Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Gifted children

Last Sunday's NYTimes Magazine features an article on gifted children. Although not the angle I would have taken (I'd have focused on the pushy moms), it is very interesting.

One exasperating thing about the article, and the field in general, is that no one defines what gifted is: is it the merely smart (say the top 1%, a group I'd consider myself a member of) or the truly gifted (say IQ>180, which I'm not even close to). This makes a big difference in the number of folks you are talking about. There are approximately 4 million births in the US each year. The top 1% represents ~40,000 kids/year. According to this site only 1/3.5 million people have an IQ > 180, about 1 per year. Obviously this makes a difference when you are talking about public policy.

To illustrate, at one point the article talks about Lewis Terman's studies of those with IQs greater than 135, which is about the top 1% of the population, actually a few more. Later the article talks about "the more mundane variety of Ivy League-aspiring kids". But given 8 Ivys with say 1500 students/class, we get 12,000 kids/year. Making some assumptions about the number of similar schools (Stanford, MIT, etc) and how well Ivies and similar schools attract the most talented students, I'd say the Ivy League does represents about this top 1%. Maybe not exactly, but pretty close.

So point one is that you have to define who you are talking about. One thing you find if you look into gifted programs (which I've done as the father of a child who'd meet at least some definitions of gifted) is the idea that gifted kids aren't just smart, they are somehow different. That is, they don't just represent the extreme right end of a normal distribution, but they are truly distinct. This idea makes no intuitive sense and while the article doesn't directly address it, it's overall take is that this is not the case. I suspect that this idea is mostly put forth by pushy moms demanding special services for THEIR child (I think of these moms as the equivalent of dads who are obsessed with their son's sports careers).

The focus of the article is questioning how useful programs to identify and provide services for the gifted are. Do such efforts help or would the kids do fine on their own? The data on this is at best mixed and in some ways suggest no benefit.

Lewis Terman tried to collect the brightest school children in Northern California:
Terman emerged with an overwhelmingly white and middle-class sample of roughly 1,500 students whose average age was 11 and whose I.Q.'s ranged between 135 and 200, about the top 1 percent.
Not surprisingly, Terman's group didn't yield any Nobel Prize winners. But incredibly it missed two Nobel Laureates in physics: William Shockley and Luis Alvarez! Not only did his screen fail to pick up two Laureates, both might be considered unique even among the select company of physics Nobel winners. Shockley helped develop the transistor, an incredibly important advance, and went on to make a name for himself (unfortunately a bad one) in an unrelated field, eugenics. Alvarez not only won the prize for insights on particle physics, but went on to theorize that the impact of a large asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, a theory that seemed crazy at the time but is now widely accepted. Aren't these exactly the kind of creative geniuses a gifted program would be looking for? Of course, at least these two did alright, even without whatever help Terman's programs might have given them.

One thing I find incredible is that neither Shockley or Alvarez had an IQ high enough to gain entry into Terman's program. The story say Shockley has an IQ of 129, but doesn't mention any score for Shockley. If true Schockley's score would undercut the value of IQ in predicting achievement. I mean The Bell Curve (which I actually liked) told us how important general intelligence is in predicting success in life, and one of the most important physicists of the last 50 years (look at this list of Nobel Laureates in physics and see how many since 1950 you recognize) has an IQ that puts him all the way into the top 3% of the population. That says to me IQ may be necessary and useful (there aren't a lot of laureates with IQs in the 80s) but luck, hard work, and determination are much more important.

Going back to the usefulness of programs to identify and provide services to the gifted, no one has every done a controlled study to show the programs help. I don't find in at all suprising that kids selected for high intelligence are succesful. Check the IQs of succesful people and you'll find they high. But I see no evidence that early identification and providing special services contributes to this. One could certainly imagine ways in which it might even hurt: too much pressure early, discouraging hard work by making them feel above it, etc.

