A Different Kind of Genius: Standardized Learning vs Beautiful Diversity

What society seems to favor in young people — obedience, popularity, good school behavior, robust mental health, plus good grades and test scores — doesn’t necessarily build on their inborn strengths. In fact the very things we define as problems are vital aspects of human diversity. Suppressing them hinders a young person’s full development into who they are.

Here’s some of the science behind kids who go their own way.

image: youtube

Eleven-year-old Bill was defiant and got into heated shouting matches with his parents. By the time he was 12 years old, things had gotten so bad he was in counseling for his behavior. He told his counselor, “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control.”

Plenty of us broke the rules growing up and didn’t go on to earn billions as Bill Gates did, but there may be something to defiance. In 2008, researchers got in touch with nearly 750 participants from a 1968 study. In the original study these participants had been sixth graders who’d had their intelligence, attitudes, and behavior assessed. Now the participants were in their 50’s. The researchers looked for personality traits correlated with success. They controlled for IQ, household income, level of education, and other factors. They found one particular childhood characteristic predictive of those who went on to become high achievers in adulthood — rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority.

Other studies amplify these findings, showing that teens who were truant from school, who cheated, shoplifted, or displayed other anti-social behaviors (although not serious crimes) were more likely to go on to found their own companies.

We don’t know for sure why there’s such a strong correlation between youthful defiance and adult success, but it we do know traits that make strong-willed kids seem “difficult” — things like persistence, non-conformity, boldness, confidence, intense interests, and independence- —  are the same traits that in adulthood characterize leaders in business, governance, athletics, and entertainment. Strong-willed kids want to find out for themselves rather than be told, and this not only helps them resist peer pressure, it can help them think beyond conventional thinking to new ways of doing things. Like Bill Gates.

image: YouTube

Stefani wasn’t popular. According to the book Doable, she was teased, called “ugly” and “weird,” and could barely face going to school. Stefani was so desperate to transform herself from a “voluptuous little Italian girl” to a “skinny little ballerina” that she became bulimic in high school, stopping only when her vocal chords started to become damaged.

Lady Gaga is now one of the best-selling musicians of all time. Unpopularity doesn’t mean we’re likely to top the charts in 20 countries, but popular kids with loads of friends aren’t actually happier than those with just a single really close friend. Kids with larger, less intimate social networks worry, even obsess about their status, influence, and power. Instead of having close relationships, they often have many people to manage. Popularity, especially in girls’ high pressure online lives, can feel more like managing one’s self-image than being truly known to one’s friends. Studies indicate kids with few, but close friends, even one best friend, grow up to have less depression, less anxiety, and higher self-worth.

How popularity may be gained is another concern. Research shows teens (especially young teens) often try to look and act more mature than they are in order to gain peer approval, what researchers call pseudomature behavior. This can include early use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, sex, and late partying. This often works short-term to boost their popularity. Long-term pseudomature behavior is linked to a greater likelihood of serious problems in adulthood including difficulties with close relationships, substance abuse issues, and criminal behavior. And overall, it turns out those who aren’t the “cool” kids in school are more likely to be personally and professionally competent as adults.

image: Erik van Leeuwen

Michelle was a handful in grade school. “I could not sit down long enough to study and to learn,” she says. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Although she still struggled, she learned to work harder and work differently. Michelle Carter is now an Olympic champion holding the American record in women’s shot put.

Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, says there’s a strong connection between dyslexia and success. Although fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population is believed to have the disorder, a study found more than a third of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic. It’s thought struggling to get by in a reading world helps people develop skills like problem-solving and perseverance. It also gives them experience with failure early on, teaching them to take more calculated risks and see opportunities where others don’t.

Dyslexics may have other strengths as well. Dr. Gail Saltz, author of The Power of Different, explains in a CNN interview that there’s a good probability people with dyslexia are more likely to have an enhanced aptitude for visual-spatial relations. “It has to do with the wiring that makes it difficult for (a person) to read and do things in a very particular way. That same wiring permits a certain kind of ability in (a person’s) peripheral vision and processing and visual-spatial processing and pattern recognition.”

