The Flynn Effect, and Other Reasons Why “Kids these Days” Are Smarter than Ever

Immediately following last Wednesday’s class, I heard something that changed the way that I look at not only this course, but also the way that I perceive learning. To start, I got into the habit of listening to podcasts because I had a job a couple of years ago that required me to travel over an hour for work. To kill the time–and prevent myself from dying in a fiery, though peacefully somnolent, accident–I figured that podcasts would be a good way to keep me focused and entertained on my way to and from work. I’ve since kept up this habit, and am now a shameless addict. I can hardly spend time alone, or do chores, or run errands without my earbuds in. Wednesday evening, on my way home, I listened to a podcast produced by, a comedy website that focuses on poking fun at and over-analyzinf popular culture (movies, television, music, history, etc.).

In it the podcasters were talking about how the generation gap is a myth, how we have this perception that each successive generation is essentially getting dumber, and things will never be as good as they were in the “good ‘ol days.” One of the most intriguing explanations for debunking this myth was the Flynn Effect, which according to every lazy researcher’s friend, Wikipedia, is “the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day.” Essentially, James Flynn, a political scientist, studied the scores for IQ tests across generations, dating back to the 1930s. What he found was that not only are we progressively getting smarter with each generation–students 10 years younger than the previous generation are on average 3-5 IQ points smarter. If tested to today’s standards, students in the 1930s would be classified as mentally retarded. But before all you Beliebers start handing out dunce caps to your grandparents for not understanding your music or Youtube or for thinking that a “tweet” is just the sound a bird makes, know that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Flynn figured out that as each generation’s intelligence grows, so does the environment around those individuals. Intelligence and environment are relative to each other, and as the environment of an individual grows more and more complex, that individual must learn how to adapt to his or her environment in order to thrive. Think about it: since 1930, not only has literacy risen exponentially, but thanks to the web, we have a seemingly infinite amount of information at our fingertips. We multi-task, and speak in our own jargon. Our outreach grows more and more expansive everyday. We’ve had to grow more intelligent because our environment is consistently growing more and more complex, and vice versa. We are all bricoleurs, as Claude Levi-Strauss says, craftsmen using the tools available to us to thrive in an ever more complex world. Flynn calls this “equipment.” To throw someone from the 1930s into today’s world would, aside from making a trite movie premise, be like asking a blind man to describe color. By conventional standards, he would be ill-equipped to accomplish such a task.

Speaking of color… To better illustrate the complexity of our world compared to that of the past, let’s look at the work of Homer. In 1858, scholar and future Prime Minister of Great Britain William Gladstone, noticed that Homer had a few turns of phrase which seemed a bit peculiar to modern audiences. One famous example is when describing the ocean, Homer referred to it as the “wine-dark sea.” I’ve only been to the beach a handful of times, and not once did the water look like red wine–and you can rest assured that if it did, I would have stayed comfy and cozy in my air-conditioned hotel, thank you very much. This isn’t the only instance of this kind of strange color description. Gladstone continued: “Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green.”

Gladstone’s explanation was that colors, as we know them, didn’t exist back in the time of ancient Greece. Blue in particular, as we conceptualize it today, didn’t exist. In fact, further academics found that the same is true for all cultures. Of all the colors to be studied, blue is consistently last on the list. The reason for this is that, aside from the sky and the sea, maybe a bird here and there (and blue eyes), ancient civilizations didn’t often encounter blue in nature. There was no reason to differentiate blue things from other non-blue things because there were so few of them. If you wanted to describe something as blue, you could compare it to the sky in spring or the sea on a clear day. The world was not complex enough to need differentiation between blue and non-blue.

Now all of this brings us back to our discussion for class. Taking what Ken Robinson said about learning, about fostering a love of learning, “a curiosity,” we should keep in mind that using the tactics that worked to teach students for past generations, are not always the appropriate tools to teach students today. We have evolved beyond the “traditional” modes of teaching, beyond chalkboards and handwriting. We now live in a multi-modal, ever-changing, ever-consuming, complex society, that is constantly evolving and expanding. Students today use the tools available to them to learn, and those tools are very different than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago and have more untapped potential than ever before. If we are to usher education and pedagogy in the 21 Century and beyond, we need to do so by staying ahead of the game, by learning new trends, new technology, to constantly continue to grow, change, and evolve, alongside our students. Progress only moves in one direction and we have to keep the engine running, otherwise we are all lost in our own “wine-dark sea.”

To check out more on the Flynn Effect here is James Flynn presenting a TED Talk.

To read a rather fascinating article about the color blue in culture, check this out.

And to check out the podcast that sparked this whole post, click on this link. Disclaimer: there is some adult language, as it is a comedy podcast. However, if it is your thing, I recommend checking out more of their episodes.

7 thoughts on “The Flynn Effect, and Other Reasons Why “Kids these Days” Are Smarter than Ever”

  1. Thank you for your very interesting post. I was fascinated by the research on color and writing styles from the past. One thing that stood out to me that you said “progress moves in one direction”…it made me stop for two seconds and I was reminded of a conversation (cannot remember for the life of me whether it was in our class or outside of it) about reinventing the wheel – that different people at the same time come up with similar ideas and instead of applying each others to our own fields we try and reinvent. I wonder how much time would be saved if people were to just communicate in an effective manner! How much reinvention and how moving in one direction must we do before someone realizes we are all going down the same path…let’s just help each other out and get there sooner.

    1. That’s something that Flynn really seems to understand, as well as Robinson. It’s not just learning how to do a thing. It’s learning the applications of that thing to other fields, disciplines and mediums. How can we apply our tools to this situation?

    2. I think you bring up why is so important to have more interdisciplinary collaboration, hence we can see more interdisciplinary programs at different universities around the world.

      1. That’s certainly a part of it. Not everybody learns linearly, or even in a compartmentalized way. Lord knows, I don’t. I have to relate everything that I am learning back to something that I already understand in order to provide some grounding for myself. Otherwise, I’m lost.

  2. Everything you mentioned in your post is interesting! Thanks for sharing. Just wondering about this Flynn effect. At what speed does people’s intelligence increase? What profile does this increase follow? Linear? Exponential? Asymptotic? Will this affect the education system so much that eventually we won’t need education in the future? People can all learn by themselves?

    1. I don’t know a ton of the specifics regarding the Flynn effect, so this may be a place for further research. However, the impression that I got form much of the research I’ve found is that instruction isn’t going away. Students may be able to learn by themselves, but are limited to their surroundings. Instruction allows for them to be exposed to new perspectives and to experience things they would otherwise not encounter. In terms of how quickly the intelligence increases, I believe the current theory is just that it is directly correlative to environmental conditions. The facts and figures on this, however, I am unfamiliar with. Regardless, I found it to be particularly fascinating. I’m glad you did, too!

  3. This is a very cool idea that IQ is higher generation by generation. But the question is, how IQ level is important to have a good society. I doubt that we live in a better way than or grand parents because we are smarter. Maybe they lived more peacefully and they had more pleasure from their lives. My point is how having access to more education, technology and having more IQ guarantee our happiness and pleasure?

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