Geoff Johnson: For gifted kids, effort is key to success in life

What does Stefani Germanotta — better known as Lady Gaga — have in common with pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin?

Despite their different career paths, they all graduated from John Hopkins University’s Centre for Talented Youth, which Hopkins psychologist Julian Stanley developed in the 1980s.

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Stanley developed the centre as an adjunct to his 1970s-era study of gifted kids called a Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth.

Both the study and the centre included young adolescents who scored in the top 1% on university entrance exams.

Interesting enough, but the idea of providing separate educational programs for kids identified as being gifted or talented is still, in 2021, an idea whose time has yet to come.

Part of the problem is that “gifted” is a widely applied non-specific term used to describe obviously bright kids, but is a descriptor not limited simply to measures of intelligence.

The simplest and most useful definition of “giftedness” in any area of a child’s development is Joseph Renzulli’s Venn representation, which promotes a broadened conception of it.

Renzulli is professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, where he also serves as director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

His definition suggests that “giftedness” consist of three characteristics in equal parts: intelligence, creativity and perseverance. Two out of the three characteristics does not satisfy the definition.

The point of Renzulli’s definition is that giftedness does not simply equate with traditionally narrow measures of intelligence.

Some psychologists, like Harvard neuropsychologist Howard Gardener, even suggest there are multiple kinds of intelligence, ranging from kinesthetic (think Olympic gymnast Simone Biles) to linguistic, mathematical or music intelligence (think Yo Yo Ma).

Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program in Durham, North Carolina, combined data from 11 long-term studies, including the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, to demonstrate the correlation between early demonstrations of exceptional ability of one kind or another and subsequent adult achievement, as measured by a variety of performance assessments and observations.

Wai’s conclusions challenge the long-established idea that expert performance is built mainly through practice — that anyone can get to the top with enough focused effort of the right kind.

The same research also emphasizes the importance of carefully nurturing precocious children at a time when the prevailing focus in public education is still, in 2021, on improving the performance of students who struggle with school.

Even so, there is an emerging realization among educators and researchers that “giftedness” in children is also a form of disability, one that distinguishes them from their classmates and can make life perplexing for them.

Despite the many insights that emerged from Stanley Julian’s landmark Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, researchers still have an incomplete picture of the relationship between giftedness and achievement. “We don’t know why, even at the high end of potential, some people will do well and others won’t,” says Douglas Detterman, a psychologist who studies cognitive ability at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Julian Stanley passed away in the mid-2000s, but psychologist David Lubinski had already helped bring the extended Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth to Vanderbilt University in the 1990s.

Lubinski’s expanded research produced what has been described by writer and researcher Evan Porter as “fascinating and genuinely surprising — a deeply insightful look into the minds and lives of brilliant children.”

When it comes to doing what’s best for a gifted student, Lubinski says, it’s more important for parents and educators to know what the student is passionate about rather than pigeonholing them into traditionally “smart” fields, including parental aspirations for a university education for their child.

Again, says Lubinski, the normal means of measuring a student’s aptitude and natural abilities are only one part of the equation when it comes to determining how successful they’ll be in life.

Effort, Lubinski says, is a critical factor in determining how far someone is going to go in life.

For a child who has exceptional abilities of one kind or another, the pursuit of self determined success will not be easy and it may be that Renzulli’s inclusion of perseverance as a significant factor is the key that parents and teachers of “gifted” kids need to understand and encourage.

As Stefani Germanotta is quoted as advising from her own career experience: “You have to fail and then get better. Then you have to fail again, and then get even better.”

Geoff Johnson is a former Superintendent of Schools. In the late 1960s, his teaching career included two years at a New South Wales “selective” high school for gifted kids.

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