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A study has been following 'gifted' kids for 45 years. Here's what we've learned.

Some of what we used to think about gifted kids turned out to be wrong.




What can we learn from letting seventh graders take the SAT?

In the 1960s, psychologist Julian Stanley realized that if you took the best-testing seventh graders from around the country and gave them standard college entry exams, those kids would score, on average, about as well as the typical college-bound high school senior.

However, the seventh graders who scored as well or better than high schoolers, Stanley found, had off-the-charts aptitude in quantitative, logical, and spatial reasoning.


In other words, they were gifted.

In the 1970s, Stanley and his team launched a full-scale study, identifying many of America's gifted kids and tracking them throughout their lives.

The study, called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth never ended and is now nearly 45 years in the making. It has followed countless kids from middle school into their careers as some of America's top politicians, scientists, CEOs, engineers, and military leaders.

Stanley passed away in the mid-2000s, but psychologist David Lubinski helped bring the study to Vanderbilt University in the 1990s, where he now co-directs it with Camilla P. Benhow.

It's not a stretch to call this the biggest and most in-depth study on intellectual "precociousness." The results of the study thus far are equal parts fascinating and genuinely surprising — a deeply insightful look into the minds and lives of brilliant children.

1. Some of what we used to think about gifted kids turned out to be wrong.

Ever heard the saying "early to ripe, early to rot"? It basically means doing "too much" to foster a kid's special talents and abilities at too young an age could actually cause harm in the long term.

That's not even remotely true, at least not according to Lubinski.

That might be an outdated example. But Lubinksi says there are plenty of other misconceptions still alive today, like the idea that gifted kids are so smart that they'll "find a way" to excel even if those smarts aren't nurtured and developed.

Not so fast. "They're kids," he explains. "They need guidance. We all need guidance."

2. Intelligence is not the same as passion.

Quick, what's the "smartest" career you can think of. Doctor? Scientist?

While you do have to be pretty brilliant to work in medicine or science, those are far from the only career paths gifted kids choose later in life.

"Quantitatively, gifted people vary widely in their passions," Lubinski says. Many of the students in the study did end up pursuing medicine, but others went into fields like economics or engineering. Others still were more gifted in areas like logical or verbal reasoning, making them excellent lawyers and writers.

"There are all kinds of ways to express intellectual talent," Lubinski explains.

When it comes to doing what's best for a gifted student, it's just as important for parents and educators to know what the student is passionate about rather than pigeonholing them in traditionally "smart" fields and registering them in a bunch of STEM courses.

3. Hard work definitely still matters.

Measuring a student's aptitude, their natural abilities, is only one part of the equation when it comes to determining how successful they'll be in life. Aptitude scores can identify a particularly strong natural skill set but tell us very little about how hard that person might work to excel in that field.

Effort, Lubinski says, is a critical factor in determining how far someone's going to go in life. "If you look at exceptional performers in politics, science, music, and literature, they're working many, many hours," he says.

(And for the record, there are a lot more important things in life than just career achievement, like family, friends, and overall happiness.)

4. Regardless of aptitude, every kid deserves to be treated as though they were gifted.

The study's focus is specifically on kids within a certain range of intellectual ability, but Lubinski is careful to note that many of its findings can and should be applied to all students.

For example, the kids in the study who were given an opportunity to take more challenging courses that aligned with their skills and interests ultimately went on to accomplish more than the students who were not afforded the same opportunity.

"You have to find out where your child's development is, how fast they learn, what are their strengths and relative weaknesses and tailor the curriculum accordingly," Lubinski says. "It's what you would want for all kids."

It may sound a bit like a pipe dream, but it's a great starting point for how we should be thinking about the future of education in America.

If you'd like to learn more about the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, check out this short film on the project created by Vanderbilt University:

Quick Learners; High Achievers: Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth

This article originally appeared on 09.22.17

Cipolla's graph with the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself and causes to others.

Have you ever known someone who was educated, well-spoken and curious, but had a real knack for making terrible decisions and bringing others down with them? These people are perplexing because we're trained to see them as intelligent, but their lives are a total mess.

On the other hand, have you ever met someone who may not have a formal education or be the best with words, but they live wisely and their actions uplift themselves and others?

In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" that provides a great framework for judging someone's real intelligence. Now, the term "stupid" isn't the most artful way of describing someone who lives unwisely, but in his essay Cipolla uses it in a lighthearted way.

Cipolla explains his theory of intelligence through five basic laws and a matrix that he believes applies to everyone.


