Quick or Slow: The case of IQ and Intelligence

Quick or Slow: The case of IQ and Intelligence

By Syed Baqar M. Rizvi

The author is a graduate student of Human Development at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.

“He is a quick student! He has a very strong IQ!”

“This student has no IQ at all, he is too slow!”

These are some of the sentences teachers are often heard as saying. An assumption here is that ‘IQ’ refers to the student’s intelligence. But this is not the only assumption present in such sentences. In fact, there is another, more dangerous assumption embedded in the above proclamations: that IQ, and by extension intelligence, is a fixed entity. However, before we go on to discuss the extent to which these assumptions are true, let’s look at ‘IQ’ and how it works.

A Brief History of IQ

The story of IQ, which stands for intelligence quotient, begins in 1904, when the department of public instruction in Paris assigned a psychologist named Alfred Binet to devise a system through which the students needing extra help in education could be identified. Thus, Binet set out to find what was normative for children of a particular age. He, along with his colleague Theodore Simon, devised some tasks which could predict success in school. The tasks were related to memory, attention, comprehension, discrimination, and reasoning and children of different ages were tested to see if they could easily perform those tasks. Based on the children’s performance, norms were established about what an average 4-year-old child could do, what an average 6-year-old could and so on. If a 4-year-old child could easily do tasks which are normal for 6-year-olds, he was considered to be performing ahead of his time. Thus, the concept of mental age versus chronological age was conceived. The chronological age referred to the actual biological age of a child and the mental age referred to the age corresponding to the abilities of the child as established through the norms.

The term ‘IQ’ was first used by the German psychologist William Stern. According to the formula developed by Stern, the IQ of a child could be determined by the ratio of mental age and chronological age, multiplied by hundred. Hence, a child with the same metal and chronological age would have an IQ of 100 – the average value of IQ. On the other hand, a child with a mental age of 8 and chronological age of 6 will have an above average IQ of (8/6*100) 125.

It’s important to remember that the original purpose of the IQ tests developed by Binet, called the Binet-Simon Scale, was to identify the children who needed help. The purpose was not to label and discriminate against people. The work done by Binet was eventually picked up American psychologist Lewis Terman who developed an English version of the tests. Terman’s test came to be known as Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and was followed by other intelligence tests such as the Wechsler scales. The Stanford-Binet and other intelligence tests were revised periodically; they still exist today in their revised forms and are widely used as tools for measuring intelligence. Calculation of IQ scores follows essentially the same principle as developed by Stern, i.e. comparing an individual’s performance on the test with the performance of the population and assigning him or her an overall IQ score which is not an absolute value of intelligence but a relative indicator.

Are IQ and Intelligence the Same Thing?

There has always been a debate among psychologists regarding the ability of IQ tests to capture intelligence. Psychologists such as Hans Eysenck believed that IQ tests were a good measure of intelligence, whereas as others such as Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner argue that IQ tests measure only some aspects of intelligence – the aspects which predict good performance in school but do not necessarily predict success in life. In any case, the term IQ itself does not refer to intelligence itself but is an attempt to measure human intelligence which might or might not be valid.

What is intelligence?

This apparently simple question is perhaps one of the toughest that psychologists have ever been faced with. To date, there is no single definition of intelligence which all psychologists agree upon. One fairly common definition, given by David Wechsler, defines intelligence ‘as the global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, think rationally, and deal effectively with the environment.’ However, that does not settle the matter; it is also debated whether intelligence is a single entity which governs our mental life in all domains, or is it composed to different kinds of relatively independent types of intelligences. Let us briefly look at three different theories.

  • The two-factor theory of intelligence:

In the earlier half of the 20th century, the British psychologist Charles spearman suggested that intelligence was made up of two types of factors: a general ability, called the g-factor, and several specific abilities, called the s-factors. In broad terms, the g-factor is natural and inborn and its amount differs from individual to individual. The g-factor plays a role in everything that we do, and yet it cannot be improved with practice. On the other hand, different s-factors deal with different, specific areas of performance such as math or language. The s-factors are acquired through learning from the environment (such as home and school) and can be improved with learning and practice. Different s-factors are present in varying levels within the same individual. Overall, the performance on any task is determined by a combination of the two types of factors.

The two-factor theory of intelligence has been influential in the history of psychology and many intelligence tests are still based on it.

