What makes a genius?

Tom Martin, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Tom Martin, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Is raising an exceptionally intelligent child an accident or a strategy? This question is addressed in “How to raise a genius: lessons from a 45-year study of super-smart children,” a feature recently published in Nature.

The article discusses a decades-long study known as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth that got its start with a brilliant 12-year-old in 1968. The child was Joseph Bates and he began taking classes at Johns Hopkins University while he was still in middle school. He was introduced to Julian Stanley, a professor studying cognitive performance at the university, and after giving Bates a battery of tests, Stanley got him enrolled as an undergraduate at the age of 13.

After that experience, Stanley set out to determine how to pinpoint the brightest children and figure out the best way to foster their future success. Since the start of the study, over 5,000 individuals have been observed and the findings suggest that while natural ability is certainly important for shaping high-achieving careers, fostering those abilities in academic settings is also key.

However, this work attracts debates on the risks of labeling children as “gifted” early in life as well as whether schools should focus on boosting top achievers or foster those struggling academically. There are also concerns surrounding the social aspects of having children skip grades. Important considerations that the article addresses.

The study has found that children with early signs of higher achievement tend to have more successful careers in science, technology, engineering, and math and those that get advanced instruction in their early academic years get another boost. Which seemed to be the case for Bates who had already earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees by the age of 17 and had begun working on his Ph.D. He would go on to pioneer artificial intelligence research.