The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

IQ testing: to test or not to test?

IQ has proven to be a controversial subject since the invention of its measurement in 1905 by Alfred Binet. Binet produced an intelligence scale and proceeded to measure the intelligence of people against it, but it wasn't until 1912 that William Stern coined the term Intelligence Quotient and proposed stating intelligence in this way.

Yesterday, I was asked my opinion of intelligence testing by a reader, and I answered him or her - for it was an anonymous comment - in the comments after my previous post about homeschooling. However, since remarks often get lost in comments, I am readdressing the matter here.

IQ tests can reveal useful information about a person's ability - but at the same time there is much that they do not speak of. People have elevated intelligence tests a little too much over the past century and have lost sight of their essential limits. I will look at what they do well - and what they don't do at all.

IQ tests propose to measure g, a general intelligence factor, by setting a number of tasks, mostly verbal, logical and mathematical, though some tests include spatial tasks, as well. Through one's performance on these tests, which are characteristically successively harder throughout the test, a magical number is produced at the end: an IQ. This number has been taken in our culture to be of great significance, a means by which to rank humans from the smartest to the dumbest.

What real world validity does this idea have? Well, IQ correlates quite well with academic performance and with real life job performance. It also, rather strangely, correlates with general health, longevity and socioeconomic status. So, it is measuring something, however indirectly, that has a real world effect.

What does a high IQ say about a child? It says that the child's convergent reasoning ability - the ability to converge on a single answer in problems that have but one answer - is greater than his age peers. The higher the IQ, the rarer is that ability. An IQ of 130 indicates a child - or adult - that is moderately gifted - and is present in about 1 in 44 of the population. An IQ of 145 indicates highly gifted and is present at about 1 in 1,000. An IQ of 160 indicates exceptionally gifted and is present at about 1 in 10,000. Finally an IQ of 180 indicates profoundly gifted and is present at the rate of 1 in 1,000,000. Higher IQs are rarer still.

High IQ is very useful for people who work in professions where this kind of thinking is at work - law, accountancy, and medicine, where, oddly, the mean IQ for members of these professions is 128 each. The mean IQ of researchers is only 131 - 134 depending on the study looked at. So, clearly, any child who is gifted has all professions open to them.

Yet, there is something important that IQ does not speak of: creativity. Genius is not fully captured by IQ tests. Most geniuses have high IQs, but most people of high IQ are not geniuses - in fact, almost none of them are. Why is this? It is because creativity requires a very different kind of thinking than what is measured by IQ tests. The ability to come up with a new idea is NOT the same as the ability to solve a problem in an IQ test. There is not really any relationship there.

Thus what does it mean if your child has a very high IQ? It means they are very likely to do well in school, and quite likely to do well in life. They will have access to the widest range of jobs and they will be able to do well at those jobs. But it does not mean that they are going to be the next Einstein, Goethe or Shakespeare. The gift required in those areas is a different one. They MAY indeed by the next Einstein, Goethe or Shakespeare - or indeed Leonardo da Vinci - but the evidence of an IQ test is not enough to show that this is so. To be as great as those thinkers of the past, one would have to possess a special creative gift in an appropriate area. If that gift is present, it should be obvious to an observant parent - and, if nurtured, it could blossom into something wonderful. Such special gifts don't necessarily require a very high iq to support them. So, if your child does not have a high iq, but perhaps has a more moderate one, don't despair - for that does not mean that your child might not be a great musician, or artist, or might possess any number of gifts.

There are, in short, children who are gifted on IQ tests, who are good at convergent reasoning. Then there are children who are good at creative tasks, and who could shine in a creative pursuit. They may not be "gifted" according to an IQ test - but they are very much gifted people. Then there is a third group of people who are both gifted in terms of IQ and gifted in terms of creativity. These people have what it takes to be a true genius.

(For a guide to the blog site, and an introduction to Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, a scientific child prodigy, and his gifted brothers, go to: )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:30 PM 


Anonymous Anna Stanton said...

