Scary Smart

Are Gifted Children Getting Lost in the Shuffle?

Rick Brown/Illustration Source


Gifted children are likely to be the next generation’s innovators and leaders—and yet, the exceptionally smart are often invisible in the classroom, lacking the curricula, teacher input and external motivation to reach full potential.

This conclusion comes as the result of the largest scientific study of the profoundly gifted to date, a 30-year study by Peabody College researchers.

David Lubinski, professor of psychology and human development at Peabody, led the study, which tracked 300 gifted children from age 13 until age 38, logging their accomplishments in academia, business, culture, health care, science and technology as they aged. The results were recently published in a paper, “Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” in Psychological Science.

“Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” says Lubinski, who has spent four decades studying talented individuals to correlate exceptional early SAT scores with achievement later in life. “This population represents future creators of modern culture and leaders in business, health care, law, the professoriate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Our study provides new insight into the potential of gifted children.”

Peabody collaborators on the study were Camilla P. Benbow, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development and professor of psychology, and Harrison Kell, visiting postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology and Human Development.

The children for the study were selected using above-level testing procedures, namely SAT verbal or math scores achieved at age 13 or younger that placed them in the top .01 percent in reasoning ability. The children’s accomplishments were impressive.

Of the 320 participants, 203 went on to earn master’s degrees and above. Of these, 142 (about 44 percent) also earned doctoral degrees—markedly higher than the general population (around 2 percent). The majority of the children went on to pursue careers of note, becoming senior leaders at Fortune 500 companies, prolific software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and leaders in public policy, including one who served the U.S. president as an adviser on national policy issues.

Researchers concluded that, despite their remarkable success, these profoundly gifted students experienced roadblocks along the way that at times prevented them from achieving their full potential. Typical school settings often were unable to accommodate the rapid rate at which they learned and digested complex material. When students entered elementary and high school classrooms on day one, having already mastered the course material, teachers often shifted focus away from them to those struggling with the course work. The result: missed learning opportunities, frustration and underachievement, particularly for the exceptionally talented, the researchers suggest.

“There’s this idea that gifted students don’t really need any help,” says Kell. “This study shows that’s not the case. These people with very high IQs—what some have called the ‘scary smart’—will do well in regular classrooms, but they still won’t meet their full potential unless given access to accelerated course work, AP classes, and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers like Peabody’s Programs for Talented Youth.”

While programs are in place to help those with learning disabilities, no federally mandated programs exist for the gifted, adds Lubinski. “The higher the intellectual ability, the more difficult it may be to match a student with appropriate educational opportunities and curricula. Our study shows what kinds of measures you need in order to pinpoint the extraordinarily gifted among the gifted students,” he says.

“Those with extraordinary talent in mathematical and verbal reasoning ultimately were motivated to achieve at higher levels if course material was presented at the advanced rates at which they learned,” Lubinski concludes. “Ability, motivation and opportunity all play roles in developing exceptional human capacity and providing the support needed to cultivate it throughout life.”

Lubinski and Benbow are co-directors of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. Established in 1971, SMPY is a longitudinal study of more than 5,000 intellectually talented participants that focuses on recognizing different types of intellectually precocious students and discovering conditions for enhancing their educational and vocational development. The individuals selected for this recent study were culled from the SMPY group.

Support for the study was provided by a research and training grant from the Templeton Foundation and by a Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development grant to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Watch an interview with David Lubinski:


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