Geniuses teach themselves

“Gifted” education doesn’t do much for geniuses, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. “An occasional pullout class is likely to be less interesting to them than their own research in their parents’ bookcases, kitchens, the local library and the Internet,” he writes.

Our schools have more than they can handle in helping other students become fully functioning adults. There may be something to the view that socially awkward geniuses need a safe place to be weird, but the better approach is to focus on stopping bullying of all kids. Public schools are mostly successful at finding people who know how to teach English, math, history and science, but we don’t know how to encourage creativity very well and might find it better to let the gifted do their own exploring.

He offers a counter-example: In her 1977 book, Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, Julie Ray profiled a Houston sixth-grader she called Tim.

He was in an ambitious public school’s gifted-education program that would later be called Vanguard. Tim was reading dozens of books and had several science projects underway. He was surveying classmates in order to rate all the school’s teachers. He loved the school’s small group discussions, where he was free to share his wildest ideas.

“Tim” appears in Brad Stone’s new book, The Everything Store. His real name is  Jeff Bezos. His store is Amazon.

Checker Finn is researching how other countries educate high-ability students. No country does it very well. Singapore is the best — but only for the top 1 percent.

“Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents,” though Hungary is trying hard to reach disadvantaged students.

About Joanne


  1. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Gifted education doesn’t do much for geniuses who have supporting, nuturing, academically inclined home environments.

    It does wonders for the really smart kids who aren’t so lucky.

    Jay Matthews is a smart cookie, but he’s a comfortably middle-class guy writing about comfortably middle-class issues from a comfortably middle-class perspective.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      The other issue he brings up is gifted/magnet programming to help the geniuses with social skills. He claims eliminating bullying would be enough..

      But… simply eliminating bullying doesn’t put the smart kids in touch with other kids of similar IQs. When you’re young it’s just hard to have a CONVERSATION with someone whose IQ and interests are on a different level than yours… much less to be FRIENDS with them.

      So… he’s condemning these kids to social isolation. Now, you might claim that school isn’t about socialization… but usually the PS types are all about how socialization is important. (Which is why homeschooling is evil.)

      The magnet/genius programs don’t just provide an education. They also provide an environment where the kids can learn to be normal human beings who happen to be smart, as opposed to walking brains who are only good for solving math problems.

      • The kid whose IQ is 30-40 points above his class/schoolmates isn’t likely to fit well with his age mates. I don’t think it matters if his IQ is 130 or 170; it’s not a good fit; such kids need to be with their intellectual peers more than they need to be with their age mates. Of course, doing that would require schools to care about meeting bright kids’ (not just geniuses, who are in a different category altogether and whose needs are unlikely to be met outside of separate schools). Right now (unlike the rest of the world), we pour rivers of money into the most severely handicapped, who will never be able to contribute to their own support, and ignore the kids upon whom our continuing economic success depends. I think it’s 12 cents for spec ed for every penny on the gifted. If the useless “pullout” and artsy project type gifted programs aren’t counted, I’m sure it’s much worse than that.

  2. cranberry says:

    Jay Matthews writes about education–but he’s really imprecise in his use of terms in this essay. He’s conflating three types of “genius.”

    There’s the “genius” defined by IQ test results. Terman’s subjects scored 135 or above, according to Wikipedia. Then there are the “geniuses” who are exceptionally creative, thus, genius as a fount of creation and innovation. And then there are the “geniuses” who are unusually successful in some life niche.

    Of the three, only one type could be determined for school-aged children. The other two measures are retrospective titles, awarded by acclaim (?) to successful adults by others. Those adults need not have high IQ to be “geniuses.”

    His premise is really circular, isn’t it? The (retrospectively dubbed) geniuses were successful in ordinary schools, thus schools don’t need to pay attention to students who might be geniuses. However, his retrospective definition is subject to survivor bias.

    I would suspect that the group of people Jay Matthews would define as geniuses would have been more likely than not to have had middle-class or upper-class upbringings. Our society loses the people from other backgrounds who might be geniuses as adults, when they are failed by the schools. Think about that. We should not worry when the institutions we require children and young adults to attend fail to educate those children most able to learn, just because they don’t have pushy parents.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    Gifted kids need mentors who can help them explore their interests. Reading books can only take you so far.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    I have many bad things to say about gifted education, but it is not and should not be directed to geniuses. He’s dumbing down the word. I genuine genius is a rare creature, indeed – less than 1% of 1%. No type of standardized education will be adequate for a genius.

