Monday, January 01, 2001

Catching Up With Gifted Kids

By: Ellen Winner Ph.D.

Children who speak at eight months, read books at two years, or follow a Mozart musical score at nine are different—as distinctive in their potential and needs (and far rarer) than children who are severely retarded, argues Winner. So far, most public school systems and policy makers have managed to ignore truly gifted children. She asks: As brain science discovers exactly how, and why, these children are different, will they get the opportunities that they need to change our world as only genius can?

Stories of extravagantly gifted toddlers, from Wolfgang Mozart to John Stuart Mill, have astonished and delighted, perhaps sometimes disturbed, us. In our era of righteous egalitarianism, we have reacted to that rarest of children, the genuine prodigy, with an uneasy mixture of affirmation and denial, an uncertainty reflected in a school system that rarely makes room for the extremely gifted.

Now this may be changing, suggests psychologist Ellen Winner, senior scientist at Harvard Project Zero, as scientists discover seemingly innate differences, including brain differences, that set apart the child of almost unimaginably high ability. As a result, we may find it easier to accept the needs of the prodigy not only in academic fields but in music, visual arts, athletics, and other domains. Our reward will be a fairer and more realistic school system and a society leavened by genius.

Young children, particularly preschoolers, usually strike us as bright, full of wonder, eager to learn, and artistically inclined. They delight us by asking questions like little philosophers or by making playful, aesthetically pleasing paintings that sometimes resemble the work of 20th-century masters. Assuming a normal brain and home environment, these gifts are nature’s largesse to most children.

Occasionally, however, we observe a child whose abilities so far outstrip those of the typical toddler that we realize not all preschoolers are genuinely gifted. The more extreme the gift, the rarer the child.

At a concert one evening, listening to a Mozart concerto, I became distracted by a child sitting next to me. Spread out on his lap was a thick musical score, open to the concerto we were hearing. He read the score along with the music, and hummed the melody in perfect tune. Later, when I had occasion to interview his parents, I found that Stephen’s preferred reading materials were musical scores and computer-programming manuals. He was also obsessed with maps.

Stephen, nine years old, might be called “notationally” gifted: fascinated by formal symbolic notation in musical scores, computer-programming language, maps, and mathematics. Equally astonishing children are gifted in other ways. KyLee, another child I studied, was fascinated from the age of 18 months by numbers, and at three years of age could identify any number as prime or not, although he could never say how. When asked, he would explain: “I just think in my head.” Jonathan Estrada, a child who was profiled in the New York Times in 1996 and has appeared in the media, began to speak at 9 months (the typical age is 12 months) and, by two and a half years, was reading at the second-grade level.1

David, yet another child I studied, began to speak at 8 months, starting with two-word utterances (the typical age for this is 18 months). By 15 months he had a vocabulary of about two-hundred words. At two, when most children have just mastered “Hi, Dada,” or “more juice,” David said, “I saw a real ditch digger pick up real dirt and put in dump truck, and I saw pretend ditch digger and sat in it and pulled the handles.”

While most children begin to read between the ages of six and seven, and only with extensive adult support, David learned to read at age three. How he learned was as curious as the early age at which he did. David asked his mother to read him the same book about twelve times a day for one week while he pointed at each word as she read. He then requested a repeat of this procedure with a new book of his choosing.

That was his entire course of reading instruction, completely self-initiated. With this, he had cracked the code and was soon reading rapidly and voraciously on his own.

Children like KyLee, David, and Jonathan are what we might call generally intellectually gifted—gifted in both verbal and mathematical areas. Stephen was also intellectually gifted, with gifts in music and math, as well as in other kinds of formal notation systems. Other children show equally early and extreme gifts in the visual arts. Peter, another of my child subjects, was as obsessed with drawing as David was with reading. From the age of ten and a half months, Peter drew constantly—before rising, during breakfast, during school, and when other children were invited over to play (thus boring his guests). At three, Peter drew a human figure with all its parts, just when his peers had mastered tadpole humans. At five and a half, he took a pictorial IQ test (the Goodenough Draw-a-Person test); his drawing was classified at the level of a 14-year-old.

Sadly, we know far less about such exceptional children than we do about those with exceptional deficits: retarded, emotionally disturbed, and learning-disabled children. Psychologists have attended far more to these deficits than to strengths. 

