There is a large amount of data on giftedness and talent, gathered over the last few decades, that suggests ‘early cognitive ability’ has more effect on achievement than effort, environmental factors or luck.
Every child is unique, with special social, emotional, intellectual and physical abilities. Yet, there are individuals who stand out from the rest for their accomplishments. So, what sets apart a poet like Rabindranath Tagore, a researcher and institution builder like Vikram Sarabhai, or a successful CEO like Mark Zuckerberg? Is it merely the 10,000-hour rule of deliberate practice, favourable socioeconomic circumstances or old-fashioned good luck… or is there something more to the mix?
There is a large amount of data on giftedness and talent, gathered over the last few decades, that suggests ‘early cognitive ability’ has more effect on achievement than effort, environmental factors or luck. Up until the 1960s, researchers mostly relied on standardised measures, such as the IQ test to spot individuals with extraordinary abilities. However, it was found years later that these general intelligence tests had failed to identify many notable stalwarts and Nobel laureates like William Shockley.
The new idea was that gifted children may not excel in the IQ test, but can demonstrate high proficiency in a singular area of study. Upon this realisation, researchers began studying the performance of students in scholastic assessment tests like math and language. Initially, they conducted these tests using question papers created for older students. The results of these tests were eye-opening. Students often successfully solved problems that they hadn’t encountered before and sometimes outperformed their older counterparts. It was also found that early testing of students (by the age of 13) helps to identify students with outstanding potential.
Today, in most first-world countries, large-scale system-wide testing is carried out among children studying in grades 5-8 (ages 10-13). Educational advocates believe that early detection is crucial for the intellectual development of gifted individuals. In the US, systematic identification of gifted children started with the John Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY) in 1979. The following year, Duke University began its Talent Identification Program (TiP). These two are not only the largest but also the longest running giftedness programmes in the world. Several students, who were part of the TiP, have now achieved excellence in their respective fields of work. Their remarkable career trajectory clearly confirms the case for detecting giftedness early and then investing in it.
Why is it important to Invest in Giftedness?
Given how malleable a child’s brain is, it’s safe to say that IQ is not fixed. Despite showing early signs of giftedness, one may not necessarily be ahead of his contemporaries. According to child psychologists, gifted students need the right support to develop the attributes of top performers – curiosity, persistence, and, of course, hard work. One of the history’s longest-running studies of gifted students, led by husband-wife duo David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, has confirmed this. Originally titled Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), the research claims that many modern innovators were identified and supported in their early years through talent enrichment programmes.
Pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, and famed musician Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga) were all detected to be among the top 1% students and later went through similar programmes.
Psychologist Jonathan Wai at Duke University’s TiP programme puts it even more directly, “Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society. 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.”
It is very important to understand how a child learns and support her/his learning. For example: at EI, have been working at detecting and supporting gifted children in India since 2009. For the first few years, we worked as the exclusive partner of Duke University’s programme which offered its then first non-US programme in India. Today, EI’s ASSET test and a special 2-grades-above ASSET Talent Search are used to identify gifted students. The ASSET Talent Search is written by students who have already qualified in the top 10% of their grade in English, Mathematics or Science. But, this is just a drop in the ocean as a country like India needs hundreds of such programmes! If just 0.1% of the top students of grades 7 and 8 were to be given a chance to attend such a programme, that would be 48,000 students every year. These are the number of students every year whose ability is at par with the best of the best – IF they are identified and supported. This would also be a powerful vehicle for social justice and equity because it is the poor who, even if bright, often drop out, so their talent goes unrecognised and unrewarded. Of course, it is critical that the design of both the test and the programme are high quality and scientific based on the rich research in this area.
The Indian Scenario
India, where almost a quarter of its population consists of students, does not have a systematic programme to detect or support gifted children in school. However, the identification of students to prestigious institutions like the IITs and AIIMS has led to amazing returns for India (and, indeed, the world). A study by the India Brand Equity Foundation showed that the IIT alumni had an “annual revenue responsibility” of about USD 1 trillion globally in 2008. They had been associated with incremental revenue addition to the tune of USD 200 billion in the previous year. And, an IIT alumnus was single-handedly responsible for the creation of around 100 jobs!
Yet, the majority of India’s school children drop out well before reaching 12th standard. Now, imagine if we could identify all the gifted students and provide them with end-to-end support. Today’s young talents, if nurtured, have the potential to become the innovators of tomorrow. We could possibly be looking at a cancer-free world or more clean energy sources.
Ironically, many Indian states do have their own ‘talent search’ exams, but they tend to be low-quality tests, which are rote and textbook-based. It is about time that the government should intervene and support initiatives that promote children with exceptional abilities. As the unemployment crisis continues, we can’t afford to miss gifted and talented students due to inadequate identification systems. If we fail to detect them at an early age, we risk damage to these individuals as well the society itself.
This Article is Written by Sridhar Rajagopalan, Co-founder & Chief Learning Officer, Educational Initiatives