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Should schools do more for gifted students?

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Exceptionally smart students are often invisible in the classroom, lacking the curricula, teacher input, and external motivation they need to reach their full potential.

A new 30-year study tracked 300 profoundly gifted children from age 13 until age 38, logging their accomplishments in academia, business, culture, health care, science, and technology. The results are published in the journal Psychological Science.


“Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” says David Lubinski, professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, who has spent four decades studying talented individuals to correlate exceptional early SAT scores with achievement later in life.

“This population represents future creators of modern culture and leaders in business, health care, law, the professoriate, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Our study provides new insight into the potential of these children.”

The children for the study were selected using above-level testing procedures, namely SAT verbal or math scores achieved at age 13 or younger that placed them in the top .01 percent in reasoning ability.

High achievers

The children’s accomplishments were impressive. Of the 320 participants, 203 went on to earn master’s degrees and above. Of these, 142 (about 44 percent) also earned doctoral degrees—markedly higher than the general population (around 2 percent).

The majority of the children went on to pursue careers of note, becoming senior leaders at Fortune 500 companies, prolific software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and leaders in public policy, including one who advised the president of the United States on national policy issues.

Despite their remarkable success, researchers conclude that the profoundly gifted students had experienced roadblocks along the way that at times prevented them from achieving their full potential. Typical school settings were often unable to accommodate the rapid rate at which they learned and digested complex material.

When students entered elementary and high school classrooms on day one having already mastered the course material, teachers often shifted focus away from them to those struggling with the coursework. This resulted in missed learning opportunities, frustration and underachievement, particularly for the exceptionally talented.

Students who are ‘scary smart’

“There’s this idea that gifted students don’t really need any help,” says Harrison Kell, visiting postdoctoral research fellow in the department of psychology and human development. “This study shows that’s not the case.

“These people with very high IQs—what some have called the ‘scary smart’—will do well in regular classrooms, but they still won’t meet their full potential unless they’re given access to accelerated coursework, AP classes, and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers.”

While there are programs in place to help those with learning disabilities, there are none federally mandated for the gifted, Lubinski says.

“The higher the intellectual ability, the more difficult it may be to match a student with appropriate educational opportunities and curricula. Our study shows what kinds of measures you need to pinpoint the extraordinarily gifted among the gifted students.”

Those students with extraordinary talent in mathematical and verbal reasoning ultimately were motivated to achieve at higher levels if course material was presented at the advanced rates at which they learned, he says.

“Ability, motivation, and opportunity all play roles in developing exceptional human capacity and providing the support needed to cultivate it throughout life.”

Support for the study was provided by a research and training grant from the Templeton Foundation and by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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