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A Tale of Two Teenagers
We tend to think that gifted children cruise through school destined for university and successful careers, but this is merely what psychologists call survivorship bias.
Written by Matthew Archer.
The highly intelligent child must learn to suffer fools gladly — not sneeringly, not angrily, not despairingly, not weepingly — but gladly if personal development is to proceed successfully in the world as it is.
— Leta Hollingworth, 1942 [emphasis added]
London, September 2018.
It’s the start of a new school year. A thirteen-year-old boy with an ill-fitting blazer and a fuzzy top lip shuffles into my first philosophy class of the term. He has messy black hair and big, dark eyes. He’s by far the shortest in the class. Eyes down, he makes his way to a front desk without any attempt at human interaction. A nervous air hangs over him. Teenagers quickly pick up on oddballs, and I wonder, as he glides through like a ghost, if they already intuit that this boy is strange. Under his arm is a tattered book, the size catches my eye. This isn’t an academically selective school — my expectation is smartphones, not tomes. He takes a seat and places the book face down on the desk. I twist my neck to see its spine, then I begin with the usual question: what is philosophy? His hand shoots up: “The etymology is from the Greek philos, meaning love, and sophos, meaning wisdom, so love of wisdom.” In this first lesson, the boy will — literally squeaking with enthusiasm — raise his hand for every question. He does that thing eager kids do where they hover slightly above their chair, almost hyperextend their arm, and stare at you until you either relent or ask someone else. The boy's name is Georgios. A few weeks later, he will have locked himself in the bathroom. He will be crying and unable to say why.
In the first term, I taught the Socratic method. Asking young people to consider contradictions in their thought is always a tightrope walk. Doing it with Georgios in the class was like teaching basic algebra with an undergraduate mathematician stewing in the corner. Many children in his position switch off, but Georgios was constituted differently. He wanted to teach his classmates and had enough self-restraint to calm down when I told him to let others speak. But his explanations were dense. A discussion on whether it’s ever acceptable to lie would quickly turn into Georgios waxing lyrical about moral philosophy — “The fatal flaw, as I understand it, in Kant’s deontological ethical system is his disregard of consequentialism.”
A year before I met Georgios, he had been given a professional IQ test by the UK’s only psychologist specialising in gifted children, Joan Freeman. She had written a book a few years prior called Gifted Lives: What Happens when Gifted Children Grow Up. Freeman had followed gifted children for decades through adulthood and the world of work, charting their successes and failures along the way. She was meticulous. Moreover, her monopoly on the market had clearly made for a lucrative career. Georgios recalled going to her grand Georgian home tucked away in a garden square in Marylebone, where Anthony Trollope and Ted Hughes had once lived. It was there that she also worked, assessing and counselling clients. Georgios spent the afternoon solving puzzles and answering questions. Freeman summarised her findings over four A4 pages. Regarding Georgios’ verbal ability, she noted:
[…] he replied to, “What is curiosity?” “It is the lust of wanting to know”. The use of lust in this context is decidedly advanced. “Grief?” He said was “The feeling you feel when you cannot get over tragedy”.
[…] He replied beautifully when asked the difference between work and play, not an easy difference to explain (at Adult level), “Work is a certain task which is given to you; play is entertaining yourself through activity”.
[…] He used his excellent language skills most of the time in his work. For example, when he was struggling with an item he hesitated, looked at me and said, “I can see from the wry smile on your face that I didn’t get it quite right”. The word ‘wry’ is decidedly advanced and unusual, his manner of approach to me as an equal in the job in hand and his latent humour were all a pleasure to hear. […] To me he is an inherently creative boy who is attempting to play the game of school learning by others’ rules for which he is doing his best.
I saw this first hand, this struggle to learn the game of school. A tricky task for gifted children generally, but especially for those with Asperger’s, the high-functioning form of autism. Take Georgios’ passion as an example. Aristotle wrote about the idea of the golden mean, where every virtue harmoniously rests between two vices: deficiency versus excess. A deficiency of enthusiasm we know as apathy, but I’m unsure whether English has a word for excessive enthusiasm—at least the all-consuming, uncompromising type Georgios demonstrated. Whenever a fellow student hesitated or gave the wrong answer, he would flick his hands in short, staccato movements, declaring, “no, no, nooo!”. Not loudly, but loud enough for everybody to hear and for awkwardness, as well as muffled laughter at Georgios’ expense, to ensue.
