits of carpentry and football. If you were ‘bright’ you did Latin and trigonometry; if ‘dull’ you did Physical Education and Design Technology. Those values persist to this day. Look at which subjects get included in (or excluded from) the high-status ‘English baccalaureate’. Look at how much time each gets during the week.

This view of minds and bodies is now comprehensively discredited, so the foundations of traditional schooling are no longer solid rock but have crumbled into sand. The new science of ‘embodied cognition’ – the basis of my book Intelligence in the Flesh – tells us that bodies are not merely vehicles or skivvies of the mind, they are critical to it. For example:

  • How you think depends on how you are sitting. Sit up straight, chest out, and you will solve anagram puzzles more quickly and accurately. Adopt such a ‘power pose’ before going in to an interview and you will perform better.
  • The depth of your normal breathing correlates with your IQ. Breathe faster or more shallowly and the quality of the energy being provided to those little grey cells deteriorates and you can entertain fewer and less complicated thoughts.
  • Develop greater sensitivity to your heartbeat and your decision-making and your creativity improve. Einstein famously said that he got the insights that led to the theory of relativity by attending to physical stirrings and promptings in his body.
  • Many people – philosophers as well as footballers – think their best thoughts when they are being physically active. Theatre directors as well as sports coaches know that many smart people have to move to think. Craftsmen and artists of all kinds know that you think with your hands as well as with your brain.
  • Whether you find arithmetic involving negative numbers easy or hard turns out to depend on physical imagery. If you think of ‘subtracting’ as taking things away from a pile, you can’t imagine having less than no-things, but if you see it as walking backwards on a path towards where you started, it’s easy to imagine walking back through ‘zero’ and heading in the opposite direction. Our concrete, physical experience underpins even our loftiest thoughts.
  • Change your body – change even your awareness of your body – and your precious intelligence – memory, problem-solving, creativity – changes too. Your whole body – your heart, your stomach, your immune system – talk so constantly and intricately to your brain, that every little somatic shift conditions what the rest of the brain is capable of thinking.

This science has caused a seismic shift in the ground on which education is built. Emotions are not anathema to intelligence, they are integral to it. Take away our feelings and we are not more intelligent but less. Drain the passion out of our intelligence and we are left with a kind of bloodless cleverness that may enable us to bamboozle political opponents with rhetoric tricks but which is quite unable to get to the human heart of the matter. Our top schools (and Ofsted) have prided themselves on turned out future leaders who are erudite and rational, but who, very often, lack common sense, let alone the wise judgement that the world needs. Meanwhile, every year tens of thousands of intelligent young people who are sensitive to the nuances of the physical and social worlds, but unable or unwilling to mug up the Periodic Table or the sub-plots of Othello for an exam, are made, iniquitously, to feel stupid or second rate. But it is the defenders of this antiquated and lop-sided curriculum who should feel ashamed of themselves, not the dancers, carers and mechanics.

Buy Intelligence in the Flesh here

‘A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds’

This article originally appearing in TES, 26th November 2015.
 Genetics and Plomin
The recent TES interview with Robert Plomin raises an old educational chestnut about nature and nurture. The article speculates that genetics research might become an inevitable force in education: maybe one day teachers will have DNA data at their fingertips to tell them who might require extra maths support.

It is highly debatable whether we would want to take such a deterministic view of children’s intelligence, particularly given the multitude of genes in question, each of which bear such minute influence. A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds.

But the idea that intelligence is learnable is not just wishful thinking. Genetics in intelligence research is, in many cases, a flawed science. Like any research it carries a risk of being misinterpreted, or used in unethical ways. But at its core is a narrow understanding of intelligence that is simply not in line with the growing consensus that intelligence is largely learnable. It is unhelpful for teachers and learners to think about genetic constraints, when even these are open to external influence.

Misuse of genetic research

While Plomin doesn’t like the idea that genetic data be used deterministically to “keep everyone in their place”, it isn’t hard to see how this would be unavoidable in an educational values system that glorifies the academic over the practical.

He argues that if test data were misused, we should blame the culture and the policy and not the science. His reference to Brave New World and genetic “castes” resonates because this sort of misuse is not unimaginable.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where children and young people are assigned a figure representing their inherited intelligence? One that is required in college applications, let’s say. Those using the information might well be quick to forget how malleable even the inherited aspect of intelligence actually is.

Any requirement to make available our own unique genome might be seen as an invasion of privacy. One can imagine being refused life assurance because we may have a predisposition toward a certain life-limiting condition. Yet equally unsavoury is the idea of shoehorning children into a particular pathway because it allows them to “develop the way their genetic propensities are pushing them”.

What would be the result of a scenario where genetic propensity is given higher status than a child’s (perhaps unidentified as yet) interest or passion in life? This might push some down an academic route, and others down a vocational route, further reinforcing a false dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and hand, and their association with “smart” and less intelligent.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley concluded that the world was becoming like his dystopian vision much faster than he originally thought. We cannot so easily separate the science from the way it is used. A debate about the appropriateness of the study of intelligence carries on to this day.

Leaving values aside for the moment, I suspect such tests are an impossible dream (or nightmare) because the science itself is contestable.

Critiques of genetic research

One critique of heritability of intelligence research is the reliability and validity of the research, which typically relies on studies of identical twins reared apart. Looking at a number of such studies, Jay Joseph concluded that the evidence does not support the claims. Undermining studies, researchers falsely classified twins as “reared apart”, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. For example, some “separated” twins were actually placed with members of the extended family. Others were placed into families correlated for socio-economic status, perhaps after being raised together for a number of years.

The Council for Responsible Genetics states that, based on the “massively flawed and environmentally confounded” studies, their exaggerated claims, and lack of replicability, “the evidence suggests that genes for the major psychiatric disorders, as well as for IQ and personality, do not exist”. While intelligence, and proxies for intelligence (such as IQ test performance or educational attainment) are heritable in some part, there is no identifiable gene or set of genes that make labelling of individuals possible.

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) has also put to bed the idea that we are anywhere near finding genes for educational attainment. A ‘sobering’ editorial reports that “it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge“.

SSGAC’s initial “genome wide association study” looked at 126,599 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment. It makes extremely modest claims for their effects, which, as Ewen Callaway reports in the journal Nature, “are maddeningly small”.

Genes are strongly mediated by environmental factors and even IQ is not fixed

Intelligence is controlled in only some part by many multiples of genes. It can only be quantified by proxy. IQ tests, for example, can be used to track some aspects of intelligence relatively reliably. IQ, however, is absolutely not fixed and so it is meaningless to judge a person for the fixedness of their intelligence.

Environmental factors have so great an impact that genetics cannot quantify even the so-called genetic portion of a person’s intelligence. Genes only affect propensity, not opportunity. Genetic factors may impact on intelligence indirectly through, say, their influence on preferences. For instance, a person might like reading but have access only to dull or limited reading material. Not only this, but the environment can modify or even cancel out the influence of genetic predispositions. What if policy dictates that the person’s access to reading material (or spectacles!) be restricted?

This is to say nothing of the aspects of intelligence under the influence of the learner. We should note that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ concept, believed strongly in the plasticity of intelligence:

“Some recent philosophers have given their moral approval to the deplorable verdict that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity…We must protest and act against this brutal pessimism…it has no foundation whatsoever.”

Dr Ellen Spencer and Professor Bill Lucas work at the Expansive Education Network at the University of Winchester