Follow thousands of super-bright kids for four and a half decades and you learn a thing or two about how to raise a high-achiever.
One of the biggest takeaways: Even kids with genius-level IQs need teachers to help them reach their full potential.
Since it began in 1971, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) has tracked 5,000 of the smartest the children in America — the top 1%, 0.1%, and even 0.01% of all students. It is the longest-running study of gifted children in history.
Set against an education system that often prioritises lifting up the lowest-performing kids, SMPY’s findings present another claim: Don’t forget about the kids at the tippy-top.
“Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society,” Jonathan Wai, psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, recently told Nature. “The kids who test in the top 1% tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires.”
Unfortunately, much of the research from SMPY (pronounced simpy) indicates that kids who show an early aptitude for subjects like science and maths tend not to receive the help they need. Teachers who see their brightest students mastering material and getting straight As choose instead to devote the majority of their attention to under-achieving kids.
As a result, the kids who may have gone on to invent life-changing medical devices or sit in the United Nations can fall into less influential roles.
SMPY reveals that assuming the smartest kids can achieve their full potential without being pushed is misguided. One of the many follow-up reviews in the study’s 45-year run showed that grade-skipping can play a vital role in kids’ development.
When researchers compared a control group of gifted students who didn’t skip a grade to those who did, the grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn patents and doctorates and more than twice as likely to get a Ph.D. in a field related to science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM).
Even at the upper limits of intelligence, in other words, kids can still slip through the cracks.
But teachers and parents can also read that finding with optimism. If they notice a child is gifted, the best evidence suggests they should never stop supplying that child with tougher and tougher work. They should see where their limits are and make sure they’re intellectually stimulated as often as possible.
SMPY has also found that teachers and parents can help high-achieving students by recognising what kinds of intelligence they possess. Many gifted children, for instance, tend to have exceptional spatial reasoning skills. Over time, those strengths can develop into the abilities needed to achieve success as engineers, architects, or surgeons.
No matter how teachers and parents challenge kids to further develop these abilities, 45 years’ worth of data suggests it’s imperative that they do. The future of the world could depend on it.
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