Tom Clynes has written an extraordinary “adventure, a coming-of-age narrative of one kid’s remarkable (and often comic) journey into the subatomic world.” The Boy Who Played With Fusion explores Taylor Wilson’s brilliant mind and personality, remarkable parents, and the science behind nuclear fusion and gifted education to provide the reader with a literary ride that investigates what it takes to develop an intellectual star.
Clynes is a gifted storyteller, so it is wonderful to see his talents applied to help explore some important questions about developing intellectual talent. In this interview, we explore a handful of questions: How can parents best bring out their child’s gifts? How can we help the gifted child who is more introverted? How can we spur a renaissance in gifted education? How can we persuade the public to care about helping our most talented kids reach their full potential?
JON: The narrative is about Taylor, who appears to outshine his equally brilliant but less flashy brother Joey. Given most gifted kids tend toward the personality type of Joey, what can you tell me about Joey’s story and how that might reflect upon gifted students broadly?
TOM: Taylor was a skilled communicator and showman. But his younger brother, Joey, had no interest in touting his gifts. Sometimes their mother, Tiffany, would come into the bathroom after Joey had been in the shower and find the glass shower door filled with calculus equations drawn in the steam.
Between two-thirds and three-quarters of gifted children are introverts like Joey, but the likelihood that a child will be introverted also relates to the subject domain of interest. In general, STEM subjects tend to draw more introverts. Sometimes gifted kids withdraw because they can’t find equally talented peers; sometimes, they turn inward because they can’t find the support they need to reach their potential in the things they’re interested in. But often, they just enjoy spending time alone, doing the things they’re passionate about.
Unfortunately, children (and adults too) who prefer quiet, alone time don’t always have it easy in a society that celebrates and rewards charisma and self-confidence. To get ahead, we’re told, we have to be outgoing and self-promoting. The danger of having extroversion as a cultural ideal is that we’ll miss a lot of potential and sell a lot of kids short, especially if we don’t make the effort to look for the kids who are introverts too.
Introverts are not usually great self advocates, as Taylor and Joey's situation made clear. Taylor lobbied teachers and others to let him follow his own path, and was adroit at drawing the people who could help him—teachers, mentors, his own parents—into his orbit. Joey’s intelligence came through in standardized tests, where he outshone his older brother all the way through, from his kindergarten readiness test to his SAT’s. But when there’s a superstar older sibling, a super-smart younger one can get lost; it's almost as though the older one is sucking up all the air in the household.
There are strategies to protect siblings, but it takes a lot of parental awareness. It’s easier if the siblings have very different personalities, if their relationship is noncompetitive, and (most importantly) if there’s enough parental energy left over to support the other children so they can fully pursue their interests.
One of the biggest myths about gifted children is that if they're so smart, they should be able to make it on their own. We have plenty of research to show that’s usually not the case. Gifted children need support in developing their talents if they’re going to have any chance to reach their potential. That need for support is amplified with kids who are not strong self-advocates. The stereotype of the pushy "helicopter parent" isn’t pretty, but in some cases you have to ask, Where would some of these kids be without a mom or dad to advocate for them? The trick, for parents, is to push the system, not the child.
A Parent’s Gifts
You note that Taylor’s achievements were due not only to his intellectual gifts, but also that he had been “gifted with parents of the most extraordinary sort.” Behavioral genetic research shows that parents pass on their genes and their environments which are also in part due to genetics. How much of Taylor’s achievement was due to genetics and how much to environment?
Taylor’s parents told me they asked themselves, many times, “Where did he come from?” Taylor was a scientific prodigy, a budding nuclear physicist at 11. His father, Kenneth, is a Coca-Cola bottler who told me that he had to grit his teeth to get through his science requirements at college. His mother, Tiffany, is a yoga instructor. Then again, there were engineers and other technical people in some of the outer branches of Taylor’s family tree.
As parents, we pass down our genes whether we like it or not, but we can choose, to some extent, how much of our environments we pass. The most intentional of parents carefully consider which parts of their own childhood environments they re-create for their own children. For instance, we may have been paddled or severely criticized by our own parents, but we know enough about the emotional damage that can cause that we hold back when those sorts of reflexes spring up when we’re with our own children.
We now know that environment triggers gene expression, which puts an even more complicated spin on a question that can't be easily answered. Genes influence most of our personal traits, but they don’t fully determine them.
Taylor’s parents didn’t grow up in environments that remotely resembled the environment of "intellectual spoiling" that they created in their own household to feed their children's talents. Tiffany and Kenneth were extraordinary parents, but if you ask them how they got there, they will tell you that they don't know. At first they were just winging it, reacting to the extremely smart and determined child that Taylor was. But eventually, their parenting technique evolved into something much more intentional. That's not because they started reading parenting books (they didn't). And it’s not because their own parents were role models in providing the early novel experiences that, research suggests, help to shape the healthy development of brain systems that are important for effective learning and self-regulation.
It's because they did what felt right to them, and ignored the criticisms and jokes from people who thought they were being overindulgent. In the end, in terms of talent development, their approach ended up working out very well for both their children.