Sadly, we know far less about such exceptional children than we do about those with exceptional deficits: retarded, emotionally disturbed, and learning-disabled children. Psychologists have attended far more to these deficits than to strengths, just as they have investigated the causes of depression more than happiness, aggression more than empathy, and fear more than courage. An interesting recent movement in American academic psychology, spearheaded by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, calls for more emphasis on “positive psychology.” Seligman asks, “How has it happened that the social sciences view the human strengths and virtues—altruism, courage, honesty, duty, joy, health, responsibility and good cheer—as derivative, defensive or downright illusions, while weakness and negative motivations—anxiety, lust, selfishness, paranoia, anger, disorder and sadness— are viewed as authentic?” Positive psychology is now studying subjective well-being, positive character traits such as honesty and hope, and the nature of giftedness and how to nurture it.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “GIFTED”?

Psychologists and educators disagree about the term “gifted.” Most use it interchangeably with “high IQ.” I use it more broadly to refer to precocious levels of ability in any domain: abilities that are verbal or mathematical (those measured by IQ tests), musical, graphic (drawing), spatial, mechanical, athletic, or that relate to leadership or morality, and so forth. Gifted children reach developmental milestones in their area far earlier than do typical children, they learn more easily and rapidly than do typical children, and they reach levels that their peers never will.

How rare are these children? A child who scores 130 or above on an IQ test is typically considered gifted—about 2 to 3 percent of all children. Only about one in a hundred children have an IQ of 140, and it is estimated that only one in a million, or perhaps fewer, children score 160 or higher, a score indicating an extreme gift. But this low estimate has been disputed by Linda Silverman of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, CO, who finds that the tiny percentages grow larger when the proper IQ tests are administered, tests without artificial ceilings that fail to differentiate among children in the upper one percent. These estimates do not tell us how many gifted children there are, however, only how many have superior verbal and mathematical abilities. We do not know how many children have exceptional gifts in music, the visual arts, or any other area. All we can say with certainty is that gifted children in any domain are rare, and the more extreme the ability, the rarer the gift. 

Gifted children have intense drive (what I call a “rage to master”) in their area of gift. These are not children whose parents push them to work hard. They push themselves; their often-astonished parents run to keep up.

Precocity seems to be associated with two other characteristics. Gifted children have intense drive (what I call a “rage to master”) in their area of gift. These are not children whose parents push them to work hard. They push themselves; their often-astonished parents run to keep up. You cannot get a typical child to spend hours reading musical scores or playing math games; you cannot tear a gifted child away from these favored activities.

Gifted children are also creative. Here I make a sharp distinguish between “Big-C” and “little-c” creativity. Big-C creativity refers to revolutionary creativity of the sort that changes domains. We see this in Beethoven, who permanently transformed the domain of Western classical music. Studies suggest that it takes at least 10 years of hard work before a creator can make a domain-changing discovery.2 By definition, then, children cannot be Big-C creative.

But gifted children are creative in the little-c sense: They think and solve problems in their heads (recall how KyLee intuited how to pick out any prime number but could not explain the rule he was using), often in idiosyncratic ways. They need virtually no adult support to learn.

If different abilities or “intelligences” function independently of one another, then the intelligence measured by IQ tests will be irrelevant to musical, visual-spatial, or athletic gifts. 

THE ROLE OF IQ

In common parlance, “gifted” children have high IQs, or high abilities in music, visual arts, athletics, or other nonacademic domains. Do gifts in nonacademic areas have to entail a high IQ? If different abilities or “intelligences” (linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, visual-spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic) function independently of one another, then the intelligence measured by IQ tests will be irrelevant to musical, visual-spatial, or athletic gifts. (For elaboration of this position, refer to the theory of multiple intelligences developed by Howard Gardner and debated in the Fall 1999 issue of Cerebrum.) A study of talented teenagers found that gifted students in visual arts or athletics were not particularly strong academically, which supports the irrelevance of high IQ to gifts in at least these two areas.3

In addition, many studies of high-IQ children, such as the massive longitudinal study conducted at Stanford in the 1920s by Lewis Terman, reported no association between IQ and drawing ability. Many artistically gifted children feel bored or alienated in school. The class artist in my son’s third-grade class, for example, read laboriously at a first-grade level. A small group of Terman’s subjects were classified as having “special ability.” Terman had asked teachers to nominate children with potentially high IQ to be considered for inclusion in his longitudinal study. Sometimes teachers nominated children with special ability in art, music, or mechanical aptitude. Of the fifteen nominated for artistic ability, only one turned out to have an IQ above 130 (it was 133), the level at which children today are classified as gifted.

