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The strange past and the messy future of the “gifted and talented”


Below is a partial transcript of this episode. However, it is designed to be heard, so we recommend that you listen to the EdSurge Podcast episode on Apple podcasts, Stapler, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

What would it be like to be a bookish kid – a kid who feels like he’s out of place – and someone comes to tell you that you are special. That you have hidden talents that go unrecognized.

That you are gifted.

It happens to a lot of children. One minute you are in so-called regular classes, then the next minute you are tested and placed in special classes for the “gifted and talented”. Often these classes have more engaging material and better student-teacher ratios.

OK, now what’s it like to be the kid who isn’t selected?

Either way, it’s a big time for a lot of kids, and it comes around the age of 7 or 8.

Where did the idea for these gifted programs come from? And how do we decide who can be a part of it?

As it turns out, the notion of gifted education dates back over a century, to an eccentric child born in 1877 in a farming town in Indiana. His name was Lewis Terman.

Nowadays, few people have even heard his name. But he was once about as famous as any psychology teacher could be.

This is because Lewis Terman pretty much invented the modern IQ test. And he devoted much of his career to what he saw as a major problem in education – that super smart kids were bored or neglected. It was as if there was this untapped natural resource – a Terman seemed to consider it as valuable as literal diamonds, as in “rough diamonds.”

Terman wanted to change the way the world viewed smart kids. Because in his day, precocious children were considered more of a problem than an asset. On the contrary, people viewed them as more likely to be anti-social. They were unsuitable.

“The prevailing idea at the time was that very talented people had a lot of mental disabilities,” says Jaret Hodges, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas who researched Terman. “You know, there was this idea of ​​the mad genius, of the struggling genius. And Lewis Terman was like, not for a second, let’s see what high IQ individuals look like?

Image by Lewis Terman
Lewis Terman is known as the “Father of Gifted Education”. There is still debate about his legacy.

Terman’s assumption was that smart kids weren’t broken, they were just misunderstood. And he believed that tapping into this resource was the key to creating a better society.

He began to study these “gifted” children, as he called them. He selected over 1,400 children from various parts of California and dug into their lives.

He measured, weighed and recorded almost anything he could think of:

where their grandparents were born, what health problems they suffered from,

the size of the cranial capacity of gifted children and the grip strength of their left and right hands.

He asked them which subjects they preferred at school, which collections they kept (stamps? Plants?). And what games they liked to play.

Gifted boys, he found, showed a greater preference for hiking, dancing, swimming, croquet, dominoes and Parcheesi than the control group. But they were less interested in basketball, walked on stilts, flew kites and played farmer in the valley.

He didn’t stop with this first study, however. He would check in every few years to see how their life was developing. This study, known as the Terman Study of the Gifted, was a revolutionary approach to social science research. No one had done a serious longitudinal study like this in psychology, ever. And after Terman’s death, researchers continued to hunt down these gifted people, who became endearingly known as “Termites.” Research on this rich data set is still ongoing, and it is the longest-running longitudinal study of all time.

This year, it turns out, is the 100th anniversary of the start of this study on gifted children. Which seems like a natural time to wonder, how did Terman’s ideas on intelligence shape education?

This question has led us to some grim truths about Terman and a surprisingly fierce debate going on right now about his legacy and the future of gifted education.

This episode is part of Bootstraps, a podcast series on Merit, Myth, and Education. This is the third in a six-episode series we’re co-producing with our friends at non-profit Open Campus journalism. We’re unboxing popular tales of who gets what opportunities in America, and we wonder how it could all be different.

Listen to the rest of the episode.