Intelligence and how to get it: Why schools and cultures count

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Nisbett, R. E. (2009). Intelligence and how to get it: Why schools and cultures count. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Nisbett is currently the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan as well as the Co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program. From 1966-1971 he was an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University. In 1966 he earned his Ph.D from the Department of Social Psychology at Columbia University. He has numerous professional honors and has published several books and articles on the topics of inference, thought, learning, and reasoning.

In Intelligence and how we get it, Nisbett examines the idea of intelligence and debunks the idea that it is wholly a matter of genetics and inheritance. While the book is designed for the lay person, Nisbett includes appendices with the statistics and various studies that he mentions which would be of interest to professionals in the field.

Nisbett examines the racial differences in IQ between blacks and whites in the United States, the IQ differences between Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jews, and the academic achievements of Asians and Asian Americans compared with Americans of European roots. In all cases he makes the point that the differences in IQ test scores and achievements is NOT due to inherited genes. He makes a very strong case for the cultural differences of people in lower socio-economic statuses (lower SES), and the differences that cultural values can make in young students.

If you try harder you will gain knowledge and do better on tests and achieve more. However, it helps to have parents who prepare you has an infant to do well in school (talk to you, play games with you, read to you and show you how to relate what is read with what you see in the world around you). Then it helps to go to a good or at least average school. Smaller class sizes do help (especially with disadvantaged youth) and a good first grade teacher can make all the difference in the world.

Nisbett examines different preschool programs and innovative school reforms and describes what has worked and what hasn’t and some of the reasons. He does state that there is a lot of research that still needs to be done. However, he does give ideas for what parents can do to help increase their child’s intelligence and academic performance. Also included are examples of what a good tutor should and should not do. It is better to praise a student for hard work rather than praising them for their intelligence or academic ability. If they are praised for hard work, they will continue to work hard and will actually learn more and do better. If they are praised for their intellectual ability they will tend to choose easier tests or subjects and worry about keeping up the image of being smart – they don’t want to risk not looking smart so they won’t take on challenges.

Another interesting idea is to NOT offer a reward for doing something you want the child to continue to do (unless of course they completely refuse to do it at all). In studies done children were given markers to color with. Then part of the group were offered a reward for coloring with markers and the other part were just given the opportunity to color with markers again. Surprisingly the group who were offered a reward if they colored with markers actually colored less and did a worse job (less creative in their drawings than previously etc.). The group without the reward did much more coloring. So the lesson is, if the child is interested in doing something that you want to encourage them to continue doing, DON’T give a reward for it, give them lots of praise for doing it instead.

All in all this is a very interesting book that gives us hope that our educational system can be revamped and saved. However, it will take lots of work and those in power to change things in the bureaucratic nightmare of the U.S. educational system should read this book and try some of the ideas. Our brains are malleable and those children in the worst socio-economic states have the most to gain with even simple things such as being read to and talked to more. Those cultures which value intellectual achievement tend to overachieve because they try harder as children and have adults that encourage them to work hard and provide them with the tools to succeed.

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