The Elusive Intelligence

By Steph Acaster

Watching channel 4’s recent Child Genius documentary naturally had me thinking about the workings behind intelligence, and the somewhat commonly-asked question about what it is that makes a child a Genius. Then of course, I had to re-phrase that slightly, because I don’t have the confidence to complete the phrase ‘what it is that makes children _____’.

To a certain extent, I’m sure it would just be ‘Geniuses’, but that would require a google-search.

Watching and reading and thinking about the youngsters in the programme though, has raised for me, what is possibly an even more important question, and that is one about the sorts of encouragement and guidance that has clearly been available to some these children throughout their lives so far. Something that documentary like this unsurprisingly also asks about. It is clear that there are many differences between the families. Take for instance, Hugo, described as an engineering enthusiast by his parents, who seem keen to let him do his own thing and let his interests take him in his own direction. Compare this to Longyin’s father, who quite clearly believes that structured activity and a carefully regimented schedule is the best way forward.

If I may make a bit of a generalisation, though, the thing that a lot of the contestants’ family members have in common is that they want them to succeed. Whether this is partly to satisfy their own egos is of course another question, but nevertheless, they do seem to have at least a slight habit of encouraging their kids to develop their interests and skills.

The children are into all sorts of things – from scrabble championships to chess tournaments; aeronautical engineering to violin and cello; Shakespeare to decision theory; one boy even completed his Maths GCSE eight years earlier than most people would!

I think that by now, it is the opinion of many that the nature/nurture dichotomy is well and truly dead. How many psychological traits arise solely from either genetics or from environmental factors? I don’t think that intelligence is any exception, and it is clear that many of the children from the documentary have the advantage of incredibly conducive environment as well as their natural ability and interest in learning and intellectual pursuits.

But then we’re into the questions about measuring intelligence, and even what ‘intelligence’ itself means. Just like many online comments about the programme, questioning whether the children could really be described as ‘Genius’.

The challenges presented to the children in the ‘Child Genius of the Year’ competition included tests of their abilities in maths, logic, general knowledge, spelling, debating…and, of course, speed at which they could answer questions. Some critics have noted that although these children clearly show intelligence describable in terms of the tasks they completed, but question what this really means.

The term ‘intelligence’ on its own can mean a variety of things to different people. A layperson’s definition may include the ‘typical’ attributes such as verbal reasoning, logic and mathematical ability, but also practical problem solving, as well as social and emotional competence, which can be more difficult to measure objectively. The standardised Intelligence Quotient tests used by high-IQ society Mensa (who were associated with the competition and the documentary) look for competence in many areas, including verbal and numerical ability, although they state that the attribute of intelligence generally refers to mental agility, the speed of mental apprehension.

So it appears that intelligence (and ‘Genius’) can present itself in many ways, and the winner of the competition would have to show a high level of competence across the board. That’s not to say that each individual doesn’t have their own strengths and weaknesses. It is clear throughout the episodes that some children are noticeably more confident in different rounds – which I suppose raises a slight question of whether the order of the competition rounds could have had any effect on the order in which the competitors were eliminated. Perhaps a component of intelligence that involves the ability to use your strength effectively to compensate for a slight weakness could even be considered.

Although strong capability across a range of intellectual areas is undoubtedly a solid base for ‘Genius’, it is clear that many people eventually focus in on something of particular interest to themselves – some of the children in the documentary already show strong interests in specific fields, and it could even be argued that this ‘specialising’ is where the most notable achievements are likely to arise from.


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