Nikita Khrushchev Helped Gifted Education The Most?
You note that “Nearly 60 years ago, Nikita Khrushchev did more to boost gifted education in America than anyone else.” Could you explain why? And how do you think Taylor’s story can help gifted education?
In some ways, the post-Sputnik years were the golden age for gifted education in the United States. Americans were terrified that the Soviets had gotten ahead, and our brightest, most talented students were suddenly regarded as a strategic resource. Educators knew that these kids needed special education, and policymakers got on board and gave them the support they needed. For the next 30 years, during the Cold War, all kinds of new programs emerged for gifted and talented children. Acceleration became commonplace, and super-smart children rose very quickly through schools and universities and graduate programs.
The motivation behind this focus on gifted children wasn’t particularly noble—mostly, it was driven by fear and paranoia—but the payoffs were tremendous. Highly educated post-Sputnik brainiacs produced countless science and engineering innovations that have extended both the quality and length of our lives, generated millions of jobs, and spurred much of the West’s economic growth.
The reach of these first-generation gifted-and-talented programs was nationwide. But their effectiveness was hobbled by the fact that educators could draw on very little quality research as to what actually worked in gifted education. That research eventually started flowing as funding arrived and specialized academic centers began to produce authoritative studies that shed new light on this segment of the population. Now, we have the benefit of more than 40 years of tracking data, and the research has helped us understand how to identify these kids, and what the best interventions are. We've been able to overturn a lot of fallacies that contributed to the near demise of gifted and talented education beginning late in the last century. This boost in the understanding of best practices for talent development has many academics talking about a budding renaissance in gifted-and-talented education.
Unfortunately, it’s a very limited renaissance. Yes, we now know what works, but the application and benefits of this understanding have been limited to largely to children in America’s most affluent pockets. Kids in places like Texarkana, where Taylor grew up, rarely have access to the kinds of programs that kids have in places where education is a higher priority. Taylor's parents had to move across the country to get their children an education that was appropriate to their abilities.
That won't happen for most kids. It's far too early to say there's a renaissance in gifted and talented education when it is spread so unevenly, when so many children who are ready to accelerate and thrive remain underchallenged and bored in their classrooms, with little chance of reaching their potential.
I believe very strongly that the loss of widespread gifted-and-talented education in America is a major reason why we’ve become less competitive in a world economy in which success increasingly depends on the intellectual capacity of a nation’s populace. We are overlooking a lot of potential when we overlook the many Taylor Wilson's out there. Hopefully we won’t need another Cold War to get gifted education jump-started again; there are plenty of big problems for very bright, well-supported people to solve. But beyond the issue of competitiveness and benefits to society, we should support high-potential kids because every child deserves an individualized education that allows him or her to reach full potential.
Taylor’s journey is inspiring and optimistic, because it shows us the good things that can happen when a child with potential gets the support he needs to become one of tomorrow’s innovators. The story of The Boy Who Played With Fusion gives us a hint of what might happen if and when we finally do have a full-scale renaissance in gifted-and-talented education, one that’s both widely distributed and based on a mass of solid research. That kind of renaissance will, I believe, give us even better and happier results than we got back in Khrushchev’s era.
Persuading The Public To Help Gifted Kids
You interviewed a number of gifted education scientists and leaders for your book as well as people well outside the field of gifted education. You also write stories for mainstream audiences (including this book) which will bring the narrative of an extremely gifted student to wide public attention. Given your success in telling Taylor’s story in a way that resonates with the public, what lessons can you share about persuading the public to care about helping our most talented kids?
I really appreciate that you feel that The Boy Who Played With Fusion was successful in telling Taylor's story in a resonant way. Narrative can be an extremely effective means to make people think, to encourage people to care, and to persuade people to take action or support action.
I wanted take on some pressing questions in the book: What does it take to identify the raw material of talent and develop it into exceptional accomplishment? How do we parent and educate extraordinarily determined and intelligent children? How can we help more conventionally talented children find the motivation and support they need to fulfill their dreams? And how do we shift the course of an educational culture that has, in recent decades, underchallenged the children it once regarded as its best hope?
Taylor’s unlikely story gave me an opportunity to get at these issues in a way that would be interesting and fun to read. But apart from the book’s epilogue, I knew I needed to stay off the soapbox, or nobody would read the book. It’s not always easy to build a compelling narrative around scientific issues—and that includes the social sciences. I think that’s one of the reasons why science is punching under its weight, and why the gap is widening between the informed conclusions of scientists and the public’s understanding. Whether it’s climate change, vaccinations, or accelerated education for gifted learners, so many “scientific” debates are dominated by people who are misinformed about science or have outdated or self-interested opinions.
Stories about inspiring people like Taylor can play a role in closing that gap. The Boy Who Played With Fusion is foremost an adventure, a coming-of-age narrative of one kid’s remarkable (and often comic) journey into the subatomic world. If the book succeeds in getting conversations started—about nuclear fusion, parenting, and education—I’ll be a happy man. If it helps to persuade the public and policymakers to care about helping our most talented kids reach their potential, I’ll be ecstatic.
© 2015 by Jonathan Wai