Many studies have found a link between dyslexia and creativity. Comparing scores on Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) between young students with dyslexia to those of normative TTCT samples indicated children with dyslexia were significantly better at generating many ideas and more original ideas.

Comparing scores on the WCR (widening, connecting and reorganizing) Creativity Test between middle school students with and without dyslexia showed students with dyslexia were better able to carry out unusual combinations of ideas. (What researchers strangely called “the peculiar cognitive functioning of people with learning disabilities.”)

And after years of seeing an association between dyslexia and remarkable artistic creativity, a school of art and design funded research to study the link. Admission to the school was extremely demanding, meaning student vocation choice relied on talent and not compensation for failure in conventional academics. Lead researcher Beverley Steffart found the student body intellectually at the top 10 percent of the population, yet three-quarters of students overall were found to have some form of dyslexia. In an interview with the Independent she said, “My research so far seems to show that there does seem to be a `trade- off’ between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.” “

Thomas G. West points out in his book In The Mind’s Eye that dyslexic people often have the gift of thinking in three dimensions, easily able to rotate an image in their minds or visualize every detail of a completed project. He write, “historically, some of the most original thinkers in fields ranging from physical science and mathematics to politics and poetry have relieved heavily on visual modes of thought. Some of these same thinkers, however, have shown evidence of a striking range of difficulties in their early schooling including problems with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation, and memory.” He notes such early learning difficulties plagued Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo da Vinci, William James, William Butler Yeats, and many others. “Many of these individuals may have achieved success or even greatness not in spite of but because of their apparent disabilities. They may have been so much in touch with their visual-spatial, nonverbal, right-hemisphere modes of thought that they have had difficulty in doing orderly, sequential, verbal-mathematical, left-hemisphere tasks in a culture where left-hemisphere capabilities are so highly valued.”

image: Britannica.com

At 14, David was bored and reclusive. He spent most of his free time in his bedroom on the computer. His mother, a science teacher, didn’t push him to pay more attention to his classes at the Bronx High School of Science. Instead she suggested he drop out to homeschool so he could learn what he wanted to learn. After that, David didn’t pursue traditional academic subjects or go on to college. By the time he was 17 he was living alone in Tokyo, writing software, and providing tech help for a parenting blog.

He didn’t like writing as much as the blog required, so when he had a two-week gap in contracts he worked with a friend to set up a tumblelogging platform. In 2013, David Karp sold Tumblr to Yahoo for 1.1 billion. Many of us homeschool and haven’t come up with a lucrative innovation, but we do know the emphasis on high grades and test scores isn’t a formula for success.

As education reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Research also links higher grade point averages to less innovative or creative work overall. What’s being tested is has so little to do with the adaptable, creative, critical thinking necessary for today’s world that employers like Google, Apple, IBM, Bank of America don’t emphasize grades, test scores, even college degrees the most important criteria in the hiring process.  Actually, studies show that high test scores in school don’t necessarily predict any of several hundred measures of adult maturity and competence. Increasing test scores, however, were found to be directly related to interpersonal immaturity.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?” The conclusion? Not really. Grades and test scores only do a good job of forecasting a student’s future grades and scores. They do not necessarily correlate with later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. And they are not good predictors of success in career advancement, handling real life problems, or maintaining positive relationships.

That’s true in other parts of the world as well. Students in China who achieve the highest scores on college entrance exams have been found to achieve less in life after school than those who scored lower. All this test pressure, to decrease a child’s chances of success!

 

 

image: Britannica.com

Another boy named David struggled with anxiety and compulsions. His repertoire of tics included rocking, counting his steps, and hitting himself on the head. Teachers were particularly frustrated by his urge to lick light switches. David was also witty and a close observer of people. He dropped out of college, did odd jobs, and dabbled in art throughout his 20’s, finally finishing an art degree in his early 30’s. When he was invited to read one of his humorous essays on NPR, David Sedaris’ career took off. He’s now the author of nine bestselling books and his speaking tours sell out each time he travels.

