The evidence for ‘Plastic Intelligence’ and why it matters

This is at the core of any discussion about the purpose and nature of schooling.

There are many clichés in ‘edu-speak’. A very common one is that schools should enable students to reach their potential. Who could argue with that? Well, me for one, because it implies the notion of fixed intelligence whether conferred through genetic inheritance at birth and/or determined by the quality of early years parenting. It is a ‘let off’ for secondary schools, enabling them to opt out of any responsibility for raising the intelligence of their pupils as they progress through the school, on the basis that this is either ‘not possible’, or not the main business of schools, which is a combination of filling heads with knowledge and providing discipline and training so as to maximise their employability both for their own benefit and that of employers.

This leads to a tacit assumption about the process of teaching and learning in schools, that conforms with that promoted by the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that is increasingly finding its expression in England in the Academies and Free School movement.

‘Plastic Intelligence’ opens a door into a quite different educational paradigm that can and should empower and inspire both students and their teachers. It is increasingly being described as a growth mindset. It is promoted in my book, ‘Learning Matters‘ and its latest manifestation, in the form of a synthesis from a number of different contexts, is described and explained here.

‘Plastic Intelligence’ really is a very big deal in the world of education because it provides the ultimate refutation of GERM. So the evidence for it is very important.

Much of this is down to the work of Professors Philip Adey and Michael Shayer. In order to understand the evidence it is necessary to study the theoretical background and practical implications of their Cognitive Acceleration movement. A start can be made on this website here. More detail and background can be found in, ‘Learning Matters‘.

Adey and Shayer set out their powerful evidence for plastic intelligence in their book, ‘Learning Intelligence‘. It arises from GCSE and Key Stage 3 testing data for over 2000 pupils from 11 schools that had implemented their Cognitive Acceleration programmes during the 1990s. These data confirmed the conclusions of earlier research between 1984 – 87 that significant immediate and long term improvements in cognition resulted in students taught in accordance with the principles of Cognitive Acceleration, by teachers trained for the purpose.

Gains compared to control groups were demonstrated in GCSE and KS3 SATs results in English as well as science and maths, demonstrating general development of cognitive ability that transcends subject boundaries.  Gains were huge (0.3 – 1.1 Standard Deviations). This work has been published, peer reviewed and never successfully refuted.

There is now more from the growing field of neuroscience. Here a note of caution is necessary in terms of some of the claims arising from the many experiments, many of dubious value, that involve brain scans designed to detect the ‘firing of neurons’ in different parts of the brain as various cognitive processes take place.

The work of David Eagleman, however, is heavyweight stuff in terms of its scope and professional acclaim. His new book contains the arguments and the evidence for neural plasticity , which were also presented on a BBC 4 series entitled ‘The Brain with David Eagleman’ in January and February 2016. The following is from the blurb for the book and the TV Series.

The brain itself takes a journey throughout one’s life, enduring a constant shape shifting that occurs as we grow and as life experiences build up. We are “born unfinished,” Eagleman says. Infants have many unconnected neurons that go on to form two million connections every second as the newborn brain grows, doubling its initial size in just the first few months. Infants also have many wrongly connected neurons in dire need of pruning. “You become who you are not because of what grows in your brain, but because of what is removed,” Eagleman writes.

Although the radical shape shifting eventually slows down, the brain remains plastic, changes with every new experience, shapes who we become, and sometimes even reflects who we are.

Eagleman is too timid. Plastic intelligence does not just ‘reflect who we are’, but can facilitate ‘who we wish to be’.

Eagleman produces fascinating evidence for the plasticity of cognition enduring not just through our youth, but into old age. Some of this evidence is from a longitudinal study of Nuns, in terms of how physical deterioration of the brain associated with dementia and confirmed through most-mortem brain analyses does not necessary match cognitive function measured prior to death. It appears to show that continuing mental challenge can result in the maintenance of high function plastic intelligence even as neurons are lost to age-related disease.

This suggests that although there are time windows of rapid potential cognitive development in early childhood and adolescence, all is not lost to individuals deprived of optimum cognitive stimulation at those times. I refer to this in Section C5.2 of ‘Learning Matters‘.

If Shayer and Adey are right, and I believe they are, then such developmental potential applies to all children including those born into deprived backgrounds. If a child’s brain is indeed ‘irrevocably shaped’ in the first three years of life then schooling won’t have much impact and spending a lot of taxpayer’s money on it will be in vain.

 This relates to my study of Mossbourne Academy (Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters‘). If neuroscience rejects plasticity then Mossbourne’s excellent exam results and progression to university of children from severely deprived homes (Section 4.14) shouldn’t be happening, because “impaired synapse connectivity” in early years should trump any later pedagogic intervention and limit educational attainment. A comprehensive school like Mossbourne very importantly shows that it doesn’t have to. Eagleman shows that neural plasticity is great enough to compensate for earlier impairments.

A great deal therefore hangs on ‘Plastic Intelligence’. This is something to inspire all those of us that believe proper education to be much more than behaviourist training.

It can also provide the antidote required to reverse the spread of GERM.

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5 Responses to The evidence for ‘Plastic Intelligence’ and why it matters

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