Hello again, I posted earlier asking about IQ sorry i didn't reveal myself, was in a hurry! My name is Anna Stanton and my sons name is Jack. Thank you so much for giving a comprehensive guide to IQ, saved me a great deal of time trawling the internet! I'm much in the same position as you regarding the financial side of testing and also feel its currently not worth it. There's no gifted program of any kind available to a 5 year old in London. Though I know at some point I will be needing a score to get him some kind of provision.
Thanks again.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Anna,

Thanks for your comments and interaction: it is good to get feedback in this way.

As a gifted boy, Jack will probably run into many of the same problems I had as a child, and my sons face now. I hope that you may be able to ameliorate some of them, by being forewarned in the pages of my blog.

Are you thinking of "Public School"? For those who don't know, that is what private schools are called in England. I was a gifted boy in one and it wasn't fun at all. There was too much jealousy in the school culture. However, more of that another time.

Best of luck with Jack - and remember anything is possible with a gifted child. The future could be great indeed.

7:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, those figures dont tell the whole story. Exceptionally and profoundly gifted people may be far more common than previously thought. Here are some notes that I think will help give you a more thorough understanding of the rarity of the different IQ scores:

1 IQ tests were originally designed to identify retardation, not to make distinctions between those of high IQ. Some tests are designed more to differentiate between those of normal intelligence, like the WISC-R.

2 All IQ tests have ceilings. They cannot test infinitely high IQ's so they simply do not test beyond a certain IQ. This means that many people will be given an IQ score of, say, 160 (a common ceiling on psychologist administered tests) when their real IQ may be more like 180 or 220. The people I know with IQ's of 160 dont even realize that they had hit the test ceiling. We may never know how high they might score.

3 Even IQ tests that do have higher score ceilings than 160 may not be "stable" around that range. Ive read (forgot where) that for a person who's IQ is over 160, if they take multiple different tests, they will come out with radically different scores. I have read in other places that the scores just arent very accurate for that range.

4 The only way I know of that anyone ever gets a super high score like 220 is to be tested with a high ceiling test like the stanford binet as a child. I believe that this is because, even though there is no test with a ceiling that high, they can adjust the IQ beyond the ceiling based on the age of the child. I have read that its best to get them tested by or before the age of 7.

Here is one effect of some of these factors, all of these factors, and/or other factors I dont know about:

"There are far more exceptionally gifted children in the population than anyone realizes. As of January, 2003, we (just that one center after testing 5000 children) had found 762 children with IQ scores above 160, 181 above 180 IQ, and 42 above 200. If the normal curve of distribution were accurate, there should only be 59 children above 180 IQ in the United States, since this group represents the proverbial “one in a million.”

So, it may be that exceptionally and profoundly gifted people are far more common than previously thought.

By the way, there ARE high IQ societies specifically for those who have those super rare profoundly gifted IQ scores.

- Kathy

4:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Kathy

I will write about ceiling effects soon. They take place long before the actual nominal ceiling of the test is bumped many people might be affected by them, but have no way of knowing to what degree.

I am aware that the upper ranges are more prevalent than expected - but modern tests are designed to eliminate those scores. I will post more about that, too, soon.

Yes, it is good to test young if very bright, because of the ceiling effect: there is more room to get a good estimate of the child, then. (If the test allows recalculation of IQ taking the age into account: some are set up to allow such a "mental age" calculation - many aren't.)


7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I will write about ceiling effects soon. They take place long before the actual nominal ceiling of the test is bumped against..."

Oh now that is very interesting. I do want to read what you have to say. :)

- Kathy

11:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for reminding me: I will endeavour to get around to it, soon.

Best wishes

11:30 PM  
Blogger Carina said...

This was a wonderful article on IQ, so much more informative than the wealth of information available on the internet.

I've been thinking that it can be dangerous to place too much emphasis on IQ alone, one needs to observe the human being as a whole and see whether he or she display any special abilities for example.

The problem, as you have stated, is also that IQ tests are not something that can be relied on to the expense of everything else, they're merely an indicator of the potential that a person possesses.

IQ testing can also be helpful to determine whether a child needs special education and coaching to enable him or her to progress according to their abilities.