In an article titled “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora explain that gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood and mislabeled by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. They may try all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

As Ms. Azpeitia and Ms. Rocamora go on to explain, “For the gifted, inner conflict is a developmental rather than a degenerative sign, because it drives the gifted person forward to replace current ways of thinking and being with those of higher level development. This type of positive disintegration is characterized by an intensified inner tension between what one is and what one could be. This dynamic tension is what fuels the creative person’s complex inner life and provides the impetus for growth and development.”

All sorts of studies have found links between creativity and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and compulsions. One such study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants in the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields.  Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness.

According to neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creating Brain, creative people are often skeptical of authority and prefer to make up their own minds. They are more drawn to questions than answers, and may find rituals help them cope with ambiguity. Feelings of alienation, fear, and depression are common and can themselves drive even greater creativity.

We talking about a different kind of genius.

Mathematician Eric Weinstein says conventional educational gets in the way of genius. Genius is associated with high-variance, and such variance is often found in people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other differences. Dr. Weinstein says they aren’t suited to conventional educational systems, and explains,

“If you look at the learning disabled population they very often are the most intellectual, accomplished members of society… These are the individuals who are going to cure cancer. These are the people who are going to create new multi-billion dollar industries… How much genius is squandered by muting the strengths of these populations?”

Standardized expectations don’t allow us to see that our differences are a necessary part of who we are. That isn’t to minimize the difficulties people experience as they struggle to grow up and find their way, but it can help us to accept each person as a unique constellation of traits, abilities, and inclinations. Instead of emphasizing what we perceive as a young person’s weaknesses, we can build on their strengths. Instead of forcing them to “make up” for what we think they’re missing we can let them explore what enchants them. Instead of insisting on one narrow path to adult success we can throw the definition of success open to what each person makes of it.

How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

One of my four beloved and gifted children (a son I won’t mention by name here) didn’t care much for proving himself in school. This is the boy who, at two years of age, maintained an interest in styles and brands of vacuums, even requesting a trip to Sears for his birthday to linger as long he liked in the vacuum section. He commonly asked me questions I didn’t have answers for, like “Do bees have intestines?” and “Do trees feel cold in winter?” When he was three he discovered that bones have Latin names. Then he pestered us to find out those names so he could memorize them. Before he was four he used grown-up tools to build things and take things apart.

He was unfailingly warm-hearted, eager to help, highly creative, and endlessly curious. Family, friends, even acquaintances told us his obvious giftedness meant he needed experts to guide his education.

Gifted kids may not show their abilities early 

When Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius followed nearly 1,500 young people with high IQ scores, he missed two future Nobel prize winners —William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, whose scores were too low to qualify for the study.  In fact, many Nobel laureates did not show exceptional ability in childhood, and some actively disliked school.

  • Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921) did well in subjects he liked, but refused assignments that bored him, preferring to read and tinker with building sets. He wrote, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”
  • George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1925) attended only a few years of school. He wrote, “…there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison.”
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was a late talker and by his third birthday he still hadn’t spoken a single word. He read avidly on his own but described his grammar school as stultifying, “an intellectual desert.”
  • John B. Gurdon  (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) labored on despite what his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15 years old. “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he was already reading. The only child in his class whose reading ability was championed was a girl whose parents were both physicians. She was brought to the front of the class so she could read to her peers from picture books in a regular display of her precocity. My child, son of a blue collar father, was expected to complete rote pre-reading worksheets reinforcing words like “run” and “jump” along with the rest of the class.

A recent study confirms wealthy elementary students are much likelier to be placed in gifted programs than their lower-income counterparts, even when those students attend the same school and show the same levels of academic achievement.

We miss most gifted kids 

Students are typically tested for giftedness when they’re nominated by teachers. For a variety of reasons, including unconscious racial and class bias plus a tendency to mistake compliance for potential, research shows teacher nominations miss over 60 percent of gifted kids. This is a shocking number.

Researchers concluded their 2016 article in Gifted Child Quarterly with a strongly worded statement.

