You don’t often think of the National Bureau of Economic Research as having a lot to say about either gifted education or school choice, but this fascinating paper has some insights that are potentially relevant in both of these areas.   The authors review recent literature on the development of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, with (as you’d expect from economists) a particular emphasis on outcomes.  In other words, is there a correlation between cognitive measures like IQ or achievement testing and outcomes such as socio-economic status?  How about non-cognitive attributes – and which non-cognitive attributes are important to look at in this context? 

For the purpose of this survey, the authors focus on the so-called Big Five personality measures: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.   And their focus is on remedial programs: what type of support helps turn things around for at-risk populations?  Among the study’s key findings:

  • Prevention is more effective than remediation, and programs that target young children by providing support for developing cognitive and non-cognitive skills have been shown to be successful.
  • Of the non-cognitive traits, conscientiousness correlates most strongly with positive outcomes; agreeableness also correlates strongly with some of the outcomes examined.  (Conscientiousness covers such qualities as perseverance, organization, impulse control, ability to delay gratification, and work ethic; agreeableness refers to altruism, empathy, and perspective-taking.)
  • Although much less is known about the effectiveness of programs aimed at adolescents, “[t]he available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programs that offer mentoring, guidance and information.”
  • Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be developed at any stage, but it appears that non-cognitive skills are more malleable than the cognitive ones at later ages (adolescence and beyond.)  All skill development is crucial during the early years.

In other words, it’s important to support children’s developing academic skills, social/emotional skills, and executive functioning skills, but if the cognitive skills are not in place by the time they hit the teen years that gap is going to be harder to close.  All of this seems to suggest a good argument for providing optimal educational experiences for young children.  Many families assume that their kid will do just fine in a less-than-stellar educational setting in the early years, but that come high school (or college) suddenly the stakes are higher; this study may suggest exactly the opposite.  And please note that when I refer to “optimal educational experiences” I emphatically include strong support for developing non-cognitive skills.  Parents of highly able children must do their best to provide support for students’ talents but must also keep in mind the need to foster personal wellness – and that includes attending to social wellness (agreeableness) and life skills (conscientiousness.) 

This study also ties in with one of my pet peeves: the assumption that secondary and post-secondary education is all about course content (cognitive skill) and not so much about educating the whole person (non-cognitive skills.)  High school and college students are adolescents, and no matter how brilliant or motivated they are adolescents are still growing and changing as human beings: the whole person deserves to be cherished and attended to, not just the part of the person that learns math or reads Finnegans Wake.  Indeed, since asynchrony is one of the hallmarks of extreme giftedness, it should come as no surprise that many highly gifted individuals need very little extra support in some areas and quite a lot in others.

Finally, as a former student of Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut, I can’t help connecting this study’s findings with Renzulli’s Three-Ring Model of giftedness.  Renzulli defines giftedness not in terms of potential but in terms of gifted behavior – and the behavior he’s most interested in is creative productivity.  His model finds that three attributes are required: above-average intelligence (cognitive skill,) task commitment (conscientiousness,) and creativity.  Interesting: creativity doesn’t show up in any description of the Big Five of personality development that I could find.  Might that suggest that anyone and everyone needs some mix of cognitive ability and conscientiousness to be successful in life, but that creativity could be the uniquely defining feature of giftedness, if we define it in terms of creative productivity?  Food for thought.

I wonder why so many people become belligerent when they hear the word “gifted.”

When I say I’m an educational consultant, people often become wary.  It’s clear that any second I’m going to launch into a marketing pitch.

But when I say that I’m an educational consultant who works with gifted kids, people frequently become downright hostile.  I wonder why that is.  Perhaps they take exception to the very concept of giftedness: to some, it might seem to imply a value judgment – as if the kids I work with are in some way “better” than some other group of kids.  Or, given the circles in which I tend to move, perhaps people find “gifted” too soft a term.  The problems with IQ testing are well understood; is there, in fact, a better metric for “giftedness”?  What is giftedness anyway?  Or maybe they think it’s an indulgence, a form of bragging – that these kids are, in my privileged world, special little snowflakes.

When my son was little he attended an independent school for academically gifted kids.  On the sidelines at soccer games and similar places where beleaguered Moms mix and mingle, I became so tired of the antagonism I encountered that I started telling people that he attended a special needs program.  And it was true – my son really needed that school.  But I wondered then and I wonder now: why, when I told people that my kid had special needs, did I get sympathy; but when I implied that my kid had special strengths, why did people get angry?

Perhaps I do see gifted kids as special little snowflakes.  Indeed, I’ll have to confess it: I see every kid as a special little snowflake.  I simply don’t assume that the purpose of education is to fix, remediate, or provide that which is broken or lacking.  Rather, I envision a learning environment in which strengths, passions, and talents are celebrated and nurtured.  This isn’t in any way antithetical to the need to build core skills, require mastery, adhere to standards, and so forth.  Most of us need both.