Low IQ levels a wake-up call for Thailand

Originally published in the Bangkok Post, 6th June 2015


On May 27, the Ministry of Public Health announced the IQ survey results, indicating that the IQ of Grade 1 students has dropped from 94 in 2011 to 93. The international standard is 100.

It is highly possible that Thailand’s education system is harming students’ IQs. While the IQ of pre-school students is acceptable, IQ drops as primary schooling commences, suggesting a need for greater nurturing at schools.

Furthermore, the IQ of students in rural areas is considerably lower, at just 89. This difference persists at university. While studies have found the IQ of Bangkok university students averages 115, the IQ of provincial university students is 5-8 points lower.

Alarmingly, the low IQ levels in the recent survey confirm continuing high levels of intellectual disability — IQ levels lower than 70 — also termed “mildly impaired or delayed”. The average global percentage of such students is 2%. However, the previous, 2011 survey found 6.5% of Thai students scored in this range. The recent results suggest intellectual disability in some rural areas could now be up to 10%.

The regional disparities in IQ and intellectual disability are further reinforced by results from educational assessments such as the Ordinary National Education Test (O-Net) scores and the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) scores. Despite being of dubious reliability, O-Net does illustrate provincial differences. In the 2010 Thai language O-Net, no Northeast province reached the top half of the national results.

The 2009 Pisa results were similar, with the Lower Northeast scoring the lowest for reading, mathematics and science, while Bangkok scored highest. Thailand’s rural Pisa scores are shocking, but compared to international averages they are atrocious, with Thailand placed 50th among 65 nations in the 2009 Mathematics assessment, far behind the emerging Asean tiger, Vietnam (17th).

The Ministry of Public Health report did note that students’ Emotional Quotient (EQ) results reached international standards. However, this is no cause for complacency as cognitive scientists argue that EQ is not a form of intelligence but a skill set. Further, its methodology has also been criticised as tests measure social conformity rather than development.

Although deeply concerning, these issues can be tackled. IQ is not stagnant, especially in the intellectually disabled and adolescents, and intellectual capacity can vary throughout life. For example, intensive behavioural interventions raise the IQs of autistic children.

In fact, intellectual disability can be confronted by focusing on factors which contribute to intellectual development such as nutrition, environment and education. Regarding nutrition, iodine deficiency is a global health concern that causes developmental delays and intellectual disabilities.

WHO research suggests iodine deficiency accounts for losses of between 10 and 15 IQ points. However, according to Thailand’s 2012 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, only 71% of Thai households consume enough iodised salt, falling to 54% in the poorest households. There is again a huge regional disparity, with 82% of households in Bangkok and only 54% of households in Thailand’s Northeast consuming adequately iodised salt. The regions with the lowest IQs are those same areas with the highest iodine deficiency.

While many rural families consume salt via fish sauce, iodine levels depend on manufacturing processes and industry self-regulation. Although 2011 laws require salt producers and fish sauce manufacturers to ensure their salt contains recommended levels of iodine, without reliable monitoring procedures, iodine deficiency diseases will persist. And, in addition to iodine deficiency, malnutrition and severe parasitism reduce IQ.

IQ scores are also closely linked with quality of home environment. If guardians spend more time engaging with children, expressing physical affection and providing opportunities for them to join creative activities, they will be more likely to develop the cognitive abilities that raise IQ scores.

Unfortunately, the children most affected by intellectual disability are also those least likely to receive this developmental support. In Thailand’s rural Northeast, around 30% of children are separated from migrant parents, leaving behind “skipped-generation” families. Often the grandparents possess only a primary education, and they lack the finances, energy and books to support their grandchildren’s development. Children in such families suffer health issues and face more educational disadvantages than those raised by their parents, with 25% encountering developmental delays.

Schools provide another important environment for students to develop cognitive skills. Educational activities, such as learning to classify systematically, to plan and to understand the foundations of modern science, can help to raise IQs. Moreover, a link between years of efficient schooling and IQ levels was established in a well-known Norwegian case study, where students educated for an extra two years achieved a 7.4 IQ point boost.

Naturally, quality of education is of paramount concern. Students already spend 1,000 hours per year at school, well above the international average of 656 hours. More time at school may do more harm than good without comprehensive reform of the education system.

Intellectual ability is also linked to earning potential, as more intelligent individuals lead to a more productive workforce and therefore a stronger economy. With Thailand facing stiff competition from its Asean neighbours, developing the capacity of its future workforce is crucial.

Tackling the malnutrition issue, reducing urban migration, and hiring experienced teachers and early-childhood literacy and numeracy specialists would constitute a significant step towards addressing intellectual disability throughout Thailand. It is a moral obligation to avoid creating a socially-conformist sub-class, consisting mainly of the rural poor and minorities on the periphery of Thai society, who receive an inferior quality of education and have low IQs, making them incapable of helping Thailand innovate past the middle-income trap.

This intellectual inequality and inequitable opportunity for education in rural areas is not only a national disgrace but an emergency which the Ministries of Education and of Public Health must prioritise. At the same time, greater research on the causes as well as the development of sustained evidence-based solutions, such as nutritious school meals, are urgently needed to ensure future generations escape this tragedy.

Daniel Maxwell is a writer, educator and education analyst. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s