Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Even Nerds Need To Be Appropriately Challenged

A large gap between research understanding and public understanding.

I am currently attending the Wallace Research & Policy Symposium in Washington, D.C. I was interviewed by Laurie Croft as part of the ten year anniversary of A Nation Deceived, a report which “highlights disparities between the research on acceleration and the educational beliefs and practices that often run contrary to the research.”

Educational acceleration is the idea that talented students - who want to do it and are ready for it - can move through the educational curriculum at faster rates than normal (e.g. skipping a grade).  It turns out the research is pretty clear that there are long-term benefits, both for the individual and for society.  For example, in my work on the concept of Educational Dose, students who had a higher dose compared to students with a lower dose ended up going on to earn doctorates, publications, patents, and even university tenure at significantly higher rates. Also see work by my colleague Gregory Park on the longitudinal impact of grade skipping. What follows are a few of my prepared responses for the interview about why educational acceleration is still not really widely accepted as appropriate practice for students who would likely benefit from it.

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1. What do you find to be the most compelling arguments for acceleration?

Positive benefits to the individual. If students want to do it, the appropriate educational dose can help them stay challenged and intellectually engaged. It can also help them live up to their potential and be personally fulfilled.

Positive benefits to society. Longitudinal research has shown that intellectually talented students, if given the appropriate educational dose, are more likely to create something that can have a positive impact on society. Whether this is a medical breakthrough that saves lives, or technological invention such as the next smart phone, many things intellectually talented people create will likely benefit all of us. All we need to do is help them not get bored by giving them educational stimulation that meets their needs. As a society, we need to have a long time horizon when thinking about this. Also see Of Brainiacs and Billionaires.

2. What do we need to do to ensure that research informs policy about acceleration strategies?

The greatest research findings in the world will matter little if they don’t reach the people that need that information most and persuade those people to act on that information.

As researchers, we cannot simply conduct our research and hope policy makers, science communicators, the media, and other parties will take up the cause. Scientists and researchers are competing against Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber for the attention of the public. We need to leave our narrow academic areas and connect with researchers in other fields, but also must learn to value and reward public engagement as a critical part of being a researcher.

Additionally, if we want research to inform policy we are dealing with a larger problem: American’s generally ignore gifted children. Here are three reasons why:

Most Americans don’t have gifted children and are not gifted people — by definition.  And people care about themselves and their kids. So why should most Americans care about gifted kids?

Most gifted children are at an advantage because they have already been dealt a very good hand in life. So why do gifted kids need further assistance?

A majority of Americans believe in equity rather than excellence.

We have to acknowledge this is the current climate in society today and then experiment with ways to persuade and educate within this reality.

3. What additional research needs to occur to further our understanding and implementation of acceleration policies?

Of course more research is usually helpful and needed, but the benefits of acceleration for students who want to do it are pretty clear. We really need experiments in ways to educate the public that these research findings are something actually worth listening to. Right now there is a large gap between research understanding and public understanding. Just doing more academic research is not going to change that.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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