I was not tested as a child but in hindsight, I realise that some of the "characteristics" of giftedness may have applied to me. I was talking and walking by the age of 6 months, was able to read very early on - at about age 3/4 -(sadly the information is quite vague) and remembering back to my childhood, most of my time was spent reading. I had and have a wide variety of interests, only feeling truly happy when I could pursue them all or at least a majority of them like painting, making music, reading. I also loved and love taking part in several activites at the same time where most people would feel stressed. Only then was I feeling content and at ease with myself. Of course everyone around me said that I was taking on too much, but that's just because they didn't understand.

Having said that, thinking back to my childhood (as far as friends and children my age are concerned) and my time at school does not produce feelings of happiness in me. I was always happiest talking to adults.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Carina, you sound pretty gifted to me: those developmental markers are very early.

The preference for older company that you describe is also typical of the gifted child - for only older ones are a match for the mind inside.

Best wishes

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response Valentine. Please let me just say that you have a wonderful family, and I greatly enjoy reading your blog. Your wife is very beautiful.

Thank you for your thoughts on my behaviour as a child as well. I never thought of myself as a gifted child back then, but recently I've read a lot of literature on the subject, and I do see myself in many of the descriptions. I'm just starting out on that road, trying to rediscover myself so to speak. :)

The problem right now is those feelings of inadequacy. I wonder whether other people have them too?

Take care,

9:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Carina

The childhood you have described is that of a gifted child - probably even a "profoundly gifted" one.

If you have feelings of inadequacy, they may arise in a time of others being consistently critical for long periods, when you were too young to defend yourself...understand that and let go of it.

Enjoy realizing who you are and becoming who you should be.

Best wishes.

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Daniel Cuttridge said...

It's a shame that the measurement of general intelligence is accepted widely as the only way to test ones ability.
I score moderately well, at around 130+ this is on a variety of online test. Usually this leaves me upset because I believe my ability is higher than what my g tells me.
I was thinking of writing an article on specific intelligence versus general intelligence, which in a lot of ways relates to this article.
I also had many troubles in school as some of the other posters in comments have stressed their worry about for their children, I am only seventeen and since leaving school at age 16 have rekindled my passion for learning, do you think it is to late for me to achieve my full potential?

6:08 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Daniel,

Firstly, thanks for your comment.

It is never too late to achieve some measure of your potential. There are authors who didn't begin writing until they retired, painters who didn't begin until their seventies and, as long as you are alive, there is scope to achieve something worthwhile.

Thus, find an interest...and get going on it. Don't worry in the least about what others are doing at a particular age or stage - just worry about enjoying what you are doing.

As for intelligence tests missing the point - with anyone with a special talent, they certainly do. They only capture the gist of the general, not the essence of the particular.

Good luck!

8:11 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

Greetings, Mr. Cawley. I am a 13 year old twice exceptional boy. IQ is a very difficult subject to talk about, as it is so vague and strange. I can definitely say with confidence, that you will never score the same on an IQ test twice, even the same test. Test scores vary from day to day, and although you may score at 125(high average) one day, you may score 134(gifted) another day. The first and only professionally administered IQ test I took, I oddly enough scored average, although I can learn things very fast and can learn a year's worth of education in a few days. It has been bothering me ever since. I agree that IQ does not even skim the subject of creativity, which can-at times-be more valuable than knowing how to calculate the acceleration of an object. You definitely need to remember that IQ is but a number, and does not determine whether you will end up the one who will figure out what gravity is, or if you will be another delivery man. Your future is what you make of it, not simply a number calculated by comparing you to your like-aged peer group.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi. Your twice exceptionality might have interfered with your test result of course, depending on what exceptionality you have.

IQ measures only a narrow range of thinking skills - there are other skills not measured, such as creativity, or even ability to learn(memory).

Certainly, the higher of two IQ scorers may not turn out to have the higher accomplishments - there are many other factors involved, such as personality, determination, will to achieve etc.

I wouldn't be bothered about your IQ score that day. Look instead at what you can actually do.

1:02 PM  

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