First Basic Law

"Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation."

Cipolla believes that the mind can hardly comprehend the sheer amount of stupid people that exist in the world. In his first law he asserts that "any numerical assumption would turn out to be an underestimate."



Second Basic Law

"The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person."

This is what I was getting at in the introduction. A person may have the characteristics of intelligence, but don't be fooled; stupidity is equally distributed among all groups of people.

"Whether one frequents elegant circles or takes refuge among cannibals, whether they lock themselves up in a monastery or decide to spend the rest of their life in the company of a beautiful partner, the fact remains that they will always have to deal with the same percentage of stupid people," he concluded.

Third Basic Law

"A stupid person is one who causes losses to another person or a group of people while they gain nothing or may even suffer losses."

Cipolla believes that true stupidity isn't a reflection of someone's IQ, but their behavior. We all know people who present themselves as being intelligent but may believe in wacky conspiracy theories or make terrible decisions with their money because they fall for get-rich-quick schemes.

In other words, you are what you do. Not what you say or think. Truly intelligent people take smart actions and care about the well-being of others.

Fourth Basic Law

"Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that in any time and place and circumstance dealing and/or hanging out with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake."

Ever have that friend who made a lot of bad decisions but you still hung around them because they were a lot of fun? Eventually, no matter how hard you try to keep their drama at distance, it'll infect your life.

Fifth Basic Law

"Stupid people are the most dangerous type of people."

Intelligent people are predictable and are concerned for the well-being of others. The stupid are unpredictable creators of mayhem and don't care who their actions affect.

Cipolla created a matrix that describes the four types of people: stupid, helpless, bandits and the intelligent.

Cipolla's matrix.via Wikimedia Commons

Stupid people's actions are counterproductive to themselves and others.

Helpless people contribute to society and can be altruistic or moral. But they're often taken advantage of or give much more than they receive.

Bandits are opportunists that pursue their own self-interest even if it harms others.

Intelligent people contribute to society and leverage their contributions into reciprocal benefits.

Cipolla's basic laws may not be backed up by hundreds of pages of psychological research, but they help explain why seemingly intelligent people can make terrible decisions and why people who may not appear to be so bright can be beacons of wisdom.

The underlying truth of the matter is that intelligent people take smart actions and stupid people make dumb decisions. It doesn't matter how many books you've read or your social status. As Forrest Gump once said, "Stupid is as stupid does."


Recently, we learned that President Trump is not very good at keeping secrets.

According to a bombshell Washington Post report, in the course of bragging about how cool his job is, the president revealed highly classified "code word" intelligence to Russian officials visiting the White House.

Oops. Photo by Michael Reynols-Pool/Getty Images.


Most people would know not to do this.

In fact, you probably wouldn't even need to be a person in the White House to keep America's national security secrets safe. A reasonably competent nonverbal mammal could probably pull it off — and an animal president would come with a lot of advantages. No Twitter! No press conferences! We could pay them in food!

But which animal?

I wanted answers. More importantly, I wanted a Plan B for America.

Is there an animal that would be better at keeping secrets than the current president of the United States? And how quickly could John Roberts make that animal swear on a Bible?

The surprising, I-kid-you-not, possible secret-keeping savior species? Chimpanzees.

Photo by Guillame Souvant/Getty Images.

According to a 2015 study, chimpanzees can actually determine who it's important to hide information from.

Researcher Katja Karg of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, discovered that the great apes are able to identify individuals seeking to do them harm, and they are cautious enough to conceal information from them accordingly.

"Chimpanzees understand others' intentions, and they can adjust their behaviour to these intentions by flexibly manipulating what they make visible to others," lead researcher Karg told the BBC in 2015.

Researchers exposed 24 chimps to competitive humans, who would steal food from their cages, and cooperative humans, who would pick it up and feed it to them.

They discovered the chimps were more likely to keep food hidden in the presence of competitors and not say, for example, "Hey, we've got great food. The best food. The most delicious chocolate cake you've ever seen. Let me show you exactly where it is."

The experiment concluded that the chimps are able to selectively, intentionally deceive — and not just because they don't talk.

The key to chimpanzees' ability to keep secrets? They are able to distinguish between friend and foe on a very basic level.

Like, for example, the difference between the leader of an allied and long-term partner nation...

Photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images.

...and a couple of guys who (probably) lied about the reason they brought cameras into your office.

Russian Foreign Ministry. Photo via AP.

Once the chimps make the distinction between friend and foe, they are able to adjust their strategy — hiding resources from individuals out to get them, while sharing with those who are friendly.

