Controversies and Misconceptions: Intelligence, IQ, and Gifted Education

intelligence IQ gifted educationIntelligence is a much more interesting, democratic, and dynamic process than a lot of people realize.

There’s a dangerous but all too prevalent misconception that some people are born intellectually gifted (and the rest of us aren’t). From this perspective, traditional models of gifted education make good sense. All one has to do is figure out who has the extra dollop of intelligence, call them ‘gifted,’ and segregate them with each other in order to give them special educational experiences. Under this misconception about the nature of intelligence, the best way to ascertain whether a person belongs to the gifted category (or not) is to administer an intelligence test. The resulting score—an intelligence quotient or IQ—is then interpreted as being stable over the person’s lifetime.

The more that’s being learned about the brain, however, the more that cognitive scientists and neuropsychologists are emphasizing the dynamic nature of intelligence and the diversity of developmental pathways that lead to gifted levels of competence and achievement. Ability is spread much more broadly across the population than the demographic distribution of IQ scores would suggest, and is much more amenable to environmental influences like family life and day-to-day experiences.

IQ scores have little to do with working intelligence. They don’t begin to measure how effectively children adapt to different environments, how well they learn from experience, whether they’re likely to invest the hard work over time that’s necessary for success, or how they deal with obstacles. An intelligence test score can reflect how well a person understands complex ideas and is able to perform certain kinds of reasoning tasks on a given test on a given day, but it’s not a great measure of that person’s functional intelligence. Nor does it have much to do with whether or not someone needs advanced academic programming.

For many years, critics have argued that gifted education exacerbates social, economic, and racial disparities. Although I have dedicated much of my professional life to ensuring that kids with advanced academic abilities get the learning opportunities that match their abilities—aka, gifted education—I have to admit the critics aren’t entirely wrong about its dark side when gifted education is delivered on the basis of innate, elitist, and stable notions of intelligence.

Happily, educational practice is changing for the better as more and more teachers and school administrators recognize the dynamic nature of intelligence and its development. Parents and educators are finding  creative approaches and exciting strategies to ensure that children’s high-level learning needs are met at home, in classrooms, and within the community.

There can be important benefits for children who are identified as gifted, but only when their parents or teachers explain that the label is simply a description of different learning needs than most other kids have, useful only as a ticket to academic programming that better matches their ability at this moment in time.

At the same time, however, there’s a strong body of evidence showing the damage that can be inflicted by the gifted label. These include an aversion to challenging educational experiences; the masking of diverse learning needs, such as attentional or learning problems; self-doubts; a fear that the label is wrong, the sense of being an imposter; unrealistic expectations from self, teachers, parents, or others; complacency; arrogance; envy from others; and ability-masking in order to gain social approval. For all these reasons, when labels are seen as necessary, I much prefer to see the programming get the label—e.g., a gifted math program—rather than the child.

For parents, the exciting news is that their children’s intelligence is more interesting and amenable to environmental influence than IQ begins to measure, and that meaningful educational experiences can be found in all kinds of easily accessible and sometimes surprising places, without the complications of the ‘gifted’ label, or for that matter, heavy financial burdens.

In Beyond Intelligence: Secrets of Raising Happily Productive Kids, Joanne Foster and I discuss exactly what all this means in practice. We write about the nature of intelligence and creativity; review current evidence on how ability develops across the life span; describe the roles of mindsets, motivation, resilience, and effort; and discuss the ways schools and the social environment can be chosen and adapted to help children discover and follow their passions. Our emphasis is on practical recommendations for parents, from their baby’s birth, through to their young adult’s need for guidance and (respectfully detached!) support. Parents feel empowered when they realize that intelligence changes over time, and can be developed with nurturing, respect, and access to rich, variable, and challenging learning experiences.


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