Friday, January 31, 2014

Due Diligence

It's well known that IQ correlates strongly with academic and other success. Unfortunately IQ doesn't seem to be especially malleable. Some intriguing results suggest that certain other traits, possibly with just as strong a correlation, might be more amenable to development. Such, at any rate, is the claim made in this article.

Something else mattered just as much, and sometimes more, to kids’ life chances. This other dark matter had more to do with attitude than the ability to solve a calculus problem. In one study of U.S. eighth graders, for example, the best predictor of academic performance was not the children’s IQ scores—but their self-discipline.

OK, the author has already managed to annoy the heck out of me by implying that solving calculus problems (a)was not a strong indicator of self-discipline and (b)highly correlated with academic success. But let me just guess that these errors were due either to her lacking (a) the IQ to appreciate her error or (b)the self-discipline to search for a better analogy.

So how did the researchers measure self-discipline?

After the test portion of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other international exams, students typically filled out surveys about their families and other life circumstances. There were no right answers for the questions on the surveys. In fact, the professors, Erling Boe, Robert Boruch, and a young graduate student, Henry May, weren’t even interested in the answers. They wanted to track students’ diligence in filling out the forms. So, they studied the survey attached to a 1995 test taken by kids of different ages in more than forty countries (called the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”).

The researchers encountered several surprises very quickly. First, students around the world were surprisingly compliant. The vast majority dutifully filled out most answers, even though the survey had no impact on their lives.The lowest response rate for any country was 90 percent.There was some variation from within a given country,but the variation didn’t seem to reveal much about the students.

Between countries, though, the differences in diligence mattered — a lot. In fact, this difference turned out to be the single best predictor of how countries performed on the actual substantive portion of the test.

It seems that relatively small country vs. country differences in compliance were associated with large differences in performance - but individual differences in compliance were not associated with similar differences in performance.

No one knows the answer for sure, but it’s possible that the diligence kids showed in answering the survey reflected their diligence in general. In other words, maybe some kids had learned to finish what they started in school: to persist even when something held no particular gratification. The opposite was also true. Some kids had not learned to persist, and persistence was not valued as much in their school or in their societies at large.

Yeah, maybe, but the operative phrase is the first one in the paragraph.