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Posted by ESA Administrator on 25 July 2017

Extracts from an article in The Guardian

Lewis Terman, a pioneering American educational psychologist, set up a study in 1921 following 1,470 Californians, who excelled in the newly available IQ tests, throughout their lives. None ended up as the great thinkers of their age that Terman expected they would. But he did miss two future Nobel prize winners – Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both physicists – whom he dismissed from the study as their test scores were not high enough.

There is a canon of research on high performance, built over the last century, that suggests it goes way beyond tested intelligence. On top of that, research is clear that brains are malleable, new neural pathways can be forged, and IQ isn’t fixed. Just because you can read Harry Potter at five doesn’t mean you will still be ahead of your contemporaries in your teens.


Research shows brains are malleable, new neural pathways can be forged and IQ can be improved with the right support and encouragement.



Photograph: Alamy

According to Prof Deborah Eyre, the latest neuroscience and psychological research suggests most people, unless they are cognitively impaired, can reach standards of performance associated in school with the gifted and talented. However, they must be taught the right attitudes and approaches to their learning and develop the attributes of high performers – curiosity, persistence and hard work, for example – an approach Eyre calls “high performance learning”. Critically, they need the right support in developing those approaches at home as well as at school.

So, is there even such a thing as a gifted child? It is a highly contested area. Prof Anders Ericsson, an eminent education psychologist at Florida State University, is the co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. After research going back to 1980 into diverse achievements, from music to memory to sport, he doesn’t think unique and innate talents are at the heart of performance. Deliberate practice, that stretches you every step of the way, and around 10,000 hours of it, is what produces the expert. It’s not a magic number – the highest performers move on to doing a whole lot more often find their own unique perspective along the way.

Ericsson’s memory research is particularly interesting because random students, trained in memory techniques for the study, went on to outperform others thought to have innately superior memories – those you might call gifted.

He got into the idea of researching the effects of deliberate practice because of an incident at school, in which he was beaten at chess by someone who used to lose to him. His opponent had clearly practised.

But it is perhaps the work of Benjamin Bloom, another distinguished American educationist working in the 1980s, that gives the most pause for thought and underscores the idea that family is intrinsically important to the concept of high performance.

Bloom’s team looked at a group of extraordinarily high achieving people in disciplines as varied as ballet, swimming, piano, tennis, maths, sculpture and neurology, and interviewed not only the individuals but their parents, too.

While the jury is out on giftedness being innate and other factors potentially making the difference, what is certain is that the behaviours associated with high levels of performance are replicable and most can be taught – even traits such as curiosity.

Eyre says we know how high performers learn. From that she has developed a high performing learning approach that brings together in one package what she calls the advanced cognitive characteristics, and the values, attitudes and attributes of high performance. She is working on the package with a group of pioneer schools, both in Britain and abroad.

But the system needs to be adopted by families, too, to ensure widespread success across classes and cultures. Research in Britain shows the difference parents make if they take part in simple activities pre-school in the home, supporting reading for example. That support shows through years later in better A-level results, according to the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary study, conducted over 15 years by a team from Oxford and London universities.

Eye-opening spin-off research, which looked in detail at 24 of the 3,000 individuals being studied who were succeeding against the odds, found something remarkable about what was going in at home. Half were on free school meals because of poverty, more than half were living with a single parent, and four in five were living in deprived areas.

The interviews uncovered strong evidence of an adult or adults in the child’s life who valued and supported education, either in the immediate or extended family or in the child’s wider community. Children talked about the need to work hard at school and to listen in class and keep trying. They referenced key adults who had encouraged those attitudes.

Einstein, the epitome of a genius, clearly had curiosity, character and determination. He struggled against rejection in early life but was undeterred. Did he think he was a genius or even gifted? No. He once wrote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

 'Character first, ability second' Dr Shinichi Suzuki