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How to raise a genius, according to a 45-year study on extraordinary kids

Making a mastermind.

BEC CREW
8 SEP 2016
 

A survey of 5,000 intellectually talented children has now entered its 45th year, and the insights it’s uncovered when it comes to fostering talented and struggling kids alike could inform how future generations are taught in schools.

"Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society," Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, said of the participants. "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."

 

Initiated by Julian C. Stanley from Johns Hopkins University, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) launched in March 1972. It started off with 450 intelligent 12- to 14-year-olds from the Baltimore area, who were examined via the mathematics portion of the SAT. 

As Tom Clynes explains for Nature magazine, it became the first ever standardised academic 'talent search', and five years later, Stanley expanded the study to include more kids. He also decided to track them throughout their lives, from school to higher education through to career development and beyond. 

The first four groups of students included in the study ranged from the top 3 percent to the top 0.01 percent in their SAT scores. A fifth group of the leading mathematics and science graduate students was added in 1992, rounding out the 5,000 or so participants.  

After the SATs, follow-up surveys were planned for when the first four cohorts turned 18, 23, 33, 50, and 65, and the fifth cohort has so far been followed-up at the age of 35, with follow-ups at 50 and 65 to come.

"I don't know of any other study in the world that has given us such a comprehensive look at exactly how and why STEM talent develops," Christoph Perleth, a psychologist at the University of Rostock in Germany, who is not involved in the study, told Clynes.

Insights gleaned from the study - which is still ongoing - have been discussed in more than 400 papers and several books over the past four decades.

 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the results so far is that they go against the conventional wisdom that you can become an 'expert' in something - or at least very proficient - so long as you put the practice in.

As a separate study from earlier this year found when it comes to mastering a sport, for some people, no amount of practice - 10,000 hours or otherwise - is going to get you across the line. 

The same appears to go for academic success, the results of SMPY suggest, identifying early cognitive ability as the single biggest factor when it comes to achievement, over both deliberate practice and environmental factors such as socio-economic status. 

That might be pretty discouraging for those not born with early cognitive ability, but another factor was singled out as being crucial if you want to foster intelligence in kids, both over-achieving and struggling - they need to be nurtured.

It's a little controversial, but the study found that intelligent kids could be at a disadvantage in communities that choose to focus on struggling kids. Instead of leaving the high-achievers to their own devices, the results suggest that they should be encouraged to accelerate through grades if they're up to it, or given access to university-grade materials.

As Clynes explains:

"The SMPY data supported the idea of accelerating fast learners by allowing them to skip school grades.

In a comparison of children who bypassed a grade with a control group of similarly smart children who didn't, the grade-skippers were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field."

"These kids often don't need anything innovative or novel," says psychologist David Lubinski from Vanderbilt University, who helped run the study after Stanley's retirement in 1998. "They just need earlier access to what's already available to older kids."

While the study emphasised the need to identify intelligent kids early on and give them the same attention as those who have to fight to keep up, separate research argues that the way we label kids as 'gifted' or otherwise is not exactly smart.

"With so much emphasis on predicting who will rise to the top, we run the risk of selling short the many kids who are missed by these tests," Dona Matthews, a developmental psychologist in Canada, who was not involved in the study, told Nature magazine

"For those children who are tested, it does them no favours to call them 'gifted' or 'ungifted'. Either way, it can really undermine a child's motivation to learn."

Interestingly, there was one skill that stood out among the five cohorts as being somewhat of an indicator of future success - spatial ability.

Described as an ability to mentally manipulate 2-dimensional, 3-dimensional and 4-dimensional figures, the study found that those participants who had the highest number of patents and peer-refereed publications under their belt throughout the follow-up surveys were more likely to have had higher scores in spatial-ability tests.

As Clynes reports, the SAT results jointly accounted for about 11 percent of the variance when it came to professional output, and spatial ability accounted for an additional 7.6 percent, suggesting that it could be used as an indication of creative and technical prowess.

"I think it may be the largest known untapped source of human potential," Lubinski told him. "And yet, no admissions directors I know of are looking at this, and it's generally overlooked in school-based assessments."

You can follow the progress of the SMPY, and the peer-reviewed papers that have resulted from it, here.

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