What about music? One might think that IQ is more relevant to a gift in music than in visual art. Indeed, there are many reports of musical children with high IQs. Felix Mendelssohn translated works of Caesar and Ovid when he was only 10, and the teenagers in Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi’s study who were talented in music did far better academically than those talented in visual arts. But the comparison between the lower academic performance of artistically gifted children and the higher academic performance of musically gifted ones may be flawed.

Almost all the musically gifted children studied thus far have focused on classical music. They are likely to have educated parents and a stimulating home environment. They read musical notation, take formal lessons, and practice daily—factors highly related to what children are asked to do in school. In contrast, artistically gifted children rarely take formal weekly art lessons (though they may occasionally enroll in a museum class), are rarely told to “practice” their drawing (though they may be encouraged by having their work framed and praised), and do not need to learn a special form of notation.

No one has specifically studied the scholastic abilities of musical children who do not have formal training in classical music. They do not learn musical notation but may pick out show tunes by ear, just for fun. Or they may form rock bands or rap groups, musical forms considered rebellious and anti-authority. I would wager that such children’s academic performance is closer to that of artistically gifted children than to those gifted in classical music. If so, it may be that learning formal notation, practicing daily, and taking formal lessons transfer to academic performance, or perhaps these activities draw high academic performers to music in the first place.

THE UNUSUAL GIFTS OF SAVANTS

One rare group of individuals proves that extreme gifts in visual arts and music can exist not only without a high IQ but in the presence of devastatingly low IQ. We used to call these individuals “idiot savants,” but now use the kinder “savants.” Savants are usually retarded, autistic, or both; their IQs typically range between 40 and 70. Ordinary savants show a normal level of ability in one area but are retarded in others. Prodigious savants (fewer than 100 have ever been reported) have an island of skill at prodigy level.

Savants are found most often in the visual arts (usually realistic drawing), music (usually piano playing), or math (typically rapid calculation, including calendar calculation). The most astonishing savant in visual arts was Nadia. At the chronological age of five and a half—autistic and with a mental age of three years and three months—she drew the sketch of a horse that approximates the skill of a Renaissance master. With the clear and confident line of a fine pencil or ballpoint pen, Nadia drew horses and riders in motion. She had no trouble capturing their proportions, and could depict them in a foreshortened view. Another savant, Blind Tom, a blind and retarded slave child, could at four years of age listen to any piece of piano music once and play it perfectly, retaining all accents and the precise rhythm.

To the extent that savants in visual arts or music are like children gifted in these areas, they are evidence for the independence of IQ from visual arts and music. Of course, it is tempting to dismiss savants as slavish imitators, incapable of innovation, expression, or grasping the underlying structure of a domain. But savant artists and musicians do have an unconscious grasp of the rules of their domain; for example, like musically gifted children, savants recall tonal music better than atonal, revealing a grasp of tonal structure. Musical savants also can compose on request, and they have been observed to respond emotionally to music. Both savant artists and musicians can create emotionally expressive works.

That a gift in music or visual arts can exist independently of a high IQ should not surprise us, given what IQ tests measure: verbal, numerical, and a smattering of spatial ability. These skills seem of a different order than skills used by artists or musicians. Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, argues that the only kind of intelligence that can be measured is that ascertained by IQ tests. But, while there may not be standard paper-and-pencil tests to measure musical, artistic, or athletic ability, ask any teacher of music or art, or any coach, whether there are gifted children in these domains. They will tell you emphatically that there are. Furthermore, experts can easily discriminate among levels of ability. Gottfredson also takes the position that whenever high abilities are found, they correlate well with IQ, but I have presented evidence demonstrating otherwise. 

Savants alone provide evidence that artistic and musical gifts can exist without even normal IQ. 

Savants alone provide evidence that artistic and musical gifts can exist without even normal IQ. In addition, the existence of children with gifts in spatial domains but learning disabilities in reading also show that gifts in specific domains can exist and flourish in the absence of an overall high IQ score.

ARE GIFTS BORN OR CREATED?