Fast forward several years, and I learned that there was indeed a word for excess enthusiasm, except it was Polish. In 1962, Kazimierz Dąbrowski, an esteemed Polish psychologist and psychiatrist, conducted neurological examinations of eighty creatively gifted young people aged 8-23. Thirty were intellectually gifted and fifty were talented, coming from leading drama, ballet, or art schools. Every single one of them displayed nadpobudliwosc, apparently poorly translated to English as ‘overexcitability’. Dabrowski described overexcitable people as: ‘delicate, gentle, sensitive, empathic, nonaggressive, industrious, wise though unsophisticated, never brutal, often inhibited, likely to withdraw into themselves rather than retaliate, having deep feelings, idealistic’. This was Georgios.
The book he carried that first morning was a collection of Plato’s dialogues. There was a five-minute window between morning classes. After every lesson, Georgios would scuttle up to my desk to release an intellectual pressure valve, saying everything he hadn’t been able to in the lesson. He rattled off these pent-up observations until the bell rang. Then, with a slight bow of the head, he’d say, “Very well, thank you, sir”, before running off. Is it possible for a run to look anxious? At break and lunch, I would return to my classroom to find him either browsing the books on my shelf or reading the wall display of a hundred philosophers from antiquity to the present. I scrambled to accommodate his interests as best as possible, but it quickly became clear that an extra worksheet or two wouldn’t cut it. He needed the type of one-on-one tuition Aristotle had famously given Alexander the Great. Joan Freeman had realised the same:
His young mind is constantly searching for more stimulation and knowledge. He really needs an enriched and stimulating education. And he needs it all the time, not just in small bursts. Above all, he needs acceptance for who he is, his personality as well as his potential.
Acceptance was not forthcoming. He hadn’t found it at any of his previous schools (there were several, including two in the Netherlands). In fact, he’d found the opposite. At his last school, the philosophy teacher had become irritated. Deciding Georgios was a show-off, he shouted at this meek boy. After that, Georgios never raised his hand again. His mother would later tell me that it took a long time to rebuild his confidence and that this was partly why they were trying a new school in London, one that promised a more tailored education.
Outside class, I walked with Georgios to the sports field twice a week, twenty minutes each way. There too we also spoke about philosophy. As we left the school in a long line of pairs, Georgios would wait until I took my place at the back to furtively tag on. Sometimes he would wait a few seconds before speaking, but there was never any small talk. A few of the opening lines I remember: I wanted to speak to you about a new idea, I wanted to get your advice about a detective novel I’m writing, have you ever read [insert a classic work]? Several teachers told me, “I don’t know how you do it!” By which they meant tolerating Georgios’ odd behaviour. The truth though is that I didn’t always do it. Much of the time, Georgios' clinginess was as irritating to me as it was to them. If I wanted to speak to some other students on the walk to sports, for example, it proved difficult without hurting his feelings.
Eventually, other teachers forced him to walk with the students. They told him that he needed to be with people his own age, to which he indignantly replied, “but the children, look at them!” gesturing ahead as if they were a herd of sheep. “They’re your age, Georgios, they’re not ‘the children’”, came the teacher’s reply. Later, when I read Joan Freeman’s assessment, I discovered Georgios had an IQ of 145, a score in the top 1.33% for the test he took. Put simply, that meant that he was several “mental years” ahead of his peers. If a teacher taught fifty students a year for forty years, they would only meet two or three children with his raw ability. Moreover, the test Freeman had administered did not measure the quality of the child’s responses, simply whether they got the right answer. Freeman noted, however, that Georgios' answers showed ‘a high level of quality.’
Georgios' enforced exile brought temporary relief (temporary because he eventually found his way back to me, slyly slowing his walk until he’d rejoined the back of the line). I didn’t mind occasionally speaking with him about philosophy and his inchoate ideas, but the boy didn’t have an off switch. He was incessant, robotically rambling from one rumination to the next without any intermission. I suddenly realised what it would’ve been like to hang around with Kant, Bentham, or Wittgenstein. In a word: draining.
