Julian Bates was a special little boy. In 1968, when he was just 12 years old and already outstripping classmates in his computer-science course at Johns Hopkins University (his parents had enrolled him because he remained unchallenged at school) he met Julian Stanley, a cognitive performance researcher at the same university. When other options failed, Stanley persuaded the dean of the university to allow Bates, then just 13 years old, to enrol as an undergraduate. Bates also became “student zero” in the decade-spanning Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). The study has now been running in the US for over 45 years, tracking the careers of more than 5,000 individuals. This massive data set continues to grow and has spawned hundreds of papers and dozens of books, many of which explore how students develop talents in STEM subjects. The aim was to identify and develop talent, and to that end the university’s Centre for Talented Youth was founded, which has since helped encourage the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Kids performing in the top 1% of the study’s testing range regularly became eminent scientists, academics, Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges, senators and billionaires.
This data refutes existing assertions that socioeconomic status or guided practice has a greater effect on achievement (Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule). According to the study, encouragement of early cognitive ability has the most significant impact. However, scientifically, this is an assertion that it is difficult to control for. Would Mark Zuckerberg have become who he is without the aid of the project? Are there not plenty of successful individuals in numerous fields who had nothing to do with the study?
The study also advocates caution as those involved have repeatedly stated that setting out to raise a genius is absolutely that last thing they would advocate doing as it can lead to a variety of social and emotional problems. However, suggestions have been made surrounding how to ensure the achievement and happiness of a child that is clearly very clever. These include exposing a child to diverse experiences, supporting both intellectual and emotional needs, allowing a child to pursue an interest when it is demonstrated, helping children to develop a “growth mindset” by praising effort, not ability, avoiding labels (referring to children as “geniuses” or “gifted” can cause emotional burdens), encouraging children to take intellectual risks which will allow them to learn from failure, having a child’s ability tested and working with teachers to ensure the child is supported (this may include being given more challenging work, support or time to learn at their own pace). Basically, a great deal of what good parents do anyway. However you look at it science would argue that you can’t make a genius, you can only encourage them.
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