Gifts provide an excellent entrée into investigating the relationship between innate talent and learning, and, inevitably, the topic ignites a nature-nurture debate. Most people in our culture believe that gifts are innate and make themselves known at a very early age. This view is shared by researchers who study gifts and publish in journals devoted to studying gifted (typically high-IQ) children. Recently, though, an environmentalist view has emerged among psychologists who claim that gifts result entirely from learning.

One leading proponent of this view is Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. Ericsson studied adults who were world-class experts in their areas: piano, violin, ballet, chess, bridge, and athletics. Based on their retrospective reports, he calculated how many hours they had spent in “deliberate practice” (effortful work) and found that those with the highest levels of objective expertise had practiced twice as many hours as those with lesser expertise. He concluded that practice was all that differentiated those with higher from those with lower expertise and that what we call “talent” is a function of hard work and training, not innate ability. This environmentalist view was elaborated by Brian Butterworth in What Counts: How Every Brain is Hardwired for Math (The Free Press 1999).

The problems with this position are many. To begin with, the evidence given for it is the correlation between practice and expertise, but we cannot assume that the practice caused the expertise. It is equally possible—and, I think, more plausible—that preexisting high-level ability caused the intense desire to practice. Children born with high ability in an area can learn easily in it, which may motivate them to begin mastering it early. The amount they practice is likely to be a product of drive, and drive to master a domain is likely to be an aspect of inborn high ability in that domain.

How could David’s reading expertise at age three be a product of intensive practice, when he learned to read expertly in only two weeks—a feat that takes typical children at an older age several years to accomplish?

The other major problem with the environmentalist position is that it dismisses the many observations made by parents and psychologists of the exceedingly early age at which high abilities emerge, before any formal regimen or deliberate practice. How could David’s reading expertise at age three be a product of intensive practice, when he learned to read expertly in only two weeks—a feat that takes typical children at an older age several years to accomplish? Remember Peter, the 5-year-old who drew at a 14-year-old level? Even at age two, without years of prior practice at drawing, his representational drawings were astonishingly realistic. Mozart composed a concerto for the harpsichord at four. He did have early and intensive training from his father, but could that enable a typical child to reach such a height?

Evidence against the environmentalist position also comes from behavioral genetics studies showing that IQ is clearly at least partially inherited. These studies have compared the similarity in IQ between two kinds of siblings—biologically related siblings reared apart (who share genes but not environment) and biologically unrelated siblings reared together via adoption (who share environment but not genes). Biologically related siblings reared apart have much more similar IQs than do biologically unrelated siblings reared in the same family. This supports the inference that IQ is highly heritable—although never approaching 100 percent, showing that environment is important, too. Musical ability has been shown to have a genetic component, with correlations between identical twins higher than those between fraternal twins, though the levels of musical ability studied were not extremely high.4 It is reasonable to suppose that high levels of musical ability are more highly heritable than are the modest levels of musical ability assessed in that particular study. Spatial reasoning and visual memory, abilities that my colleagues and I have shown to be related to artistic giftedness, have also been found to be strongly hereditary.5

Some people have criticized behavioral genetics studies, arguing that biological siblings reared apart may be adopted into similar environments (and hence may share genes and environment), and biologically unrelated siblings reared together may receive different parenting (therefore not fully sharing the same environment). Although these factors could make the heritability factor appear higher than it really is, it is impossible to dismiss entirely the many findings from the field of behavioral genetics showing that abilities have a genetic component. 

More evidence against the environmentalist position comes from studies of the brain basis of gifts.

THE BRAIN BASIS OF GIFTS

More evidence against the environmentalist position comes from studies of the brain basis of gifts. Scientists have explored whether the brains of gifted individuals compared with typical brains are larger (either overall or in certain areas), have more (or more complex) neural connections, fire more rapidly, or operate more efficiently. None of the findings thus far point to any clear conclusions, but the evidence is certainly suggestive.

Musicians’ Brains

Keyboard players were found to have enlarged areas in the cortex for motor control, compared with nonmusicians.6 Similarly, string instrument players were found to have larger and more complex cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand than nonmusicians.7 This difference was strongest for those who began to play early, before age 12.

If you accept the argument that musicians who begin playing an instrument early have more inborn ability than those who begin late, then these findings suggest a brain difference at birth. Admittedly, this evidence is also consistent with a learning view: Cortical representation may become more complex from the experience of playing a string instrument. We do not know whether these same brain changes would be found if we picked children at random and gave them musical training, or whether the changes only would occur in children with an innate musical gift.