Being one of the few people he was happy to speak with made me a life raft of sorts, floating adrift in a sea of precocious and comically serious conversation. Freeman had said something similar in her report: ‘I found Georgios to be quite serious and deserving of respect, if perhaps a little too serious.’ I would find out later that he was starved for intellectual stimulation at home, too. And so our conversation must’ve been like a supply drop of high-energy rations during an interminable war, a short reprieve from the daily failure to find a similar mind. I recalled a poignant scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where the therapist Sean asks Will some provoking questions:
Sean: Do you feel like you’re alone, Will?
Sean: Do you have a soul mate?
Will: Define that.
Sean: Someone who challenges you .
Will: Er, Chucky?
Sean: No, Chucky’s family. He’d lie down in fuckin’ traffic for you. No, I’m talking about someone who opens things up for you, touches your soul.
Will: I got, I got —
Will: I got plenty.
Sean: Well name ‘em.
Will: Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O'Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke —
Sean: That’s great; they’re all dead.
Will: Not to me they’re not.
Sean: You don’t have a lot of dialogue with them. You can’t give back to them, Will.
Will: Not without some serious smelling salts and a heater.
Walking with Georgios taught me two lessons. First: Plato’s dialogues were the mere tip of a literary iceberg; he had been reading at an undergraduate level for years with full comprehension and the ability to offer insightful comments and connect ideas. He brought in many more books that year. After Plato, it was War and Peace, then it was Les Miserables, The Prince, Journey to The West, Metamorphoses, Faust, Iliad, and the Odyssey. I kept track. I did so because—having never encountered a student like this before—I was rather spellbound.
The second lesson? We have chosen to start the story of the gifted individual in the wrong place. Every so often, there’s a news story about a prodigy with an IQ greater than Einstein’s and Stephen Hawking’s, despite the inconvenient fact that neither ever took an IQ test. A quick Google News search at the time of writing shows that this exact headline has been written a depressing number of times in the last few years alone. Yet we rarely get any follow-up on these prodigies, we just assume that such talent will find a home as water finds a level. Perhaps a few of us are aware that these children sometimes burn out and choose to stop dancing, painting, coding, or doing philosophy to live a more normal life. But gifted children’s stories are much messier than this simple narrative.
Georgios' bookshelf, for example, would lead many to assume that he must be top of every class, at least in the humanities. But this is the myth of the globally gifted child, a stereotype fuelled by TV & film. Most gifted children are, in fact, gifted in only one or two areas, often underperforming in others, though not necessarily because they’re unable.
It is, of course, quite hard to believe that a boy who had read and understood Don Quixote and Anna Karenina — who had read more of the canon than most English teachers I had ever met — would attain a mediocre grade in GCSE English. His inability to answer a basic essay question stood in stark contrast to the riveting discussion he could offer any given lunchtime on the psychological realism in Dostoyevsky or how Tolstoy’s views of establishment religion saturated his writing. The formulaic and constrained structure of a GCSE 15-mark question was mind-numbing for a mind like Georgios’. So he did the thing we all do: procrastination. Except, rather than cleaning the kitchen or watching some junk TV, Georgios would learn different alphabets or memorise Chinese poetry. Anything to escape the dull demands of ordinary life.
Gifted children usually sail through their first years of schooling without ever having to develop what psychologists call executive functions — a broad category of mental skills, two of which are self-control and planning. Why would you need to plan your homework nights, for example, if you can finish the whole worksheet in under a minute because you mastered the material three years prior without any real effort? And so, with the exception of philosophy, Georgios' report card led almost everybody to conclude that he wasn’t a particularly noteworthy pupil. Most teachers admitted he was clever, but they were quick to caveat by pointing to his failure to answer those basic essay questions. If a far less intelligent child could do what Georgios couldn’t, what did that say about him?
These are fair thoughts when you consider that in the UK and many other countries, (1) giftedness is barely mentioned in a standard teaching qualification, (2) there is no legal requirement to identify and aid gifted students, (3) there’s often not even a legal definition of giftedness and (4) most teachers will never meet a Georgios.
