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Giftedness, Talents and Realising Talents

Nature Magazine released an article titled “How to raise a genius: lessons from a 45-year study of super-smart children” on Sep 7, 2016. Here, we summarize the key insights from this study, and share our views on the subject of giftedness and realising one's talents.

Summary of the Nature Article- How to Raise a Genius

It is important to provide special opportunities and a mechanism for nurturing precociously gifted students, as they outweigh rest of society in the influence they have.

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), started in the late 1960s by Julian Stanley, is the longest-running current longitudinal survey of intellectually talented children, SMPY has for 45 years tracked the careers and accomplishments of some 5,000 individuals, many of whom have gone on to become high-achieving scientists. Data from 11 longitudinal studies including SMPY show that the students who perform in the top 1% in talent identification tests or standardized tests, tend to become the eminent scientists and academics, Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges, senators and billionaires in the United States. With the first SMPY recruits now at the peak of their careers, what has become clear is how much the precociously gifted outweigh the rest of society in their influence.

“…these gifted students, the 'mathletes' of the world, can shape the future. When you look at the issues facing society now — whether it's health care, climate change, terrorism, energy — these are the kids who have the most potential to solve these problems,” David Lubinski, Psychologist, SMPY, Vanderbilt University

Many innovators benefited from early identification and the support they received in their early years.

Many of the innovators who are advancing science, technology and culture are those whose unique cognitive abilities were identified and supported in their early years through enrichment programmes such as Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth. Pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng were one-percenters, as were Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and musician Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga), who all passed through the Hopkins centre.

Approaches to identification of giftedness have improved over the years and will continue to evolve.

Initial approaches to identification of giftedness focused on Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Later, performance on ‘academic’ tests such as the Mathematics component of the SAT, were seen to better predict giftedness. Over a period of time, identification approaches moved away from general intelligence toward assessments of specific cognitive abilities, interests and other factors. For example, spatial ability at an early age is now known to predict creativity and innovation. Approaches to gifted students identification will continue to evolve and improve; however there are robust approaches available today to identify different types of giftedness.

Identification of gifted talent has to be accompanied by the provision of choices for gifted students.

Gifted students require learning opportunities and environments that are in line with the extent and nature of their talent. Research based on the US experience has shown that-

· ‘Acceleration’- allowing students to skip grades and study higher grade content they are capable of handling has benefited most gifted children socially and emotionally, as well as academically and professionally.

· Among students with high ability, those who were given a richer density of advanced pre-collegiate educational opportunities in STEM went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn't have these opportunities.

“I was shy and the social pressures of high school wouldn't have made it a good fit for me,” says Bates, now 60. “But at college, with the other science and math nerds, I fit right in, even though I was much younger. I could grow up on the social side at my own rate and also on the intellectual side, because the faster pace kept me interested in the content.” Joseph Bates, currently 60 years old, who was identified as gifted at the age of 12 and had completed his Masters in Computer Science by the age of 17

Critics of talent identification and providing special opportunities for gifted students have raised concerns that such labeling of students affects motivation, among other concerns.

Some researchers contend that when children who are near the high and low extremes of early achievement feel assessed in terms of future success, it can damage their motivation to learn and can contribute to what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. It's far better, Dweck says, to encourage a growth mindset, in which children believe that brains and talent are merely a starting point, and that abilities can be developed through hard work and continued intellectual risk-taking.

Another criticism is that in focusing on gifted students, the system will not do enough for all students, and especially neglect weaker students. This concern leads to the stand that students who have advantages, cognitive or otherwise, shouldn't be given extra encouragement and that the focus should be more on lower-performing students.

Our Views on the Subject

Through our team’s interactions with gifted students over the last few years, we have directly observed how enrichment experiences have benefited them socially, emotionally and academically. Further, for any society to achieve well-being and address the complex challenges it faces, the majority of human beings need to operate at their potential. Thus we see no dichotomy between addressing the needs of the weakest and the most gifted children. Finland, which has consistently performed highly on international tests of achievement, also has some of the best indicators on equity.

We believe that getting students to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ is critical in helping them succeed, and while ‘labeling’ can have negative consequences, recognition of abilities is important. In other words,

One needs to recognize one’s gifts and take responsibility to nurture these- these have not been identified to allow the gifted child to ‘bask in the glory of being labeled as gifted’.

In the Nature article, Camilla Benbow, Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University shares that

Standardized tests should not be used to limit students' options, but rather to develop learning and teaching strategies appropriate to children's abilities, which allow students at every level to reach their potential.

As the above statement suggests, everybody has some innate talent or aptitude, and it is important that this talent be recognized. Some learners will be at the upper end of the distribution in a particular talent domain (say math, music or a particular sport) and can be termed as 'gifted', but everybody benefits by having their talent identified (at whatever level).

Recognition of talent is important because it is the first step in providing additional exposure and coaching in the domain. And recognition of talent (or aptitude) needs to happen early as many psychologists say that aptitudes are 'concretised' by age 14. What they mean is that one may find 'new aptitudes' being displayed till around age 14, but it is rare for these to show up as one gets older.

Recognising Talents and Interests Early

Our development depends on

  • recognising our talents (aptitudes) and interests

  • developing our knowledge and skills

While knowledge and skills can be developed even in later years, talents and interests are best recognized early. Early recognition of these helps us choose the 'right path' and invest valuable time, effort and money in choosing a vocation that fulfils us and gives us an opportunity to excel.

However, recognition of aptitudes and interests is not a trivial exercise. As the Johnson O’ Connor Foundation says in its book ‘Understanding your Aptitudes’-

We have found that many people, for instance, discount their strongest aptitudes, thinking that if something comes easily to them, why, surely anyone can do it. Or perhaps they know someone so preternaturally gifted that their own ability seems meager by comparison, when in fact they are among the top rank of persons tested. Frequently a person has had little opportunity for the kinds of activities that would have revealed his or her gifts, or is aware of some strengths but not others.”

So what is the nature of these opportunities that can reveal a learner's gifts?

Our experience shows that 2 things are helpful-

  • Well developed standardized tests and specialized instruments are able to shine light on specific aptitudes and can also indicate the extent of aptitude

  • Out-of-school learning experiences that provide exposure to different fields and kinds of activities helps a learner recognise their aptitudes as well as their interests

This post based on an interview with Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University sheds more light on the subject.


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