In typical brains, the left side of the planum temporale, an area containing auditory association cortex, is larger than the right. This asymmetry is greater in musicians with absolute pitch than in musicians without it and in nonmusicians.8 Again, we do not know whether this difference is present at birth or develops with training. If it turns out that full absolute pitch cannot be learned (a controversial issue), we can conclude that this brain difference is probably present at birth.

Einstein and Other Mathematicians

Einstein’s brain was no different in weight or size from other men’s brains, but Sandra Witelson of McMaster University in Canada recently reported that the region related to visual-spatial cognition, mathematical thought, and motor imagery (areas where he excelled) was atypical.9 His inferior parietal lobes were 15 percent wider than normal on both sides. In addition, his supramarginal gyrus (within the inferior parietal lobe) was not divided by a major sulcus (as in typical brains). The lack of division may have allowed for more efficient axonal connectivity, which may be a neuronal correlate of high ability. Witelson argues that these structural aspects of Einstein’s brain developed early, so we can conclude (though there is no definitive proof) that they did not result from his using his mind to work on visual-spatial problems; they were what allowed him to think so well about such problems.

Efficient Energy Processing

Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine, showed that when playing a spatial computer game, people with high spatial intelligence metabolize less glucose overall in their brains, but more in focal areas, than do those with lower spatial intelligence, suggesting that the brains of those with gifts process information more efficiently. But we cannot know whether efficient use of glucose reflects a learned ability to perform well or whether, from birth or early childhood, these individuals metabolized glucose more efficiently.

Right-Hemisphere Gifts

Neurologists Norman Geschwind and Albert Galaburda, of Harvard Medical School, noted that individuals with gifts in domains that rely on the right hemisphere (for example, the spatial intelligence exhibited in visual arts, music, and math) have a disproportionate incidence of left-hemisphere language-related deficits (such as language delay, stuttering, dyslexia), nonright-handedness, and immune system disorders. They suggested that excess testosterone during fetal development could damage the left hemisphere, leading to compensatory growth of the right hemisphere, thereby helping create individuals (including autistic savants) with gifts in certain areas and deficits in others. While no one disputes the correlation between right-hemisphere strengths and left-hemisphere deficits, the theory that this link is inborn, resulting from excess testosterone, has not been established conclusively.

General Intelligence

John Duncan and his colleagues recently published a paper in Science claiming that g (general intelligence) is located in areas of the frontal cortex. They used positron emission tomography (PET) to demonstrate significantly greater blood flow in those areas as people solved verbal and spatial tasks that correlated with g. When individuals solved spatial tasks, the strongest brain activation was in both sides of the lateral prefrontal cortex, as well as in one other area, a discrete region of the medial frontal gyrus/anterior cingulate. When people solved verbal tasks, the only significant activation was in the left lateral frontal cortex. Because this area corresponds closely to one of the areas activated during the spatial task, the researchers concluded that the lateral frontal cortex is selectively used in solving “high-g” tasks and may be the basis of general intelligence.

There are some problems with this research: The explanatory power of g is in dispute, the verbal tasks that they tested appear to me to be more spatial than verbal (for example, detecting whether strings of letters were equally spaced in the alphabet), and although there was some overlap in the brain areas activated when solving spatial and verbal tasks, there was also considerable difference. We could, nonetheless, build on this research to investigate the brain basis of spatial and verbal gifts by administering spatial and verbal tests to average versus high IQ individuals to see whether these areas of prefrontal cortex are more highly activated in those with higher IQs.

The challenge for researchers is to determine which characteristics of the brains of gifted individuals are innate and which emerge only with intensive training and practice.

Clearly the brains of gifted individuals change as a function of training and practice, as do all brains. The challenge for researchers is to determine which characteristics of the brains of gifted individuals are innate (present at birth or programmed to emerge without any special training) and which emerge only with intensive training and practice. To answer such questions, scientists need to look at the brains of gifted children before and after training.

Possibly a characteristic typical of the brains of gifted people might be found in the brain of any person given the same kind of intensive training that gifted people seek and get. I think it unlikely, however, that with enough elbow grease, any child could become a Mozart or an Einstein. This assumption is not only implausible but dangerous—it could lead parents to push their children to achieve beyond their capabilities.

OUR ATTITUDES TOWARD EXTREMELY GIFTED CHILDREN

If some children are born with special gifts, they are likely to need a special kind of education. Educators and policy makers need to understand that, as we have seen, extremely gifted children are not just ordinary children remade by pushy parents.