What’s more, there is also a deep unease I suspect many teachers feel when confronted by an adolescent who is clearly smarter and more well-read than they could ever hope to be. Presented with Georgios' underperformance in exams but clearly brilliant mind in class or one-on-one conversations, some teachers seemed intent on clinging to the former. I gently explained that I thought this was an odd way to judge a precocious mind. I pointed to Georgios' prodigious reading and articulacy, I spoke about his immense philosophical talent and knowledge, but nothing ever cut through. At lunch, Georgios would unsubtly eavesdrop on the teachers’ conversations, craning his neck to catch a crumb of half-stimulating dialogue. But instead of an invitation to join, he was reprimanded for “being rude”. Interestingly, Joan Freeman had written, ‘When talking to a young person with a mind as bright as Georgios', I found myself talking to him as though he were an adult.’
After the first few weeks of meeting Georgios, I lobbied the Deputy Headmaster to provide him with extra lessons. Despite it being a £27,000 per year brand new school where, due to few students, the teachers averaged six hours of lessons a week, I barely got a hearing. The school didn’t think accelerating Georgios was right, despite acceleration being something almost all gifted experts agree on. All the while, a young Olympic hopeful in the year above was given every possible accommodation. I wondered how representative this one boy was of gifted children’s experiences and what far less privileged gifted children were facing. After just a couple of years, I quit teaching and read everything I could on giftedness and intelligence. I soon learned that my intuitions were spot on: Georgios was not alone.
It became clear that gifted children have educational needs as precise as those with more recognisable conditions, such as Down’s syndrome and autism. We tend to think that gifted children cruise through school destined for university and successful careers, but this is merely what psychologists call survivorship bias — a tendency to focus on successful gifted people while overlooking the ones who didn’t make it or perhaps did so, but in spite of the system, rather than because of it. The weirdest discovery, however, was that much of this had been known for well over half a century.
In 1930, a pioneering educational psychologist called Lewis Terman wrote the following words: ‘The child of 180 IQ has one of the most difficult problems of social adjustment that any human being is ever called upon to meet.’ However, in most western countries, the intellectually challenged receive much more funding than the intellectually gifted, despite the obvious benefits the gifted bring us. Gifted children’s needs are rarely met and rarely recognised in law. Unbeknown to many, they often suffer immensely in outdated and ill-equipped school systems. These are children who read classic novels under their desks yet are forced to circle adjectives in class. Children who write twenty-page short stories about string theory, yet must endure mundane assignments about their summer holidays. Children who have mastered multiplication and division long before entering school, yet are forced to learn to count to ten with the rest of the class. Children who spend all night coding, yet must sit through six hours of other subjects they have no interest in. Children who are our greatest and most wasted resource.
Seventy years after Terman, Miraca Gross, an Australian researcher of gifted children, cleverly illustrated the significance of his statement. She channelled some of the most primal feelings human beings have: the rage that comes with seeing our children mistreated:
Let me propose to you an experimental study.
Let us take a child of average intellectual ability, and when he is five years old, let us place him in a class of children with severe intellectual disabilities, children whose IQs are at least four standard deviations lower than his. The child will stay with this group for the duration of his schooling, and he will undertake the curriculum designed for the class, at the level and pace of the class.
We will carefully observe and assess at regular intervals his educational progress, his feelings about school, his social relationships with classmates, and his self-esteem. We will also observe the child’s parents and their interactions with the child’s teacher, school, and school system. They will, of course, have had no say in the child’s class or grade placement.
If this proposal appalls you, rest easy. Such a study will never be undertaken. No education system would countenance it. No ethics committee would approve it.
Gross’ point, of course, is that this is precisely the world we force most gifted children to live in. She conducted a multi-decade longitudinal study on gifted children in Australia, finding that the likelihood of abuse (as well as the intensity of it) scales with children’s intelligence. Gross has also documented the reluctance of school leaders and politicians to help, even when a gifted child’s violent outbursts were clearly the result of not being accommodated for and were causing other children to suffer. Nobody would countenance a blind or deaf child being forced to endure mainstream schooling without highly tailored support. Yet despite educational psychologists knowing precisely what such support should look like for nearly a century, the gifted provision in some countries is now worse than ever. A century of empirical evidence and a few millennia of common sense has been rejected, switched, it seems, for ideology, expedience, and ignorance. But not everywhere.