The one exception to this would probably be gifted kids from disadvantaged environments. Middle class kids with smart parents in good schools are probably going to do fine; poor kids in bad schools and tough social situations might benefit from extra stimulation and from being among a group of similarly bright peers. Unfortunatley, all the "gifted" kids profiled in the article (and my guess is the kids in most gifted programs) seem to come from the former group

Well, this is a long post, but my take home from the story is that lots of people worry about what we do for our smartest kids, but there is little evidence that early identification makes any difference. In fact, early programs seem to have missed some of the kids with the most potential.

UPDATE: I've gotten a lot of good responses to this post, most of them emailed to me, not posted as comments. I think people are hesitant to admit they were "gifted" even anonymously. I wonder if they feel bad they haven't achieved as much as they think they should.

The concensus is that hard work is equally important as a determinant of success.

One more point I wanted to make was about pushing kids ahead. I am ambivalent about this in any case since it puts a kid's intellectual needs ahead of social and emotional needs. I think in many cases trying to work out an enrichment program would be much better

What drives me nuts is when kids are pushed ahead when they aren't even ready. If you can enter Harvard at 14 and get A's I can see the argument for doing so. But if you are getting Bs and Cs at a community college at 14, that is child abuse. What is the point of pushing someone ahead so they can struggle?

There was a kid when I was in grad school who had graduated from college (University of Chicago) at 17. His options at that point were limited, since professional schools are unlikely to take someone so young and not many employers are likely to hire someone that age for a typical entry level position for college grads.

So he enrolled in graduate school in biology and failed all his classes the first year due to some personal issues. So now he is a 17 year old college grad who failed out of grad school. What exactly is he supposed to do next?

UPDATE 2: I highly recommend this book


At 12:12 PM, Blogger Tom Watson said...

Hey Dr. Andy, I’ll make a few comments about gifted programs since I have experience with them in a couple of ways. I participated in them during the 70’s and 80’s while I was in school. And my daughter was in a gifted program in the public schools for a while.

First, my experience while in elementary school was excellent. We called it Program Challenge. A small group of us was pulled out of regular classes a couple of times a week for this class. Much of it was logic puzzles or mind bender types of puzzles we would work on. But we would also study special topics in depth. Most of what I know about astronomy and archaeology I learned in the 5th grade. It was by far the best part of my elementary school experience.

By middle school, the program was less challenging and interesting. It was also more work. In high school, it was just another level of class. We would do everything that the advanced class would do plus several extra projects. We did get to read more interesting book in English, but that was about the only advantage I could give you now.

My daughter was also in a gifted program for a while. Given my elementary school experience, I was all for it. Her class, however, was much different. I don’t think that there was anything more mentally challenging put on the kids in her class. It was really just more work. While a regular 3rd grade class may get 15 vocabulary words a week, my daughter was getting 50. Instead of 20 math problems, she would get 70. I didn’t see anything more difficult in the work, there was just more of it. We pulled her out of the program.

From my daughter’s experience in public school, I would actually worry more about students who are simply above average than those who are truly gifted. Because of the testing done in Texas, teachers and administrators are concerned about how many students meet the minimum standards and can pass a test based on those standards. Even when my daughter was reading several grade levels above her class level, she was still being assigned books and material below grade level. Even if more advanced students aren’t being ignored, they are far from challenged.

At 10:58 PM, Anonymous degustibus said...

IQ predicts school achievement, somewhat. IQ plus social class predicts more.

Psychological tests are highly overrated.

All of the tests on OSS (pre-CIA) in WWII predicted exactly nothing.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger jo_jo said...

You say this..."the idea that gifted kids aren't just smart, they are somehow different. That is, they don't just represent the extreme right end of a normal distribution, but they are truly distinct. This idea makes no intuitive sense..." It makes total intuitive sense to me!

Gifted kids - and adults - take in more sensory information than most and process it in different ways. This leads to a highly differentiated experience of life, including social situations. While gifted programs vary greatly in their usefulness and target level, one universally good thing is when they bring smart kids together with other smart kids who "get" them. In our current educational system, it's the best they can do, I guess, but it is better than nothing.

I work with gifted people of all ages, reducing the isolation and validating them on levels that most people never suspect even exist. It's incredibly rewarding, yet very draining to hear that I am the first person in their lives to talk to them like this. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that it is hard to get funding to support something that most people will never experience, which is a huge shame.

