Nurturing the Gifted, and Why That Matters to Us All


How can gifted children be helped to reach their full potential? What benefits might accrue to society with their full flourishing? Can the environments that enable the development of talent be better understood?

These questions that occupy Professor David Lubinski, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University who, along with his colleague Professor Camilla Benbow, has generated the world’s largest longitudinal study of the educational interventions that most help intellectually forward young people. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), involving over 5,000 participants, began in the 1970s. In research funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the study is being followed-up to examine these individuals who, now in their 50s, are likely to be at the peak of their creative accomplishments. The aim is to understand scientifically compelling data on the various determinants of exceptional human achievements.

The work had previously shown that it is possible to anticipate which children might become tomorrow’s leaders in their fields. And because of the benefits they bring to society, there is much that could potentially be gained by nurturing their talents to increase the positive impact they might make. “These children are going to study cancer and mental health,” Lubinski explains. “They’re going to create patents and make technological innovations. They need the kind of opportunities that are harder to find in schools designed for the majority of kids.”

Project Leader David Lubinski

Project Leader David Lubinski

So the question is, what can be done to support and accelerate the development of such abilities? It turns out that even relatively modest tailoring of school programs can help prevent talented students from becoming bored and under-stimulated. A previous study from SMPY, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, showed that the kind of frustration that stymies development can be averted by allowing such students to skip grades. In fact, those allowed to skip grades were more than twice as likely to achieve PhDs in science, math, or engineering. Moreover, offering such opportunities appears to be uniformly advantageous for students of both sexes.

“Our studies show that such accomplishments are facilitated by a rich mix of pre-college educational opportunities that are designed to be intellectually challenging,” Lubinski says. “I think of it as giving exceptional students an appropriate ‘dose’ of educational stimulation. Just what counts as a sufficient dose to release a talented individual’s potential is a subject for further research.”

SMPY also suggests that the most common ways for spotting young talent, such as SAT tests, might be improved upon in certain domains. For example, SAT tests tend to focus on mathematical abilities and verbal reasoning, which are important cognitive functions for many careers. But visual and spatial acuity is also a crucial indicator for those who will do very well in other areas, such as science, engineering, and certain artistic endeavors. “In the 35-year study, we learned that assessing across all three domains enhances predictive power, meaning that less talent will be missed,” Lubinski explains. “Spatial ability has a unique role in the development of creativity. We believe it helps individuals to assimilate and utilize their knowledge, and also to develop the kind of capacities that make someone innovative.” For example, visualization has long been informally recognized as crucial in the making of scientific breakthroughs.

We should be no less passionate about nurturing special talent than we should be glad to help those with special needs, Lubinski argues. After all, young people who show exceptional abilities in sport and music are routinely taken to one side for focused training. “It would be great if the same could happen for those demonstrating a potential for academic excellence,” Lubinski concludes. Those talented individuals, and then society, too, could gain much from the innovative and inspiring results of accelerated learning and progress.