Researchers now suspect a brain basis for disorders such as autism and dyslexia, a discovery important for diagnosis and treatment. No longer can we blame mothers for creating autistic children. The same argument can be made for the gifted. An understanding of the brain basis of gifts should help us recognize that individual differences in ability are real, they manifest themselves at a very early age, and gifted children are not the creations of driving parents. Of course, we hardly need to diagnose gifts by examining children’s brains; gifts are clearly recognizable by observing children’s behaviors and competencies. Nonetheless, it is important for educators and society in general to accept that children with exceptional abilities have atypical brains.

WHAT TO DO?

These days our schools do little for the academically gifted, typically insisting that all children are gifted, so none need special classes. Extremely gifted children are usually bored and unchallenged in school. They are unlikely to be allowed to skip grades; nor are they likely to find themselves in a classroom or school just for the highly gifted. If they are lucky, they attend a school with an enrichment program for gifted children, where they are “pulled out” of the regular curriculum for a few hours a week to engage in stimulating projects and other activities with children who are at least moderately gifted (the entrance requirement often being an IQ of 130, or lower). Unfortunately, these pull-out programs, which exist in many elementary school districts, are small solutions to big problems. They do not give the child the possibility of intensive study in his or her area of high ability. Once the hour is up, the child goes right back to the regular classroom, where what is taught may be years behind what the child is able to learn.

Stories of extremely gifted children mistreated by our schools are commonplace. One child I studied was so bored in school that he became disruptive, did no work, and was diagnosed as retarded. He was tested, and his teachers were shocked to find out that he had an IQ of 158. According to his mother, the only thing the school could offer him was a pull-out program once a week to “play games” with six other far more moderately gifted children. Eventually he withdrew and finished high school at home via a correspondence course.

The mother of a three-year-old I studied asked the local school for a special program for her son because, she said, “he wants to do algebra.” She told the school that her son had asked her how to solve equations “when you don’t know the numbers,” showing his grasp of the concept of variables. The superintendent advised her to stop worrying and be glad that her son would be ahead of the pack in kindergarten. The mother took home the local school’s K-3 curriculum, which her son mastered in one year. At age four, he devoured his mother’s college textbooks on anatomy. When she told the principal that she did not think her son would thrive in the local kindergarten the following year, he told her that her child needed to get used to children his own age and should be “main-streamed.” This child was so far ahead of the other children that his parents ended up home-schooling him.

Schools almost never provide adequate challenges for children with musical or artistic gifts; it is typically assumed that such children will pursue their interests outside of school. This reflects an unfortunate imbalance in what we as a culture value.

The rare programs for the gifted that do exist are for children with linguistic or mathematical (IQ-type) gifts. Schools almost never provide adequate challenges for children with musical or artistic gifts; it is typically assumed that such children will pursue their interests outside of school. This reflects an unfortunate imbalance in what we as a culture value, with traditional academic areas esteemed far above artistic ones.

WHEN EDUCATIONAL POLICY SUCCEEDS

Extremely gifted children need intensive study in the area of their gift. Several kinds of programs, all too rare, make this possible for the academically gifted child.

The most selective independent schools typically do not designate themselves as schools for the gifted, but because they require high achievement-test scores for admission they are de facto schools for high-ability students. A handful of schools, some existing since the early part of the 20th century, are officially designated for gifted children who score at least 125 or 130 on an IQ test. These schools provide stimulating instruction at a much higher level than that found even in selective independent schools. At one such school, the Nueva School just outside San Francisco, I witnessed a personalized, challenging assignment for a student who excelled in nonfiction writing. She was asked to dig up examples of good and bad writing and determine the qualities that differentiated them. It is difficult to imagine this student being given such an assignment in a typical school.

Public schools for the gifted at the elementary- and middle-school levels (for example, Hunter College Elementary School in New York City) are rare, but publicly supported high schools for gifted students, such as the Bronx High School of Science, are more common. In the last few decades some state-supported residential high schools have appeared, including the North Carolina School of Science and Math; the Illinois Math and Science Academy; and the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. These schools serve the most highly gifted students, for whom advanced placement and honors courses are simply not enough.