“The authors of this article are on record in opposition to a model of gifted education which begins with an attempt to “identify the gifted,” because we believe that the usual conception of giftedness as a trait of individuals, with stable manifestation across academic domains, lifespan, and educational arrangements (cf., Peters et al., 2014), is not educationally useful though it is scientifically interesting.”

From kindergarten on, my son was not all that interested in school. He drifted along, easily able to ace tests but not all that interested in getting through assignments that didn’t interest him. Now I see that as integrity — like so many other young people who remain true to themselves within larger institutions. At the time I was told this was nothing but laziness.

Gifted kids may not easily fit in the school setting

They may be labeled as difficult, even medicated to make them easier to manage. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research links five types of “overexcitability” to giftedness, each one hard to accommodate in a typical classroom setting.

  • Intellectual overexcitability: Relentless questions and a drive to go deep into concepts.
  • Imaginal overexcitability: Doodling, daydreaming, unable to let the imaginary world go.
  • Sensual overexcitability: Strong reactions to sound, texture, taste, touch, sights.
  • Psychomotor overexcitability: Rapid talking or fidgety behavior, urge to expend energy.
  • Emotional overexcitability: Sensitivity to and difficulty “getting over” emotions.

Research done by Ruth  Karpinski indicates giftedness is also associated with  mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity,,autism, and physiological diseases that include autoimmune disease, environmental and food allergies, and asthma.

Studies consistently show that personality traits associated with creativity are hard to manage and therefore discouraged in the classroom. One study found the second grade children who scored highest on tests of creativity were also identified as those who were disciplined the most.

There are various estimates, but it’s thought that a quarter of gifted students are considered underachievers and as many as 18 percent drop out of high school.

Through the years my son got mostly A’s and B’s in school. Although teachers appreciated that he was polite and quiet, they told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”  When we asked to have him tested for the district’s gifted program we were told he didn’t qualify because his teacher didn’t recommend him. The teacher said she didn’t recommend him because his work was unfinished or hastily done too often. It didn’t matter that he was reading high school level books in second grade (at home), it mattered that he followed the rules. When they finally agreed to pull him out of class for an IQ test his score came in at 118. Bright, not gifted. I knew that wasn’t an accurate assessment.

We rely too much on tests

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, the longest-running longitudinal study of gifted kids, tracked 5,000 high-potential individuals — some for over 45 years. It demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized tests and talent searches because these approaches miss many gifted kids in poor and rural areas. It also found the types of tests used were too limited. Teens who excelled in spatial ability were among those most likely to go on to produce more patents and professional publications than their peers, meaning students who simply test well in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability have exceptional potential in STEM fields.

As Tom Clynes explains in “How to Raise A Genius: Lessons from a 45 year Study of Super-Smart Children,” published in the journal Nature,  spatial ability is largely built, from infancy on, through hands-on exploration such as helping with varied tasks, playing with loose parts, using maps, doing puzzles, having questions answered by demonstration, using tools — building potential by doing. Not doing assignments on paper or screen.

So we took our son to Case Western Reserve University for more professional testing. He was there for hours. He was found to be profoundly gifted in all sorts of areas. Overall IQ score came in at 151.

Even with those results our award-winning school district said that he didn’t meet the performance standards necessary for the gifted program. Nonetheless, they grudgingly admitted him. This was a good program with highly qualified teachers, and it increased his enthusiasm somewhat, but he still didn’t see the point of schoolwork.  Teachers still told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”

Gifted kids don’t fit mainstream assumptions 

Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that being exceptional is actually the core of the human condition because difference is what unites us. He asks to what extent parents should push children to become what they believe is their best selves.

Dr. Solomon says raising exceptionally gifted children is complicated in an age and ability-segregated educational world. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.” This puts heavy pressure on parents and teachers. The education system is constructed for an average that doesn’t, in any one individual, exist. The farther from that norm, the more a child is a misfit. Dr. Solomon speculates that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.”

