What is Giftedness?

Every child is unique as most parents would readily testify. Yet, there are individuals who stand out for their singular accomplishments. 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 socio-economic circumstances or old-fashioned good luck… or is there something more to the mix?

Research on giftedness and talent strongly suggests that ‘early cognitive ability’ has more effect on achievement than effort, environment factors or luck. Until the 1960’s, tests that measured ‘general intelligence’ or IQ were popular and were used to try and identify individuals with extraordinary ability. But researchers found years later that IQ had missed many notable stalwarts (like Nobel Prize winner and inventor of the transistor William Shockley.)

Reasoning that gifted children are those who demonstrated significantly high proficiency in an area of study (as opposed to ‘general intelligence’), researchers began studying the performance of students in scholastic tests in Mathematics and language. They initially did this using tests for older students as those were the tests easily available. Two things were quickly discovered – one, that these students often successfully solved problems 2-3 levels higher that they hadn’t encountered before; and two, that they significantly outperformed the older aged counterparts for whom the tests were created in the first place!

It was also found that testing early, by the age of 13, helps to identify children and provide them support. Today in the US, the large system-wide testing occurs in grades 5-8 (ages 10-13). Waiting beyond then may delay opportunities to provide the exposure and challenge that develops giftedness.

In the US, systematic identification of gifted children started with the John Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY) in 1979. Duke University began its Talent Identification Program (TiP) a year later. These are the 2 largest giftedness programmes in the world and now have an almost 40 year history. Many of the early students have been tracked and have now reached the peak of their careers. Their career trajectory seems to confirm the case for detecting giftedness early and then investing in it.


Why is it important to invest in Giftedness?

The husband and wife team of David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow direct the longest study on gifted students, now in its 40th year. (Originally titled the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), it retains that name though it now tracks all gifted students, not just those strong in Mathematics). According to them, many of the innovators who are advanc­ing science, technology and culture are those whose unique cognitive abilities were identified and supported in their early years through enrichment programmes such as Johns Hopkins’ and Duke University’s programmes. Pioneering mathematicians Terence Tao and Lenhard Ng, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and musician Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga) were all detected to be among the top 1% students and went through such a programme to support gifted children.

Psychologist Jonanthan 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.”

What does all this mean for us in India? India does not have a systematic programme to detect or support gifted children in school. But even 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 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, on an average, an IIT Alumnus was associated with the creation of around 100 jobs!

Yet, we know that most of India’s school children drop out well before reaching class 12 and even thinking of an IIT. If we could really tap into their skills and detect and support them early, what new cancer cures, clean energy sources and social innovations would they unleash for India and the world?

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. One test the author was asked to comment on as an expert asked for the exact temperature of a Bessemer Furnace and the students had to pick the number mentioned in the textbook from options that differed only by a few degrees! And this was typical of all questions – in fact the question makers had noted the textbook page number where each question’s answer could be found. Such tests do not detect gifted students, indeed they may push out or alienate them.


EI’s Gifted Educational Programmes

At Educational Initiatives, we 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 TiP 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.

The students who clear both levels qualify to attend a 3 week residential programme – the ASSET Summer Programme – which has been held over the years in venues like IIM Ahmedabad, Infosys Mysore, Jindal University and Manipal University. They may also choose to attend day scholar gifted programmes in cities like Bangalore, Delhi and Dubai. While the talent identification tests can be taken by students of grades 5-8, only the older students of grades 7 and 8 are eligible to attend the residential programmes.

But this is a 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 on 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.

Research has consistently shown that even these gifted children have special needs and support is needed both from the family as well as society. Programmatic support is based on the following principles:

  • Students must be provided challenging academic material which is well-beyond their regular age level. In the US, for example, 7th and 8th graders do the equivalent of college level material in 3 weeks! It is fascinating to see them learn new things quickly (for example they pick up trigonometry in the first 2 days of their course which is critical to their course on ‘construction of bridges’.
  • Students must have an opportunity to interact with and learn from experts in their chosen fields: Each course is driven by a course instructor and a teaching assistant carefully selected both for their ability to mentor gifted children and their own passion for the topic. The idea is to expose children to experts but also help them interact with them as mentors in a holistic way. 
  • Students must get exposure to a peer group of similarly gifted students. In a regular school class, very bright students are often considered nerds or the ‘crazy’ ones who enjoy a subject – this is their opportunity to connect with others like them. For this reason, each class should not be more than about 20-22 students.
  • A planned and packed non-academic schedule is as important as the academic programme and designed to promote interaction, allow students to showcase their other talents and build deeper relationships that last beyond the few weeks of the course.

Students who attend such programmes routinely describe them as life-changing and talk of having built strong lasting relationships with both mentors and peers. Research suggests that for many students and parents, the course is an eye-opener into their own potential as well as what they can aspire for. Such programmes simultaneously build their confidence while building humility (they are no longer the ‘best’ in the class). In our programmes, we also try to inculcate a sense of social awareness and responsibility and the spirit that their talents, to a large extent, are gifts, which should also be used for the larger good.


Is Your Child Gifted?

Returning to Camilla Benbow, here are a few simple tips if your child or another child you know is gifted:

  • Expose children to diverse experiences.
  • When a child exhibits strong interests or talents, provide opportunities to develop them.
  • Support both intellectual and emotional needs.
  • Help children to develop a ‘growth mindset’ by praising effort, not ability.
  • Encourage children to take intellectual risks and to be open to failures that help them learn.
  • Beware of labels: being identified as gifted can be an emotional burden.
  • Work with teachers to meet your child’s needs. Smart students often need more-challenging material, extra support or the freedom to learn at their own pace.
  • Have your child’s abilities tested. This can support a parent’s arguments for more-advanced work, and can reveal issues such as dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or social and emotional challenges.

EI’s ASSET Summer Programme 2019 starts in Manipal University, Manipal on May 12, 2019.

Acknowledgement: Some quotes are taken from Clynes T. How to raise a genius: lessons from a 45-year study of super-smart children. Nature 2016; 537: 152–155.

Sridhar Rajagopalan

Sridhar Rajagopalan

Co-Founder & Chief Learning Officer at Educational Initiatives
Sridhar Rajagopalan is a co-founder and Chief Learning Officer of Educational Initiatives.
Sridhar Rajagopalan