Tag Archives: Gifted Education

The Guardian’s terrible article on giftedness

28 Jul

Let me stipulate, before I begin, that I believe that most students could substantially improve their academic performance. But I cannot accept the assertion implied in a recent Guardian headline: “Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child.”

What evidence does the Guardian supply for its assertion? It’s almost entirely anecdotal. For example, we are told that:

Most Nobel laureates were unexceptional in childhood. Einstein was slow to talk and was dubbed the dopey one by the family maid. He failed the general part of the entry test to Zurich Polytechnic – though they let him in because of high physics and maths scores. He struggled at work initially, failing to get academic post and being passed over for promotion at the Swiss Patent Office because he wasn’t good enough at machine technology. But he kept plugging away and eventually rewrote the laws of Newtonian mechanics with his theory of relativity.

There is a lot wrong with this account. The story of a family maid years after Einstein was a grown and famous man is hardly strong evidence. Just how slow was he to talk? Doesn’t “high physics and maths scores” count as evidence of giftedness? As a child Einstein taught himself calculus and his employment problems were largely due to Antisemitism.

Te article also says:

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.

I didn’t know about Luis Alvarez, but I did know the story about Shockley. Terman study was a longitudinal study of gifted children who had an IQ above a defined cut score. Shockley’s IQ was high but just not high enough to be in Terman group. The students identified by Terman did well in life, having above average academic and professional achievement. It might be worth pointing out that Nobel prizes are not that common and while IQ does a good job of capturing highly valued cognitive skills it may not be a good measure of creativity.

Later the article makes this astonishing admission:

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.

Wait a second, the article is supposed to be arguing that giftedness doesn’t exist, but the author not only concedes that it exists, but also that some aspects could be innate. There certainly are “behaviours associated with high levels of performance” but we do not know to what extent these behaviors can be taught.



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