You are just as likely to encounter a highly gifted person working in Burger King or begging on the street as you are to find them in an Astrophysics lab. Success does not have a direct correlation with IQ, in fact it has been shown that the most successful people have IQs between 125 and 140. They are different enough to be smarter than average, but not so different that they cannot fit into average systems. The person with 180 IQ has a lot more accomodating to do.

I could go on for hours! But I won't. All the best to you,

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous DawnCNM said...

My brother and I were both "gifted" children, he was skipped a grade but I wasn't. I was often bored in class, but no one noticed because I was quiet and well behaved (maybe more commen for girls of the 60's and 70's). My daughter is also very gifted. Her teachers in early elementary school pushed for her to be advanced a grade (her birthday was only 18 days after the district cutoff) but the principal and school psychologist refused to let her be advanced "because it would interfere with her social development". She has never been challenged in school and I am concerned for when she gets to college and may have to work harder in her classes.
We put her into as many extra curricular programs to challenge her as we could, without pushing her to become one sided. It's not easy, and there has to be a better way.

At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's amazing how much less energy i have now, at 26, than i did 10 years ago. i was certainly in a position to have skipped a grade or three ahead, i think, but that wasn't on anyone's agenda at the time; now i ponder what i might have been able to do with those extra years of teenage vitality if i hadn't been wasting them on junior high and high school. imagine the potential benefit to society of adding a year or more of productivity from thousands of gifted youths, while they're in their prime.

when it comes to things like foreign languages, it's simply astounding how much faster we can learn when we're younger, and yet that's years before most of us realize the opportunities out there for self-improvement, and self-motivated contributions to society. why shouldn't schools do more to show young gifted children those opportunities? i agree there are issues of concern in the relative contributions of a child's motivation/interest and a parent's pushiness, but when i think back on all the opportunities i missed, just because i had no clue they were out there...

you speak about kids getting burned out or getting hurt by special programs. what about the mind-numbing sense that long years of junior high and high school will teach you nothing? i remember in my school they added a new math class for my grade because we had a bunch of smart kids: in 6th grade they taught us regular 7th grade math. but then the next year, there was no place for us to go other than advanced 7th grade math. frustrating! i'd say if a school has the resources to do it, go ahead and offer (and encourage) as many challenges as a gifted child will sign up for.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Dr. Andy said...

Thanks for all the good comments. This has been one of my most popular posts as far as comments go.

Jo-Jo I was intrigued by you assertion that gifted people are inherently different, that they can take in and process more information. Is this just your experience or is is there some data behind it? I don't see why the intelligent would necessarily take in more information than others (I'd think perhaps they'd be better able to focus on critical data, ignoring the rest). Or would you define gifted in another way than just intelligence.

Also, any data behind the statistic that the most succesful have IQs between 125 and 140? I found that fascinating as well

Anonymous, you are 26 and you think you've been irreparrably harmed by not skipping grades? I think you should get over it and get on with your life.

Two conclusions I've drawn from thinking about this post and the comments (several people emailed me comments instead of posting them):

1. Work ethic matters
2. The quality of gifted programs differs greatly. It is obviously not enough just to have gifted programs, they have to be good (although some feel just getting the smart kids together may be enough, which I would have tended to agree with before)

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Dave Harmon said...

My experience and readings suggest there are two general classes of "gifted" people, not entirely distinct but still separable.

The first group are simply the high end of the "normal distribution" (Bell curve) for intellectual abilities. This probably represents those successful "moderately gifted" types, who respond to "standard" education with simple excellence.

The other, more varied group, are "neurological sports", with subtle or gross variations in brain layout and/or connectivity. These changes can give a variety of special talents, but they often "break" other mental facilities, producing learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or other problems.

