Geoff Johnson: Even geniuses need exceptional teachers

It is fair to say that when scientists study something over an extended period of time, we can assume that their conclusions have eliminated the common errors that plague the validity of most so-called “longitudinal” studies — inadequate sample size, failure to implement adequate bias measures, errors in calculations, that kind of thing.

So when successive teams of reputable psychologists from three world-famous universities follow thousands of super-bright kids for four and a half decades and eliminate, as far as possible, the folk wisdom and incorrect assumptions about such kids, the conclusions reached deserve our attention.

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The 45-year study of the life paths of some very bright kids, called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (but abbreviated as SMPY), identified participants across the U.S. by scores of 700 or higher on a section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test reasoning test before age 13.

The SAT is normally used as a college or university suitability test for high school grads.

The SMPY was one of the longest-running studies of gifted children in history, and some of the conclusions may seem obvious; that even kids with genius-level IQs need teachers to help them reach their full potential.

So, for example, if your son or daughter attended a specially staffed “geek camp” (as the kids themselves called the program devised by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth) there’s a good chance he or she might have been in a class with kids like the uber-bright Stefani Germanotta, although Stefani, later known as Lady Gaga, was somewhat more demure in those days.

Other similar “geek camp” programs fostered the potential of kids such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin, along with several eventual Rhodes Scholars.

But SMPY found that when these very bright kids were in school, teachers were not inclined to “push” them, believing that it was preferable to allocate the greater part of class time to helping low-achieving students.

Being smart, concluded the SMPY researchers, doesn’t just mean having an ability to memorize facts or recall names and dates. Intelligence is highly varied from person to person. Some of the smartest kids who struggle with traditional classwork possess a great capacity for spatial reasoning — something that is not traditionally recognized by academically inclined teachers and traditional academic curricula.

These kids, for example, have a talent for visualizing systems, such as the human circulatory system or the anatomy of a hybrid engine.

My cousin Graham falls into that category. Graham hated school with a passion, but could pull a rusted engine out of Sydney Harbour and get it running again, tune it up and resell it. His business is now a million-dollar affair.

Another finding that causes some of us to revise our thinking is that standardized tests aren’t always a waste of time.

SMPY’s data suggests that tests such as the SAT also have some predictive power for kids at an earlier age.

Camilla Benbow, one of the researchers studying SMPY, said these tests were best used not to just distinguish between college entrance winners and losers, but to figure out what kids are good at so that teachers can focus their attention on different areas.

The psychologist Carol Dweck found that over the long haul, successful people, for most of their lives, tend to maintain what’s known as a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset,” meaning they view themselves as fluid, changing beings that can adapt and grow as opposed to believing early on that they have achieved their full potential.

Benbow and her associates on the SMPY project found that talented individuals tend to pursue careers that draw upon their cognitive strengths.

No surprise there, but the 45 years of data established, beyond folk wisdom, that highly able kids with unusually strong mathematical abilities, rather than verbal ones, often study and work in science and engineering.

On the other hand, adolescents with better scores on the verbal rather than the mathematical sections of the SAT frequently went into the humanities, arts, social science or law.

All of this leads scientists such as Vanderbilt University psychology professor David Lubinski to raise a warning flag for educators about the perils of not devising specific programs that challenge exceptional kids: “ If you’re trying to solve problems in the world like climate change and terrorism … [or] managing our health care, you want intellectually precocious youth who have had their intellectual needs met,” says Lubinski.

That might be the strongest argument for taking the SMPY findings seriously.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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