  • Triarchic Theory of Intelligence:

The word triarchic means having three aspects or sides. Thus, the triacrchic theory of intelligence, developed by Robert Sternberg, suggests that intelligence comprises three different types of abilities: practical ability, creative ability, and analytic ability. Each of these abilities needs information to act upon, and therefore memory ability underlies all of them. In their book Psychology Applied to Teaching, Snowman, McCown and Biehler have given the following descriptions for three abilities:

  • Practical ability involves applying knowledge to everyday situations, using knowledge and tools, and seeking relevance.
  • Creative ability involves inventing, discovering, imagining, and supposing.
  • Analytical ability involves breaking ideas and products into their component parts, making judgments, evaluating, comparing and contrasting, and critiquing.

According to the triarchic theory, intelligence does not only mean being sharp in solving problems, but also in successfully achieving personal goals. One way to do this is to understand one’s environment and adapt accordingly. In case there is a conflict between his or her goals and values and the environment, the intelligent person tried to adjust the environment to make it compatible with his values and goals. However, if such attempts do not bear fruit, the person tries to seek a different environment which suits him or her better. This clearly suggests that intelligence involves more than just being good in doing math or vocabulary.

An important argument of the triarchic theory of intelligence is that all of the three abilities can be improved through teaching and training, and that children’s learning is enhanced when all the abilities are engaged in teaching them. Thus, instead of just giving them math problems to solve, it is more enriching for students’ learning if they are also asked to apply the given math concepts to real life problems, and to show creativity by creating their own questions and problems.

  • Multiple Intelligences Theory:

Proposed by psychologist Howard Gardner, the multiple intelligences theory postulates that intelligence is not a single entity. Rather, there are 8 different types of intelligences which are relatively independent from each other. An individual has different intelligences to varying levels and can have different combinations of these intelligences as his strength. The eight different types of intelligences are described in the following table, taken from Psychology Applied to Teaching.

Intelligence Core Components End States


Sensitivity to, and capacity to discern, logical or numerical patterns;

ability to handle long chains of reasoning





Linguistic Sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms, and meanings of words; sensitivity

to the different functions of language




Musical Abilities to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch, and timbre;

appreciation of the forms of musical expression




Spatial Capacities to perceive the visual-spatial world accurately and to perform

transformations on one’s initial perceptions




Bodily-kinesthetic Abilities to control one’s body movements and handle objects





Interpersonal Capacities to discern and respond appropriately to the moods,

temperaments, motivations, and desires of other people




Intrapersonal Access to one’s own feelings and the ability to discriminate among

them and draw on them to guide behavior; knowledge of one’s own

strengths, weaknesses, desires, and intelligences

Person with detailed,

accurate self-knowledge

Naturalist Ability to recognize and classify the numerous plants and animals of

one’s environment and their relationships on a logical, justifiable basis;

talent of caring for, taming, and interacting with various living creatures



It is important to note that Gardner does not believe that this is a complete list of human intelligences. In fact, he has outlined certain criteria for identifying a distinct type of intelligence. Thus, it is possible to discover more types of intelligences. In addition, in Gardner’s definition, intelligence is a potential, and not a fixed entity. Thus, there is a possibility of activating or developing these intelligences.

Are IQ and Intelligence Fixed?

Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between the IQ scores of an individual obtained at different point of time in his or her life. This suggests that IQ scores are stable over time. However, it has also been observed that IQ scores begin to be stable only after the age of 10. Prior to age 10, there can be great changes in IQ scores of an individual. Thus, psychologists believe that early life experiences, such as being raised in a nourishing and stimulating environment which fosters the physical and intellectual development of children, can have a positive effect on the development of skills and abilities of children, and can also affect their performance on IQ tests. There is also evidence that for some people, IQ scores can improve with training and instruction. Hence, it can safely be concluded that intelligence is not fixed at birth but continues to develop during the early life of an individual, and presumably in the teenage and beyond as well.

A final word: Does high IQ guarantee success?

The field of intelligence and IQ testing is vast and researchers have focused on various factors that can increase or decrease IQ scores. There are debates within the field about how much of the IQ can be attributed to natural, inborn factors, and how much of it is due to the influence of the influence through upbringing and learning experiences. Research has shown that both nature and the environment play a role, and that the exact contribution of each is difficult to ascertain. Some researchers like Robert Plomin believe that about half of intelligence is hereditary and half because of the environmental factors. In any case, one important question to ask is does intelligence guarantee success in life? And the answer is: no. Research has shown that IQ and intelligence do not always lead to success. On the contrary, success in life, however it is defined, is dependent on a number of other factors including personality factors, character skills such as grit and perseverance, motivation, and social and emotional skills or intelligence. Thus, even though intelligence is a very important aspect of a student’s life, it does tell the complete story. And it would serve us and our students well to remember this the next time we are tempted to label them as quick or slow.