Can Learning Increase Intelligence?

Life Skills November 30, 2016

All eyes are on her. 

It’s her worst nightmare, and everyone is watching as she is about to be gobbled by shame. She hopes no one can notice her shaky legs, her flushed face. The long moments of silence are only disrupted by hurtful whispers and badly concealed giggles. 

The teacher is still waiting. 

“Well? Do you know the answer?”

“She doesn’t know” the whispers say. “She never does”. The giggles intensify. She wants to disappear, even if that means dropping dead on the spot. 

All eyes on her. “What’s the point? “ – she asks herself, rage slowly overcoming fear. The teacher knows that she’s not smart, she will never be. Why keep calling on her? School – and life- should not be so difficult for a nine year old. 

Bright kids and struggling kids. They have always coexisted in schools everywhere. Ones breeze through content and the others breeze through teacher’s patience. And there’s not really much we can do about it, right? Smart and not-so-smart children are born that way, or so we’ve been told. Intelligence is an inherited trait. Some kids receive great genes, others are not so lucky. And, as hard as you might try, you just can’t escape your genetic fate. Well, think twice.

Many have adhered to this long held belief: Intelligence is predetermined. If you were born bright, you will do well in school. The greater your intelligence, the greater your learning.  But it is actually the other way around. The more you learn, the more intelligent you become. Learning creates intelligence. 

Of course there is a genetic component to intelligence. We all have the potential of homo sapiens sapiens, but that is the starting point only. The extent to which we are able to fulfill that potential depends on experience. Can intelligence be increased? We now believe so, yes. 

We should first agree on what intelligence is. That might be too large a task for this article, so let’s just take Nickerson’s definition: Intelligence as “the ability to learn, to reason well, to solve problems, and to deal effectively with the challenges –often unpredictable- that confront one in daily life” (2011, p.108) So we are not particularly talking about increased IQ scores (personally, as a teacher, I couldn’t care less of them) but of functional intelligence. 

For far too long, it had been accepted that intelligence was not malleable. However, research is now overwhelmingly suggesting that learning increases not only academic achievement, but functional intelligence as well. Furthermore, brain imaging shows consistent, measurable changes and growth upon learning something new – in both children and adults. Are these physical changes somehow correlated with improved performance? Apparently, they are. 

In a famous study, researchers were able to find structural changes in the brain of average adults training to become licensed taxi drivers in London (not an easy feat, considering London’s irregular layout and over 25,000 streets to be mastered) In those who eventually qualified after completing the 3-4 year training period and examinations, an increased grey matter in the posterior hippocampus was found – but not on the trainees that failed or the subjects in the control group (Maguire & Woollett, 2011). Similar studies have shown confirming results – for example, brain changes after learning to read and play music (Stewart et al, 2003).

The problem for many of us is the stubborn argument that intelligence -or lack of thereof- is fixated. But, according to Stanford researcher Carol Dweck (2011) when we know that we could become smarter over time and through effort, we usually do. 

Now, what does this mean for our struggling little girl, already giving up on school – and herself- before even turning 10? What does it mean for teachers, trying so hard to reach all learners? What does it mean for parents, and in fact for the whole community? 

There are plentiful reasons for poor academic achievement. Poverty, toxic stress and an unstimulating environment are some of them. Learning disabilities certainly hinder performance, but they don’t imply lack of intelligence – or the impossibility to improve. 

Many education systems are inadvertently prone to point out failure and to glorify one single “correct answer”. In doing so, they not only discourage inquiry and risk taking, they also slowly convince our children of a dangerous fallacy: that your are either born bright or not, that being smart is the same as being perfect, and that mistakes are not part of a healthy learning process, but a disgraceful confirmation of weakness and lack of intelligence – and therefore must be avoided at all cost. 

Every child has the right to know the true extent of her vast potential and to understand that patient, continued effort is never fruitless.  And every educator owes to them the assurance, guidance and inspiration that will motivate kids to strive and grow.

Yes, intelligence can be increased – and the best way to do that is by challenging oneself in a warm, nurturing environment, enhanced by enriched experiences and supported by parents, educators and communities. 

And that is our debt to our children.



  • Carr, P., & Dweck, C., (2011) Intelligence and Motivation. In Sternberg & Kaufman, (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence.  Ney York; Cambridge University Press.
  • Nickerson, R. (2011). Developing Intelligence through Instruction. In Sternberg & Kaufman, (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence.  Ney York; Cambridge University Press. 
  • Maguire, E, & Woollett, K. (2011) Acquiring “the Knowledge” of London’s Layout Drives Structural Brain Changes. Current Biology; Volume 21, Issue 24, 20 December 2011, Pages 2109–2114.
  • Stewart, L, Henson, R, Kampe, K,  Walsh, V, Turner, R, & Frith, U. (2003) Brain changes after learning to read and play music. Neuroimage Volume 20, Issue 1, September 2003, Pages 71–83. Recovered October 28th, 2016 from