Success at School: IQ vs Personality

By: Dr Justin Coulson

A guy I know – let’s call him Justin – was a failure at school by nearly all measures. I (oops, “he”) had few friends. And academically… well, let’s just say that Justin’s report cards were never worth framing and putting on a wall. He was given full marks, however, for being an “underachiever”.

The interesting thing about this academic failure is that my (I mean “his”) IQ is above average – at least according to the tests I have taken.

Most of us probably know at least one person like that: possessing talent or innate ability, but no willingness or capacity to use it.

IQ doesn’t mean much

The truth is that IQ (or our “intelligence quotient”) is FAR from the most important thing when it comes to children’s learning, school success, or even success in life. Researchers know that only about one quarter of our academic achievement (our grades) can be put down to IQ. The higher our children’s IQ, the more likely it is that they’ll learn school concepts quickly, but that doesn’t mean that they will actually learn, only that they can if they choose.

Previous research shows that emotional intelligence is more predictive of success than intelligence, including in a school classroom. Other factors including parental investment in education, mindset, and Australian research even indicates that a child’s personality may also be more important than IQ.

Personality matters more for learning?

Personality researchers usually slice our personality into five individual segments: openness to new experiences, extraversion, neuroticism (anxiety and moodiness), conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Research into the way these personality factors mesh with academic achievement gives us interesting insight into what makes high-performing students tick.

Take a moment and think about which personality factors might be most related to learning:

Extraversion? Nope. That’s about being gregarious, loud, confident, and probably talking too much (which makes listening to others a bit tough).

Neuroticism? Definitely not. Anxiety doesn’t usually make for good student outcomes.

Agreeableness? Hmmm. If kids are happy to go along, they’re probably not going to have too many issues (so long as they’re going along with the right crowd), but if we’re too agreeable, we may not think critically and our learning may be too shallow.

Conscientiousness and Openness to New Experiences matter most

The researchers discovered that it’s the curious kids who are willing to stick to a task that do the best at school. And those two personality factors make more difference in school outcomes than IQ!

The research shows that students with the most helpful personalities (conscientiousness and openness) score a full grade higher than the ‘average’ student. Previous studies have shown that students who think they are smart often stop trying and their performance declines over time, while those who consider themselves hard workers get progressively better.

How do we teach this to our children?

To teach our children to be curious, we can try the following strategies:

  • Don’t give them answers, but instead ask them questions
  • When an appliance breaks down, pull it apart together to see what’s inside (same goes when you find a dead insect!)
  • Encourage active play (rather than screens)
  • Teach them to think about assumptions. Are we really smarter today than people 2000 years ago?
  • When you show them how to do something right, invite them to try it in other ways to see the results – like throwing a ball, swimming backstroke, or whipping eggs (watch for the mess)
  • Rather than judging others, get curious about motivation. Ask them “Why do you think they did that?”
  • Be a safe place. Kids who are anxious don’t learn very well, and they’re unlikely to be explorative.
  • Do fun, unusual things with some regularity. Perhaps it’s a trip to the beach, indoor rock-climbing, cooking without a recipe, or camping in a new place.

When we promote a safe environment where mistakes are ok, our children feel comfortable being curious. They become open to new experiences. If they find something to stay curious about (conscientiousness), they’ll have great school success… much more than if they’re simply “smart” kids.

By the way, when I was more mature, I returned to school with a remarkable openness to learn, and a huge curiosity for psychology, and I got a PhD. So there’s hope for everyone after all!

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

Feature image: Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

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