Thursday, February 26, 2009

Is Genius Born or Learned?

We'll be returning to our Q&As with various folks in gifted education soon (I have several requests out). But in the meantime, I wanted to share an interesting article from Time Magazine (Feb 13): Is Genius Born, or Can it be Learned?

Reporter John Cloud tackles the genius wars going on between people who say that genius is a divine gift, and those who say it's all a matter of nurture and practice (like Malcolm Gladwell, whose book, Outliers, we've discussed here at Gifted Exchange).

It should come as no surprise that more measured heads believe that high achievement is a mix of both, a position taken in Dean Keith Simonton's new book, Genius 101. Gladwell, for instance, took the rather contrarian view that IQ means nothing. After all, the "Termites" (children participating in Lewis Terman's longitudinal study of high IQ young people) did not achieve in a particularly out-sized way compared to what you'd expect from a group of generally well-to-do kids raised by generally-well-educated parents. Geoff Colvin's book, Talent is Overrated, elaborates on the theory with references to three sisters whose parents chose, quite randomly, to make them into chess champions through hours and hours of practice. The idea? Anyone can be a genius if he works hard enough.

According to Cloud, "Simonton rather dismissively calls this the 'drudge theory.' He thinks the real story is more complicated: deliberate practice, he says, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating genius. For one thing, you need to be smart enough for practice to teach you something. In a 2002 study, Simonton showed that the average IQ of 64 eminent scientists was around 150, fully 50 points higher than the average IQ for the general population. And most of the variation in IQs (about 80%, according to Simonton) is explained by genetics."

I think most of us here would agree with this nuanced view. Success in many cerebral occupations does require a lot of innate intelligence, just as success in basketball almost always requires some amount of height, and success in modeling requires physical attractiveness. None of these qualities, alas, is evenly distributed in the population. Of course, innate intelligence by itself (or height, or beauty) won't get you too far, something even Julian Stanley, founder of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, said later in his life. As he once told Johns Hopkins magazine, “I used to sort of worship I.Q., but you can't major in I.Q. A high I.Q. and 50 cents can buy you a 50-cent cup of coffee. There's a lot to the work ethic.”

He's onto something, if overstating the case. It's the intersection of intelligence and hard work -- plus some luck and opportunity -- that makes success possible.

So what does this mean for gifted education? The problem is that currently, children with high IQs are identified, but then very little is done to help them develop their talents. We don't give them the opportunity to work hard. We don't give bright young children a chance to spend many many hours in deliberate practice, challenging them to the extent of their abilities. Instead, we give them a little pull-out here, a little award ceremony there, and some chastising to be happy with this because, hey, you're acing the grade level tests. Clearly we can do better (also a subject Cloud wrote about in the past, highlighting the Davidson Academy of Reno in a piece called "Are We Failing Our Geniuses?").


Another Laura said...

Laura, you just cannot not stop harping on Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, can you? No, he does not state that IQ means nothing. He does NOT state this.

In Outliers he discusses IQ on page 79. If you reread that page you will see that he does indeed state that IQ is important for success but only to a point. Specifically an IQ of 115 (1 SD above the mean) is necessary for success in college.

He also states that an increase in IQ does improve the chance of a person having success but the advantage of IQ tops out at 120. In other words, when you are looking SPECIFICALLY at success, a person who has an IQ of 150 does not have an advantage over a person with an IQ of 120. Remember he is talking about success in life and NOT the ability to do advanced school work.

I really like this blog but enough with the Gladwell comments. Read the book again and read it carefully. You just didn't get it.

The Princess Mom said...

Outliers is still in my To Be Read pile, but I just finished Colvin's book and my impression is that he cherry-picked his data to support his position. Not that I don't believe deliberate practice is necessary to achieve professional level skill, but I was convinced because I saw analogies to my own education, not because of the tired story of the chess-playing Polgar sisters.

My personal theory is that there is a difference between practicing skills and genius. A figure skater can be a great technician but not have the grace of a dancer, not matter how many ballet classes she has attended. Ditto the violinist, the chef, the writer.

Genius is the ability to transcend the technical aspects of what you do to infuse it with "soul." That's a matter of experience, the willingness to take risks, and creativity. These are things an IQ test can't measure.

Anonymous said...

Genius isn't what you do. It's who you are. And who you are is both nature and nurture.

Generally, what you do depends on your external circumstances and the opportunities and enrichment available to you. Defining genius by what you do means that only rich people with involved parents and lots of opportunities and resources can be geniuses.

Terry said...

In band or orchestra or solo or ensemble, you can practice skills to be able to play the notes; but you need talent to play the music.

Anonymous said...

Another Laura is right. Gladwell's book is far more nuanced than "IQ means nothing".

The problem with IQ is that it measures what is easily measurable. It is harder to put a convenient number on many other things that matter as much or more for eventual success as a researcher or in life.

Gardner's multiple intelligence model, Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, Sternberg's book "Successful Intelligence" all show different ways of thinking about what matters and how much.

It seems that reasoning ability helps, to some extent. Its effectiveness is enhanced by other personal attributes, such as ambition, perseverance, good work ethic, resilience...

Environment and luck also play a significant role. Someone with high potential (set of attributes that would make them successful) in Math, growing up in sub-saharan Africa has far lower chances of realizing their potential than someone growing up near a major university in a developed country.

I personally know the role of chance in providing a supportive environment as our son was a very lucky beneficiary. People we did not know personally led him to a highly accomplished and kind mentor. The mentor in turn opened the doors to years of high quality instruction from kind faculty members in his institution.

Without the kindness of strangers, it is highly unlikely that our son could have made the most of his abilities or effort.

It truly takes a village to raise a child. IQ is not a useful measure of who would contribute most to the world, given the opportunity.

So, we would all be better off giving as many children as possible the means to make the most of their potential instead of arguing about the value of a high IQ.