The same year I met Georgios, a 15-year-old girl in Mexico called Dafne Almazán became the country’s youngest child psychologist. Dafne had finished high school aged 10, received her bachelor’s degree at 13, then, two years later, generated national headlines with her remarkable achievement. It didn’t stop there. Dafne finished her first master’s degree at 16 before entering Harvard at 17 to study for another, this time in mathematics. For now, let’s set aside the concerns some readers may have about whether such a rapid pace of acceleration can be detrimental. Instead, let’s simply ask: why did Dafne succeed in a country that ranks near the bottom in key OECD education indicators and has half the GDP per capita of the UK?
As it turns out, gifted children in Mexico suffer from almost all of the same problems plaguing those in the West. The reason Dafne’s intellect was spotted and nurtured comes down to her father, a doctor named Asdrubal. Not long after his son Andrew was born, it was clear to Asdrubal that his child was different. “When he was 9 years old, he was having trouble at school. He was smarter than the other kids, would often correct his teachers and suffered from boredom and bullying”, Asdrubal told a journalist. So he decided to set up the Talent Attention Centre (CEDAT are the Spanish initials). The foundation now works closely with over three hundred children who partake in advanced classes in robotics, physics, astronomy, and much more. CEDAT also work to change the perception of giftedness and support often ill-informed parents struggling to cope with the needs of their highly intelligent children. After receiving eight degrees, including from Harvard and Yale, Asdrubal’s son Andrew now runs the psychology department at CEDAT. He has even developed an educational model for highly gifted students. CEDAT is the largest gifted centre of its kind in Latin America, yet Dafne Almazán, who also works at the foundation, wants to go further. “I see it as a social duty to my country to help its talent to thrive. I have a goal of creating an adequate education option for gifted students whose special abilities need differentiated attention”. Dafne wants gifted centres all across Mexico. She wants the government to recognise gifted children’s unique needs in law.
Leaving aside whether this type of help would have led Georgios to study philosophy at Oxford or Cambridge a few years early, it would have given him something far more important: challenge, friendship, and a sense of belonging. One of the saddest parts of his story is that the absence of these things clearly exacerbated his Asperger’s. This is something that CEDAT have also seen in their work, as they note on their website:
The social isolation and lack of friendships experienced in gifted children produced by the discrimination and isolation to which brilliant minds are subjected is generally confused as a disorder of lack of sociability. Gifted children no longer experience this situation of isolation by being relocated to specialised centres where they live with their peers (other gifted children).
CEDAT recognise that the failure to support gifted children is a clear case of discrimination. Is it any more arbitrary and any less acceptable than the ones we all recognise? If not, how can something so vital to a nation’s prosperity be so disregarded?
It seems that for over half a century many western countries have perpetrated one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage imaginable. Understanding how and why is vital in a world where rival countries are determined to harness the power of the gifted. Of course, any diagnosis must consider that different countries have different problems. It does little good to simply state that many gifted children in many western countries are treated inappropriately. We must weave together the entire tapestry. Compare, for example, the US to the UK. Whilst America’s gifted schools and programmes are far better than those in the UK (in that they actually exist), the US has a peculiar problem with activists lobbying to shut them down.
Four years after our first meeting, I asked Georgios whether he was still lonely. He’d moved schools but still wasn’t being catered for. His reply stays with me: Matt, I have been lonely for as long as I can remember. Joan Freeman had advised Georgios’ parents to investigate an out-of-school government-sponsored programme for gifted youth. It would be shut down before they had the chance. Eventually, he dropped out of school again and began homeschooling. He took his philosophy examination a year early (though, in truth, he could have taken it even earlier with the right support), received a top mark, and finally found his way to an elite university. Note that the spreadsheet’s eye view records his destination as expected, in line with his high IQ score five years prior. But the spreadsheet never records the journey, the missed opportunities for meaningful connection and intellectual growth. The counterfactual is lost to the world of imagination. Yet—despite the potentially immense rewards—few bother to imagine. And so, when it comes to the plight of gifted children, we must learn to value what we cannot measure. And therein lies the answer to so much of our inaction.
Matthew Archer is Editor-in-Chief of Aporia.
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