This second group are the ones who really need the special environments and/or techniques, because they have non-standard minds, and may respond poorly to standard educational methods. At the same time, they do seem to fall into categories, probably reflecting the accessible variations from "usual" brain development. I would guess that many children with "learning disorders" fall in this group, e.g. "non-verbal learning disorder", where enhanced verbal ability is associated with dramatic deficits elsewhere.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I was in it, "Gifted" was both socially awkward and rewarding all in one blow. The kids were bused once a week to the class, a pretty noticeable aspect of the program. One of my teachers at my regular school had more problems with it than peers who were not part of it. He really disliked the idea of some kids "not being gifted", and I can and could sympathise. He did a better job of alienating us from the rest of our class than any of our regular classmates ever had. I remember a few sarcastic remarks. Poorly aimed--eleven year olds weren't great targets--but his antipathy had weight. It does seem grossly unfair to test children once, point your finger, and say that only certain ones belong to some elite class. Maybe yearly testings would have been more appropriate. But perhaps too much pressure.

Nevertheless, the program was an important piece of my life and I wish it had continued through junior high and high school. The hands-on aspect and intense discussions about subjects were so helpful to me. I had a hard time finding those elements in highschool, and was happier when I started taking summer classes at the local community college and later in Running Start. And socially, Gifted turned out to be a huge boon. Not at the time, necessarily, but some of those classmates ended up being my best friends. They're remarkable people and I was lucky to meet them.

Some thoughts though: I say my Gifted friends are remarkable, but is that apparent to other people? Honestly, I'm not sure. I think we have an ability to quickly sense patterns--which makes some types of learning very easy for us, but that's not something you ken unless you bother noticing or get to know us. I know that I'm intensely curious about everything, but that's just me, not all of my friends share that trait. I've known people with Downs syndrome who are also very curious. As you mentioned, ranking in the top 1% for IQ doesn't necessarily equate with success, drive, academic brilliance, or being notable. So much hinges on this quantifying of intelligence, yet where does it get us? The identity is too limited. If my IQ is tested at 113, and I'm not in Gifted, do I expect less of myself? Is my intelligence really static? Will I always test within 10% of that number, regardless of what I'm exposed to? And if I'm above 150, where does that leave me? Doesn't mean I've achieved a thing. I know that I deal with personal failure very poorly. I expect huge things of myself and the future's pretty uncertain. Success in life is largely determined by a degree of luck and some very practical traits, like drive. As we know, IQ is no indication of practicality.

At 7:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not believe "highly intelligent" and "highly gifted" to be synonymous terms.
Despite the protestations of psychologists and psychiatrists, I believe IQ tests to be a very incomplete measure of intelligence. If they were accurate, we would not have debates over occurrences such as the Flynn effect and research which has shown differing mean iqs attributed to different countries.
Speaking from my own personal experience as a "gifted" individual, I concur with Dave, in that there are a category of individuals whose brains are simply wired differently from the majority of people. Because our brains, rather than our eyes, are the lens through which we view the world, this category of individuals will naturally perceive the world in a different way.

At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Andy,

I highly recommend THIS book. Given your children are likley gifted....I suspect you will find it quite informative. Read and learn.

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Exceptionally Gifted Children"
by Miraca Gross

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks to everyone for the content on here. I found this to be very therapeutic. I got put into one of those gifted programs when I was a kid, and I'm glad that I got to meet some kids that were interested in my interests and stuff, but in the end I think it caused me some problems. I learned early on that an easy way to earn some respect or some attention was by doing things and making them look easy. i.e. math that the rest of the students were finding took them some work. I think this really made me avoid undertaking any intellectual pursuits that demanded serious time and work because to me they weren't worthwhile, I couldn't impress people with my supposed lightning intellect if it took time and energy to complete it. As school went on, and as it required more and more work, this became a really big problem, and I am now seeing this for the first time. Nobody, no matter how intelligent they are, can write a thesis without it taking major time and energy, or even a freshman term paper. So my ingrained habit of many years has become my biggest weakness. For whatever reason, this just dawned on me while reading the article and all the comments on here. Thanks everyone.

I think maybe the gifted programs should work to teach kids to undertake projects that aren't easy for them, and try to condition them not to seek some easy affirmation. The program that I attended basically told us that we were way smarter than the kids in our classes and regular methods couldn't teach us properly so we got to go to the center and do a bunch of weird stuff all day once in awhile instead of being bored in class.

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