Are you smarter than a 5th grader?

I am not.

I learned this shortly after the show first came out. The premise was intriguing: it’s a gameshow where the goal is to answer questions based on those that children in school are required to answer. If you answer two questions for each grade from second to fifth and then answer a final, eleventh question, you win a million dollars.

If at any point you miss a question and fail out of the game, then you have to turn to the camera and admit:

“I am not smarter than a fifth grader.”

I consider myself pretty decent at most kinds of gameshows. I’m a pretty eclectic reader, so gameshows that cover a broad range of topics, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, play to my strengths, while those that require depth in a subject, like Jeopardy, I would likely struggle in.

So, I was feeling pretty insulted when I couldn’t answer a second or third-grade question.

I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like this:

What clouds can be found at ____ elevation?

There was a number in the black, I just can’t remember what it is.

At the time, I was still close enough to my elementary education that I could still remember the names of the three kinds of cloud. And, had I been on the show, I would have missed the question.

Which, given that I like to think of myself as smart, really feels bad.

But, the objection I had to the show at the time and was refreshed while researching it again recently, is that the knowledge contained within the question might be appropriate for the grade level, the question is phrased misleadingly, or at least in a way that it wouldn’t have been for someone that age.

Pulling up the first video I found revealed some evidence that might be the case. The contestant was asked what the correct spelling of a word was. To avoid giving away how it is spelled, I’ll give you the definition right here. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try to pick the correct answer from the same list that the contestant was given.

How do you spell the word that is defined as “an artificial channel for conveying water, typically in the form of a bridge across a valley or other gap?”

  1. Aquaduct
  2. Aguaduct
  3. Aqueduct

Do you have an answer?

Because I missed this one, too.

The answer is “C.”

To be fair though, there’s (small) chance that I might have gotten it right had I just been asked to spell the word, without seeing it. I think a lot of people would be upset if their children had to take spelling tests in this format, but it makes something tricky and difficult, trickier and more difficult.1 Being smarter is not necessarily going to help you here.

Hopefully, none of you got this far into this thinking I just wanted to rant about a gameshow that has been off the air for a number of years now.2

A few days ago, I was watching this TED Talk, given by James Flynn, entitled “Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’.” And things just started clicking together. Let me explain what I mean.

In this lecture, James Flynn is trying to explain why it is that average I.Q. scores tend to rise generation over generation, to the point where if we were scored against people who lived 100 years ago, the average score would be about 130, or on the edge of giftedness. Are people getting smarter? How could this be?

Flynn answers that the way in which we think and the way in which we’ve been trained to think have fundamentally changed over time.

He gives this anecdote from a social scientist about an older person in a rural area who is given the following problem: There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany. Are there camels in Hamburg?

And today, we know the answer is no, but at the time the old man answered, “Well, if it’s large enough, there ought to be camels there.”

When the social scientist asked what his word had originally implied, the man answered, “Well, maybe it’s a small village, and there’s no room for camels.”

Flynn concludes that the man was “unwilling to treat this as anything but a concrete problem, and he was used to camels being in villages, and he was quite unable to use the hypothetical,” or to use abstract reasoning.

Flynn relates that the social scientist later came across a group of men who when asked similar questions responded, “[h]ow can we solve things that aren’t real problems? None of these problems are real. How can we address them?”

And, the point is that they can’t, because they haven’t been trained to. They’ve only been trained to think concretely, in facts. Which is why examinations in Ohio in 1910 asked what the capital of every state was, and examinations in the same state in 1990 asked why the capitals were rarely in the largest cities.3

So, what does this have to do with Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? And I think the answer is absolutely everything.

The gameshow is asking the kinds of questions that would have been asked a century ago. They’re about facts and other concrete properties. The problem is that by the time you’re an adult and qualify to go on the show, you’ve been trained into a different mode of thinking, into thinking abstractly. The kinds of raw facts you need to know to do well on this specific show receive less time in school, not because they’re not important, but because knowing how to reason is much more economically-valuable at this time.

This is probably one of the only gameshows for which this is true but had you lived 100 years ago, you almost certainly would have been smarter than a fifth grader, at least by this show’s metrics.

If you liked this piece, be sure to check out:
A Brief History of the CIA
881 Priests
Children of the Lost World

  1. Can I please just put “difficultier?”
  2. Just kidding. I’m pretty ranty.
  3. It’s because rural-dominated legislatures didn’t want to have to deal with the big city, something you could conceivably reason out if you knew that state legislatures were rural-dominated.