Early entrance to college programs is also successful. In these programs, such as the one at the University of Oregon, students attend college early as part of a group of similarly precocious learners placed in a special program. This is different from a child entering college with no structural support. Isolated children who go early to college become lone oddballs on campus; some attend classes with their mothers in tow. In contrast, those in organized early college programs thrive.

Research on acceleration also demonstrates that children who skip grades thrive because they are no longer bored. Apparently it is more important to be with mental-age than chronological-age peers. It is too bad that our schools are disinclined to allow gifted children to skip even one grade. There is now much evidence that forcing children to learn at a level below their cognitive capacities is deadening, while allowing them to learn with children who, though chronologically and socially older, are at their own cognitive level lets them thrive.

There are excellent “talent search” summer programs for highly gifted children, pioneered by Julian Stanley with the founding of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Johns Hopkins University. Students selected for these programs (now in every state and some foreign countries, including China) are identified not by overall IQ but by the specific Verbal or Mathematics Scholastic Assessment Test. Middle-school students who score high can attend a residential program in which they take entire high-school courses compacted into three intense summer weeks. These are extremely high-achieving students: 20 percent of seventh-graders who participate do as well as or better than average college-bound seniors on the SAT.10 Sometimes these programs are offered on weekends during the school year. Students who participate find the experience positive and particularly enjoy the social aspects. For many, it is the first time they discover other children like themselves.

EXTREMELY GIFTED VERSUS MODERATELY GIFTED

We should beware of conflating the needs of the extremely gifted children I have been describing with those of moderately gifted children. Moderately gifted children are only about a year ahead of peers; their educational needs require a different solution. Rather than special classes or schools, these children would likely benefit from the same solution that would benefit typical children: an increase in rigor in our schools, so that they become more like those in Europe or East Asia. There is evidence that increasing expectations for all children brings the lower level up and provides an adequate challenge for both children of average ability and the moderately gifted.

But extremely gifted children, those who are years ahead of their peers, need advanced classes in their area of high ability, not just in the summers or on weekends. This can be accomplished by special schools for the gifted, advanced classes within a regular school, skipping a grade in areas in which the child is gifted, early college entrance (within a structured program), or providing tutoring if the child has an unusual talent.

UNLOCKING OUR HIGHEST POTENTIAL

Gifted children can be identified at an early age, when they show unusually high abilities prior to any regimen of training. The evidence is mounting that gifts are correlated with both structural and functional brain characteristics different from those of typical individuals. It is possible, though not yet provable, that these differences are either present at birth or genetically programmed to be triggered early in life. Evidence from the field of behavioral genetics suggests that gifts are heritable. Studies have shown the heritability of IQ, and, while similar studies are just beginning to be carried out for other gifts, there is little reason to expect that the findings would differ greatly from the IQ findings. 

Our society has not fully accepted the reality of gifted individuals. Perhaps we deny their existence because they run counter to our egalitarian discomfort with those who rise too high.

Our society has not fully accepted the reality of gifted individuals. Perhaps we deny their existence because they run counter to our egalitarian discomfort with those who rise too high. Not all societies have blinded themselves to gifts, however; some have capitalized on them. In Imperial China, examinations were used to pick out those with the highest academic talent. In ancient Greece, Sparta valued those with high athletic talent. American schools today do not typically make the accommodations that highly academically gifted children really need to develop their full potential (and almost never make accommodations for those gifted in music or art). Why not consider making the same kinds of accommodations that have been offered for years to the far larger group of children who have special needs because of retardation or learning deficits? If retarded children are required to be given special education to meet their needs, the same should be done for the gifted. In addition, schools should be prepared to offer advanced training in music and visual arts for children gifted in these areas. The emerging evidence for the very early behavioral manifestations of gifts, the brain basis of gifts, and the heritability of gifts may help educators and policy makers to implement needed changes.

Imagine a society that truly encouraged and nurtured its most gifted. Gifted children would be happier in school and more likely to reach their potential. Those whose parents could not afford private education or lessons would have as much access to a challenging education as those whose parents had such resources. Society as a whole would benefit, too. There are Mozarts and Einstein’s among us—people with the capacity to change our ways of thinking and seeing the world, to make a realm of scholarly thought or artistic creation different from what it was before they discovered it. Gifted children are those most likely to leave such lasting marks on the fields in which they excel. They deserve an education that can bring them to their full potential, and we deserve the fruits of their exceptional minds.  

I thank Howard Gardner and Gottfried Schlaug for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

 

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Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
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