What drives intellectual development in childhood and youth? Researchers have long turned their focus to genes, physical maturation, and cognitive stimulation provided by parents. But does schooling also foster intelligence? And if so, how large is its share in overall intellectual development? Two German psychologists have reviewed the evidence.
By Sebastian Bergold and Ricarda Steinmayr
What do you think is the main driving force behind intellectual development in childhood and youth? A: physical maturation, B: nutrition, C: cognitive stimulation in the home environment, or D: schooling? If you were to select A, B, or C you would be on the wrong track. According to educational psychologists from the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany, it is schooling!
As reported in their review of several empirical studies, recently published in Neuroforum, every year of schooling causes intellectual growth in the range of several IQ points. This effect is by no means limited to cognitive abilities closely related to the school context, such as general knowledge or verbal abilities. Schooling also impacts the ability to reason and to solve complex problems without the use of prior knowledge. The same is true for the quality of education: the higher the quality of schooling, the more pronounced the intellectual growth.
Simply repeating a school year does not increase intelligence
“Schooling can be understood as an extremely intensive and protracted cognitive training”, explains Sebastian Bergold from the Technical University of Dortmund. “Over many years, students are confronted at school with cognitively challenging tasks in many different disciplines. Possibly, thinking is separated step by step from the concrete problem context and transferred to more abstract levels”.
Supporting this notion, several neuroscience studies have found that schooling indeed leaves footprints in children’s brains. “Instruction might teach children ‘how to think’. However it is crucial that the cognitive challenges in school are new”, adds Bergold’s colleague Ricarda Steinmayr, “Simply repeating a school year does not increase your intelligence”.
Astonishingly, the effect of schooling on intelligence is so large that it even makes up the largest part of overall intellectual growth in later childhood and youth. Studies found this effect to be stronger than all other factors combined, among them physical maturation and cognitive stimulation outside school. Thus, as both authors conclude, it would be beneficial for a society’s wealth and prosperity to invest as much as possible in high-quality education for its children.
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