To my lasting regret, we followed the advice of teachers and guidance counselors to take away things our son loved to do until his schoolwork was done. Over the next few years he was too often deprived of his delightfully nerdy interests in things like ham radio, model trains, and small engine repair because he just couldn’t get around to finishing a report. I know now that this was the exact wrong advice, that he was building knowledge and capabilities far more necessary for his whole being and far more relevant to a lasting acquisition of math, science, history, and language skills in the pursuit of his own interests than he ever could in by regurgitating facts on a test.

Giftedness appears to be, in large part, a developmental process 

A decade and a half of the Human Genome Project failed to find genes that explain differences in intelligence. Hundreds of studies affirm what a Bowlby Centre report sums up as “virtually no genes explaining significant amounts of variance in traits.” Genetically, genetic variance explains less than five percent of traits such as intelligence or psychological differences. In other words, smarts are not “fixed” in the genes.

Families of gifted children tend to provide an enriching environment, have high expectations, be child-centered, and offer a great deal of independence but these characteristics don’t necessarily “cause” giftedness either.

The 30-plus year Fullerton Longitudinal Study took a different approach to understanding how giftedness evolves. Instead of following kids identified as gifted, it started in 1979 by following healthy one-year-old children, regularly assessing them until the age of 17. One interesting result was identifying a second form of giftedness —motivational. Motivationally gifted kids remain intrinsically drawn to challenging and novel tasks, show persistent curiosity and a drive toward mastery. The more conventional category, intellectually gifted kids, showed advanced capabilities early and performed at a higher level across various subject areas. But their intrinsic motivation didn’t necessarily survive through adolescence. Researchers said there was very little overlap. Intellectually gifted kids may persist in curiosity and achievement, but motivationally gifted kids were distinctly more likely to work harder, learn more, and succeed. Researchers urge educators to nurture motivation in all students. They remind teachers that students do best when given greater autonomy and freedom to question assumptions, when they’re exposed to complex and novel ideas, and when they can work toward mastery rather than be judged by testing.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in an article for The Atlantic titled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” sums up this research by writing, “All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process.  It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

In fact, children’s belief in their own ability to be successful learners —particularly children who are considered at-risk in the school environment — may be a key factor in expanding intellectual mastery.

One day my 14-year-old son and I had an appointment with the guidance counselor. This man started in on a lecture about how smart kids made a school look good. He told my son most students had little choice, that they were essentially doomed to drive the brain equivalent of a Volkswagen, but my son was born with a Maserati race car brain. That did not have the desired impact on either of us. I sat there thinking this was an offensive analogy, my son later told me he was thinking this guy didn’t know much about race cars.

The appointment got worse.

The counselor, a man with a master’s degree and three decades of experience suddenly stood up, loomed over me, pulled back his fist and started to throw a punch at me. My son leaped out of his chair just as the punch halted a foot from my face. “See,” the counselor said, “you’d do anything to keep your mom from being hurt. But you’re hurting her every day by not doing your best.”

My son’s education wasn’t about me, or that school’s test scores, or what anyone wanted my him to prove. Although we’d been told from the time he was a toddler that we needed experts to deal with such a gifted child, the counselor’s heavy-handed manipulation helped me see, imperfectly, that experts had been getting it wrong. He’d been showing us all along how he learned best and the adults in his life did their very best to ignore that.

Full use of their gifts may be squelched

Even the most promising child prodigies rarely grow up to use their genius in profoundly creative ways. They excel early on at music, math, or science, but when that excellence is aimed at gaining approval of adults through extraordinary performances or test scores it may not nurture more creative, unconventional approaches. Original compositions don’t necessarily arise from Rachmaninoff played to perfection and new innovations don’t necessarily arise from impressive grasp of facts. Interestingly, when 500 top scientists were asked to identify the core traits of exemplary scientists, they put curiosity at the top. And we’ve known for a long time that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate with adult happiness, career success, good relationships, or mental and physical health.

My son is doing well as a  young adult, which is all any mother can ask. But I would like to apologize to him for believing experts when all along he was right there showing us that he needed to learn in his own way.