    The goal should be to give all kids, whether genius or not, and education that meets their needs – a specialized education. Something are current system isn’t able to do successfully.

    • cranberry says:

      Everyone has a different definition of genius. As I think over the article, though, even Matthews’ example of Bezos doesn’t support his article. Bezos’ high school might have been a garden variety high school, but his middle school supported his spark.

      Some of the children who didn’t “make the cut” to be one of Terman’s subjects earned Nobel Prizes. Feynman’s IQ has been reported to have been 125.

      If we take 125 as the starting point, about 5% of children have the potential to be hailed as geniuses in 2060. We cannot today point to those who will be seen as exceptionally successful people in 2060. That does not mean that it’s a good policy to ignore the smartest in each generation.

      I also think that social isolation is terrible for the bright. Just as special ed parents dread their children being sent to special schools, the parents of the gifted should dread their children only being in the company of those with high IQ scores. It’s great to have people who get your jokes, but if you are too “weird,” people stop listening.

      There are many potential geniuses, but in the end, genius is defined by doing something. Genius must act in some fashion. In order to act effectively, you can’t seek out isolation.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        But in a typical PS classroom you have DE FACTO social isolation anyway. You start out as the weird one, and you never LEARN to interact with normal people because you’re the weird one. For most skills, we realize that you learn the easier stuff first and that HELPS you learn the harder stuff.

        Social skills are the same way. Putting the bright kids in with their intellectual peers teaches them the skills (listening, asking questions about other people’s interests, compassion, etc.) that they need in order to be able to socialize with EVERYONE.

        Meanwhile, if you just throw them in the deep end, they drown and learn nothing.

        Some kids need a lot of practice to learn fractions. Others need lots of practice to learn how to carry on a conversation with the people in line at the supermarket. Assuming “If they’re not bullied, they’ll be fine” does them a great disservice.

        • Cranberry says:

          Some very bright kids are socially isolated; some are not.

          The students in the Ivy League and Stanford, as a whole, are not socially isolated. As a matter of fact, it’s very hard to get in if you don’t have adequate social skills. And yet the test score averages for those colleges put the majority of those students in the range of “potential geniuses,” if one uses Terman’s standards, including the Nobel Prize winners who did not “measure up.”

          Now, one could say, “well, thousands of bright kids make it into the Ivy League, and have adequate social skills, thus bullying of smart kids should not be a concern of the public school system.” Such an argument would ignore the thousands of students who are being bullied or just giving up, because they find neither adequate intellectual stimulation nor a foothold in the teenaged social scene. There are lots of kids who learn that it’s safer to keep their heads down and not answer too many questions correctly.

          Matthews’ argument also ignores the fact that many American high schools did track when Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, and Brian Wilson (?) attended high school. Support for the very able has eroded in American public education in the last few decades. Some parents are able to pick up the slack; many parents can’t.

      • I disagree, both about the sped ed kids and the bright kids. The parents of cognitively handicapped kids we’ve known chose to send their kids to the spec ed HS (which is still open), rather than their zoned HS. They recognized that their kid would be wasting their time “doing” academics far beyond their ability and chose to have them work on preparation for employment. We lost touch with one family but the other kid has been working as a housekeeper or a big hotel chain for more than 20 years. I’ve also known kids who attended the Thomas Jefferson magnet and they were SO happy to be with kids like them, both for social reasons and for the challenge of it.

  5. Poor Jay. He seems like a nice, polite guy who dislikes disagreement and always seeks comfortable compromise. Sadly, the controversies surrounding public education require an iconoclast since so much of public education’s supported by unquestionable assumptions. That situation demands the breaking of crockery and Jay doesn’t like noisy arguments.

    Jay teeters on the edge of confronting those unquestionable assumptions and then pulls back. He can observe the shortcomings of the public education system but he doesn’t have quite the constitution to confront those shortcomings.

    So he writes about how the public education system does a lousy job for smart kids and for poor kids and for kids with medical problems all without looking for a common thread. A common thread might lead to more in the way of criticism then Jay’s willing to entertain so each problem exists in isolation.

    But as unquestioning faith in the public education system erodes Jay will have less and less to say that’s of interest to those who concern themselves with the education of the children of our nation. Sooner or later the Washington Post’s going to have to act on Jay’s increasing irrelevance but at sixty-eight Jay might just escape dealing with the unfolding dissolution of the public education system in retirement.

