Geoff Johnson: Gifted students need challenge to excel

So your son or daughter has been identified as being “gifted.” What does that mean for his or her future prospects?

Professors Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski of Johns Hopkins University had originally wanted to find out the answer to that question by tracking what became of kids who had off-the-charts aptitude in quantitative, logical and spatial reasoning — in other words “gifted” kids. They conducted an ambitious 45-year project called A Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth.

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But 45 years is a long time and produces a ton of data, some of which is still being analyzed, so in the meantime, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth was created as a byproduct of the study.

The centre’s gifted and talented summer programs offered these demonstrably bright students, all of whom scored in the top one per cent of their college entrance exams, the opportunity to engage in challenging academic work in the company of peers who shared their exceptional abilities and love of learning.

Students passing through the initial program included pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng and some other one-percenters who later became better known: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Not surprisingly, among other key findings emerging from the original study of “gifted” or “talented” children was that a student’s aptitude and natural abilities are only part of the equation when it comes to determining how successful that student might be in later life. Aptitude scores can only identify a particularly strong natural skill set, but will tell us very little about how hard that person might work to excel in their chosen field.

As a case in point, among others in this original cohort of outstanding young adolescents at the Johns Hopkins centre was a bright and determined young musician named Stefani Germanotta.

Germanotta was a prodigy who had begun to play the piano at the age of four, and wrote her first piano ballad at 13. She also studied method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and gained early admission to the Collaborative Arts Project, a music school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Today, Germanotta is possibly the best known example of the theory of giftedness as proposed by University of Connecticut’s Joseph Renzulli. His theory is that genuine giftedness requires a combination of intelligence, creativity and perseverance — the ability to put in the work and stick with it in pursuit of a goal. Two out of the three characteristics were not enough to be considered genuinely gifted.

The young musician persevered and paid her dues, having served as an apprentice songwriter during an internship at Famous Music Publishing, which gained her a music-publishing deal with Sony/ATV. As a result, she was hired to write songs for Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Fergie and the Pussycat Dolls before finding her own level of personal, artistic and professional success.

A second and more controversial idea supported by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth is the notion that some form of acceleration might be a good thing for bright kids. That doesn’t necessarily mean skipping grades.

There are other forms of in-grade acceleration that see the student remaining with an age group for grade placement while working with a more flexible curriculum.

A third finding of the study was that, as Lubinski explains: “There are all kinds of ways to express intellectual talent.”

His point is that when it comes to doing what’s best for a gifted student, parents and educators must avoid restricting their assessment of a student to the traditional “smart” fields without a lengthy period of exploration about all the possibilities.

The study found that kids who were given the opportunity to take more challenging courses in line with their own emerging skills, enthusiasms and interests, inevitably went on to accomplish more than students who stayed the course academically but never found anything that lit up their passion and enthusiasm.

A 20-year study in Australia came to the same conclusion. Young folks who were not afforded the opportunity to explore above and beyond the set curriculum tended to choose less challenging college and university courses.

We can only assume that somewhere along the way, Germanotta, that talented, creative and hard-working young musician who came out of the Center for Talented Youth program, must have found the right teachers who fostered her unique muse.

We know that because we today see Germanotta, as Lady Gaga, fill large stadiums for her concerts.


Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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