You know.

Basic stuff.

Which raises the question: Is it time to oust Trump and install a great ape in the Oval Office?

Not so fast, it turns out.

"They are not very good at [keeping secrets]," Karg told the BBC, of her chimps' performance in the experiment. "You can help them by giving them some way to distract themselves."

In some ways, perhaps they're not so different from our current president after all.

That said, what would be the harm in giving Mr. Bananas a few weeks to call the shots?

Photo by Andreas Solaro/Getty Images.

Could things really get any weirder than they already are?

Imagine a classroom with 20 children, four computers, and no teacher. Under those circumstances, do you think the children could teach themselves?

This was educational technology professor Sugata Mitra's theory when he decided to put a computer on the side of a public wall in Delhi, India, 18 years ago.

At the time, he was working in the city for a computer software developer training company. His workplace sat next to a slum. He wondered how the children he saw there everyday would learn to work with tech in the modern age.


Mitra's regular work with computers allowed him to set up one with a basic search engine on a wall near his company's office.

The children, who had never seen a computer before, without any guidance began to learn new things and even teach themselves using the device.

Image via TEDGlobal 2010.

After this first "hole in the wall" experiment, Mitra decided to take his research a step further. He set up more computers in rural areas of India to see if this self-learning trend was ubiquitous, each time asking local children to solve a problem or address a question.

Relying only on each other and the computer as a guide, the children could always come up with the correct answer.

Mitra had discovered a new way of teaching that could revolutionize education as we know it.

He calls it a Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE). The idea is simple: give small groups of students computers and let them solve problems by working together. Teachers then facilitate with positive reinforcement.

The process works like this:

1) Students are given a big question or are challenged to think on their own. 2) Students choose their own groups and can change groups at any time. 3) Students can move around freely, speak to each other and share ideas. 4) Students can explore in any direction that they choose. 5) Groups are expected to present what they have learned at the end of the session.

Mitra believes it's the collaborative nature of the experiment that sparks learning. A child plus a computer alone does not equal brilliance.

He equates it to the swarm intelligence in animals. "It’s like when ants are carrying a large piece of food," Mitra explains. "We ask, 'How does any one of them know whether to push or pull? Who’s managing the show?' And the answer is: nobody."

An ant on its own can't move that food, but a group can move it 100 times over. Mitra believes the same theory applies to humans and learning.

In 2013, Mitra won the first ever $1 million TED prize for his SOLE research. He used the money to set up SOLE labs in England and India.

SOLE lab in Greenfield, U.K. Image via School in the Cloud.

The response from the children who used them was overwhelmingly positive. They loved teaching themselves with encouragement from facilitators rather than instructions. Just like with the "hole in the wall" experiments, when working together, they almost always came up with correct answers to problems.

The SOLE labs in India proved something else: Children in areas where educators are scarce can learn almost anything using only the internet.

There are now five SOLEs established in poorer areas of India. If teachers/facilitators have a problem or question, they can ask others who are utilizing the system around the world via the School in the Cloud community.

There's also a web of virtual teachers called the Granny Cloud who act as online encouragers to students if needed.

Image via School in the Cloud.

While this method of learning may help children thrive in our technology-based world, it does not set up kids for success in today's classrooms.

Educators believe letting children use computers on exams means they're not actually learning, but Mitra is working to change that.

He believes that with answers available just one click away on the internet, children no longer need to learn by memorization. He suggests schools should be teaching children how to find answers (which is what they'd be doing in the real world) rather than having them remember the answers.

In order for the SOLE concept to spread, the entire school testing system would need to change. Mitra says it's like solving any other problem in a SOLE — the answer will become clear with heads together and time.

Mitra has noticed, however, that schools are becoming more and more accepting of the School in the Cloud concept.

Image via School in the Cloud.

To Mitra's surprise and delight, tens of thousands of SOLEs have popped up all over the world independently of his work, all self-organizing under local hubs. Mitra says people often poke fun at him saying, "You mean you didn’t know the idea of the SOLE would self-organize?”

He believes the educational system as a whole will continue to bend in this direction, with or without his help. This progression could be a vast improvement on the current education system because it's actually teaching children how to navigate the world as it currently exists  — almost predominantly online. Today, it's all about finding answers to problems quickly and efficiently — shouldn't that then be our schools' primary mission?

Just because a system's been in place for hundreds of years doesn't mean we need to treat it with such reverence. It's time our teaching methods caught up with technology — in the cloud.