  6. Well, I don’t know much about geniuses, but I know that it was very helpful to have a real teacher to learn calculus from. If we had been left to our own devices, I’m sure most of us wouldn’t have learned nearly as much. By the definition of “IQ above 135”, that class had at least four geniuses in it. One of them was the teacher, thank goodness.

  7. Linda Seebach says:

    The schools should use IQ as the criterion for identifying gifted students, not because that’s the only way to be gifted, but because intellectual development is central to the schools’ mission and schools are central to society’s interest in fostering intellectual development. (And because children gifted in other ways, say music or sports, are not lockstepped into average performance in those area six hours a day.)

    Two standard deviations above average (that is, IQ >= 130) is a reasonable cut point, as long as it’s fuzzy up or down a few points. Consider:

    Average (or above): One out of two (by definition).
    Smart: at least one S.D. above average: One out of six. (Several in a typical class.)
    Very smart: at least two S.D. above average: One out of 50. (One per grade in a small elementary school. A child at that level has probably never had a teacher smarter than he is. It’s also approximately the requirement for Mensa membership.)
    Highly gifted: at least three S.D. above average: Three in 1,000. (IQ tests do not distinguish above this level; there’s no way to norm them.)
    Severely gifted (what my son’s school called him): at least four S.D. above average: One in 10,000.

    An average child would not be placed deliberately in a special-ed classroom where the average IQ is 70. A very smart child in an average classroom is likewise misplaced. Yes, he needs to learn how to interact with average people; but who can he learn that from, except others like him who know how? And he also needs to find out that there are, in fact, people a lot smarter than he is.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      “he also needs to find out that there are, in fact, people a lot smarter than he is.”

      This ^^^^^^^^ is a huge one. I was lucky to be ‘average’ for my HS class. So when I got to college, I knew I wasn’t the smartest person on campus. People coming from schools where they’d always been the smartest kid around had a lot more trouble adjusting….

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      I don’t think I’m much brighter than most folks. But I have what I refer to as XRAM–extremely random access memory–and when something goes in, it’s likely to pop back up when something else related is an issue. And because I read a lot back in the day, still do, there’s a lot in there. My parents were college-educated and each of my grandmthers had graduated high school back when that meant something–perfect grammar, for example–I was verbally correct if not scintillating.
      Which led my HS counselor to put me in advanced math, a very bad idea.
      I looked smart to a number of my teachers and classmates–some kids called me “brain” and not in a good way.
      So either i was pretty bright, or a lot of people thought i was and that may as well have been true for purposes of this discussion.
      Some good, some bad. I was socially isolated from the kids I didn’t want to be associated with, found my own group. Got the lead in the school play–a real stud named Bluntschli, Swiss mercenary officer–and did okay.
      Point is, being really bright, or looking as if you are, isn’t a social death sentence. There are other bright kids and kids with similar interests. If you want to be part of the frat culture, or whatever we called it back then, you may have a problem. Frats were smart enough and didn’t make trouble and were socially agile and wore the right clothes and looked like the in group. Not everybody wanted to be in the in group.

      However, from time to time, the HS teachers were dumb as a box of rocks. Some were pretty bright and others competent. But some…. It’s useful to learn early that being credentialed and in a position of authority does not guarantee competence.
      All worked out.

  8. (momo): “The kid whose IQ is 30-40 points above his class/schoolmates isn’t likely to fit well with his age mates.”
    The kid whose IQ is 30 or more points above average isn’t likely to get along with teachers, either. It’s long been my conjecture that really bright kids lose motivation when they realize (by sixth grade or so) that for the next six years people a lot less intelligent than they are will presume to tell them what’s what.
    (Crimson): “Gifted kids need mentors who can help them explore their interests.”
    Isn’t it fun, prescribing for other people’s children? You may be right, but are you really so confident as to prescribe anything other than freedom?

    As ever, “What works?” is an empirical question to which an experiment (in public policy this means competitive markets and/or federalism) will provide more useful answers than will a committee of remote, self-described “experts”.

  9. G/T classes typically do not allow acceleration. It will still take 180 days to get that US History credit. G/T classes are perks for the principal’s or union’s pet teachers more than anything else.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Actually, At my HS the Magnet Classes (Math/Sci/Comp Sci) usually covered a year’s worth of material in a semester. The one big exception was Geometry, which technically went at ‘normal rate’ except we did much harder proofs than the regular kids….

