This is a story about gifted kids, science--and a big mistake.
It starts with a longitudinal study of some the most intelligent young people the United States has ever produced--a study involving more than 5,000 students that spans 45 years.
Unfortunately, it's also about why your kids have little chance of benefiting from its conclusions, even if they're truly gifted (unless perhaps you're an incredibly assertive and strategic parent). In short, researchers say we face four big problems, even as they suggest they might have solutions:
1. We don't accurately identify truly gifted and intelligent kids.
2. Even when we do, we stifle many of them by keeping them in a rigid, bureaucratic education system.
3. We focus too much on repetitive practice over raw talent.
4. We're biased against the brilliant, in favor of the merely average.
You can see why this gets a little controversial, right? However, you should know that alumni of programs based on this research include people like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Lady Gaga, actress Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies), plus a Fields Medal winner, and two recipients of MacArthur Genius Grants.
So why aren't schools flocking at least to study the results of the research? Some would say it's a matter of human nature, intransigence, and fear.
(Bonus content: I've written a lot about raising successful kids at Inc. over the past year, and I've also put together a free e-book on this subject: How to Raise Successful Kids: Advice From a Navy SEAL, a Stanford Dean, and Mark Zuckerberg's Dad (Among Others). It's in its third edition, and tens of thousands of people have downloaded and read it. You can get your copy here.)
Meet "Student Zero."
The research, which centers largely around a study called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, or SMPY, began with a now-60-year-old man, whom the original researcher referred to as "Student Zero."
In 1968, Student Zero was a 12-year-old genius who had been given permission to take a computer science class at Johns Hopkins University. He was smart--so smart, in fact, that he "leap-frogged" the other students and "kept himself busy by teaching the FORTRAN programming language to graduate students," according to a recent article in the British interdisciplinary science journal Nature.
What to do with such an advanced student?
Bates's teacher sought advice from a psychology professor named Julian Stanley, who had studied intelligence. He tested Student Zero, got him admitted to Johns Hopkins as a full-time student at 13--and wound up following his progress and that of thousands of other highly gifted students, until he died (Stanley, not the student), in 2005.
The result of his research was the start of the SMPY, and along with several other research projects and programs it inspired, it gives us the most complex and controversial examination of how to turn really smart kids into wildly successful ones.
We can't find them.
Only there are a few problems.
The first lesson from the programs, and perhaps the most disturbing, is that most educational institutions don't know--or maybe don't truly want to know--how to identify truly gifted students.
Granted, this has become a cliché, with a seemingly overwhelming majority of parents insisting that their kids are all far above average.
However, while traditional intelligence and knowledge tests might identify some gifted students, they miss a huge percentage, the researchers say. And they ought to be trying something else.
Try spatial relationships.
Stanley faced this head-on. Eschewing traditional exams, he pioneered the use of another, seemingly more abstract test, of "spatial ability--the capacity to understand and remember spatial relationships between objects," according to the Nature article.
Of course, the idea that they'd be more successful at predicting intelligence and success was unproved at the time--but that's the point of a longitudinal study.
A 2013 analysis suggested Stanley was on to something, and "found a correlation between the number of patents and peer-refereed publications that people had produced and their earlier scores on SATs and spatial-ability tests."
Spatial relationship testing "may be the largest known untapped source of human potential," psychologist David Lubinski, who now runs the SMPY program jointly with his wife, Camilla Benbow, who worked with Stanley and is dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University.
Get out of their way.
The number one thing that education systems can do to help truly gifted students is simply to get out of their way, the study suggests. This means, first and foremost, allowing them to skip grades when they become bored and subjects become too easy for them.
Students who skipped at least one grade "were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field" than their equally smart peers who progressed through school at the normal rate.
The study also finds that "even modest interventions," like having access to college classes or Advanced Placement courses, positively impacted outcomes.
However, they suggest there is resistance to doing more than that and allowing grade-skipping, because of concerns that students might have trouble socially, and perhaps also because of bureaucratic resistance, including the suggestion that some grades might not actually be necessary for all students.
Don't sweat social development (it will come).
Remember Student Zero? His name is Joseph Bates (here's his LinkedIn profile). He went on, after Stanley's intervention and study, to earn a doctorate, teach at Carnegie Mellon University, and become a "pioneer in artificial intelligence," according to Nature.
He also said skipping ahead was crucial--and that concerns about his not developing social skills were overblown.
"I was shy and the social pressures of high school wouldn't have made it a good fit for me. But at college, with the other science and math nerds, I fit right in, even though I was much younger," he told Nature.
Stop relying on Malcolm Gladwell.
You've heard of the 10,000-hour rule, no doubt--the idea that anyone of a certain level of above-average ability can become truly proficient at anything, by practicing beyond a threshold of 10,000 hours over a lifetime.
Although he merely aggregated the research (not that there's anything wrong with that!), author Malcolm Gladwell is probably most associated with this largely debunked theory, after his 2008 book, Outliers.
Instead of the 10,000-hour theory, researchers from SMPY and the Duke program say that for the truly brilliant among us, sheer talent is a far more important factor than work ethic or practice. What's more, they find that ability itself is a more important factor than students' socio-economic status, too.
Recognize that some students are just smarter.
The SMPY researchers say identifying the most brilliant students is important, but that's just part of it.
"Potential ... has to be developed in appropriate ways if you're going to keep that flame well lit," says Brody of the Vanderbilt program.
Unfortunately, researchers also say that's not really the goal of the overall educational system in the United States.
Instead, they say "the education community" believes gifted students will achieve on their own--and that their focus should therefore be on helping below-average students to function at a competent rate, not on helping the most talented to achieve massive success.
That's a huge mistake, both for kids and society as a whole.
"Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society," says Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program. "The kids who test in the top 1 percent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators, and billionaires."
Be an advocate.
This, of course, is where parents come in. I have no idea whether your kids are truly gifted, of course. Perhaps you don't either--and let's face facts; by definition, not everyone can be far above average.
However, it's worth looking at the experiences of some of the high-achievers we mentioned earlier, in all kinds of fields--entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg and Brin; artists like Lady Gaga and Lynch, for example.
Most of them attended SMPY-related programs at universities, like the summer-long program at the Center for Talented Youth that Zuckerberg attended at Johns Hopkins University. (You can read more about that program in this article.)
Will one summer program change a gifted student's life? Maybe. But more important, the research suggests, if you want your kids to be truly successful, they'll need your help to advocate against a system that is just as happy making mediocrity the standard.