  10. Many kids will look gifted if given a proper math education over what is currently being taught in many K-6 schools. Some parents want G/T programs just to get their kids away from a stinking bad curriculum. The downside might be that their kids end up in some hell hole of enrichment and not acceleration.

    Talking about how to implement differentiation is hard to do when schools (like ours) use full inclusion. They are living in a dreamworld of educational thought that has no basis in reality. They choose social goals over academic ones and hope to get it to work by redefining academics. Trying to impose some sort of G/T program on these assumptions is meaningless.

    When my son was in first grade, I sent an email to some school committee members telling them that they should hand out Hirsch’s Core Knowledge set of books and tell parents that this is NOT the education their kids will get. If there are fundamental differences in what constitutes a good education, then what’s the use of talking about how a G/T program should work? When urban parents are prevented from moving their kids into charter schools by the educational establishment, then the issue is about control and what defines a good education, not differentiation. Who gets to decide? Affluent parents get results because they care about individual kids. They have resources. Schools only care about improving a standard deviation of an average. They don’t care one bit about the spread of the distribution or the absolute level of what could be achieved. They just want to maintain control and see increasing relative numbers.

    High schools have different levels of classes and they have after school programs and clubs. They have colleges and careers forcing some sort of reality on them. Some kids take private lessons in different areas and are exposed to regional and national opportunities. However, many kids never recover from horrible and low expectation K-8 schools to take advantage of many of these opportunities.

  11. Why are academics different from sports, music or dance? Why is it OK to be separated in sports by ability or willingness, but not in math? My son started piano lessons when he was 5 because we wanted him to start early. We had no grand expectations. We also started him in soccer and baseball when he was 4 or 5. We’re not pushy sports parents. It turned out that he had an ability in piano, but not sports. In music, as in sports, there are people who look for talent or ability (due to hard work, love, or whatever). After one recital he played in, private lesson teachers came to us. Our son was willing and able, and that’s where it all started. He kept doing sports, but typically at age 10-12, the sorting really starts to take place. He didn’t go any further in sports, but his psyche was not damaged.

    OK, so one cannot drop math in K-8, but how do you keep all students going at least at a proper level to keep as many doors open as possible? You give up on the myth that it’s bad to separate students in the early grades. You push individual kids and try to get them on faster (accelerated!) tracks or set them up with better opportunities – either after school or with private teachers.

    Although my son had private lessons with a music professor starting very young, he still played in the 5-8th grade bands and played in the high school orchestra. He got to conduct and teach and he liked that. This model might not work in something like math, especially if the advanced student is supposed to be using the time to work at his/her own level. And some students don’t like teaching, especially if they think that it replaces what they should be doing.

    Look at the El Sistema model of music education in Venezuela. It combines both mixed-level orchestras with the ability for individual students to advance at their own pace with private teachers. It also gives them opportunities to audition for regional and state orchestras. If they are good enough, then they can find themselves playing at Carnegie Hall. It has happened, and it has happened to kids from the barrios in one generation. I abhor the assumption that success requires more than one generation. I hate it when educators are soooo happy when little urban Johnnie or Suzie is the first in their family to make it to the community college. I find that attitude obscene.

    Why is it OK for kids to get private piano, dance, or sports lessons when they are really young, but not in academics? Why is it OK to search for and filter out the most willing or able (not based on IQ) students in these areas, but not in academics. Don’t filter. El Sistema accepts anyone. Start after school programs in all areas. Offer private lessons. Use good curricula (still a fundamental problem) and offer regional and national opportunities.

    This HAS to start in the earliest grades. El Sistema accepts anyone at almost any age. They offer pre-school “paper” orchestras. There are no tests to get in, but there are clear paths to the highest international levels in music. Their success is reflected in their mottos: “tocar y luchar”, and “music for the poor cannot be poor music”. Hard work, high expectations, and good curricula. We have none of those in K-6 US education. Unfortunately, too many G/T programs are used to avoid dealing with these fundamental assumptions.

    El Sistema gets a lot of their money from the government in the form of youth services as opposed to education or culture money. The program accepts anyone. It sets high standards, it uses a good pedagogy, provides separation in the earliest grades and unlimited opportunity. Some think that music is somehow different than academics. It isn’t.

    Here is Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, playing the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Stories” at 2007 BBC Proms.

    There are no low expectations here. Many of these musicians come from the barrios. They ensured mastery of basic skills. They are not playing like robots.