At the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit organization we founded in 1999 to help our nation's brightest children get the education they need, we're always amazed by the stories families share with us. We receive an e-mail from a mother who describes how her son, at age two, learned all the state capitals as an afternoon diversion and later solved three-digit arithmetic problems when he was bored in his stroller. We smile at the story of another toddler who tried to weasel out of trouble for throwing a toy back at his sibling by claiming he was just following "Newton's Third Law." A ten-year-old composes a set of complex piano pieces. A teenager pursues a patent on an antibody he developed to slow the growth of tumors.
Sadly, not all the stories we hear make us smile. Most tell how schools and communities neglect these highly intelligent children. They are kept with children their own age, rarely given work that challenges them, and told they will just have to learn to work at the same pace as everyone else. We hear of children who read and comprehend their math books in the first two weeks of school and spend the rest of the year gazing out the window. Teenagers who read Dostoyevsky for pleasure suffer the tedium of classes that devote weeks to books written for young adult audiences.
This book is about their stories. We have changed these children's names, but not the details of the difficulties they have encountered trying to eke out an appropriate education. This book is about whether schools and communities choose to squelch or nurture the flame of intelligence in their young people, and what happens when they choose to deny or embrace this national resource. Learning becomes a joy when children have what we call "aha!" moments. An equation works, a story makes sense, and a little connection forges in a child's brain. The harder a child has to work to make that connection, the brighter the lightbulb burns.
People always ask us why, when we sold Davidson & Associates, our educational software company, and entered the world of philanthropy, we chose to work with gifted children. Our reply is that we have always wanted to help children become successful learners. Even before founding Davidson & Associates, Jan taught English at the college level and tutored children of all ages. Bob's ideas for our math and reading software helped thousands of students discover that learning can be as much fun as playing video games. We want all children to have these "aha!" moments. So we searched for the population that traditional schools serve least, the population that is least likely to learn and achieve to its potential. We believe that highly gifted students are that population.
Over the years, we have discovered that when it comes to leaving no child behind, highly gifted students are the most likely to fall through the cracks in American classrooms. They are the most likely to underachieve, to suffer the greatest gap between their potential and what is asked of them. This is what we mean by "genius denied."
"Genius" means extraordinary intellectual ability, and people use the word in two different but related ways. In one sense, genius means high intellectual potential; in the other sense, genius means "creative ability of exceptionally high order as demonstrated by total achievement." This book uses both meanings. Works of eminence require years of preparation and require minds working to the best of their abilities. If we fail to recognize and nurture extraordinary intellectual ability in our children, we will deny them the opportunity to develop their talents to their full extent and deny them, and the nation, the satisfaction and benefits of what these children may someday do.
At the Davidson Institute we try to help highly gifted young people find ways to keep learning to the extent of their abilities. Our Davidson Young Scholars program provides guidance, resources, and educational advocacy assistance to hundreds of families of talented young people ages four to eighteen. Our Davidson Fellows award program provides scholarships to students who already have completed works of great importance. Our Educators Guild provides teachers with resources and training to identify and nurture gifted students in their classrooms. And we grant awards to schools with an exemplary record for nurturing intellectual talent.
We are writing this book to share the stories of the children, families, and teachers we have met through these programs, and to help readers understand how schools deny these "aha!" moments to bright students by failing to challenge them. We do not believe that most educators or schools or communities are hostile to the needs of gifted learners. Rather, most people are simply indifferent. With all the other educational crises plaguing American schools these days, why, people ask, should we focus on children who seem better able than other students to fend for themselves? People believe these children have it easy. They ace tests without trying. They race through their homework.
We first answer these questions by saying that schools should not discriminate against gifted kids. All kids -- low-achievers, high-achievers, and those in the middle -- deserve to have their educational needs met. But we also have another reason for wanting schools and society to nurture gifted children. Through our work we have met young people who have composed symphonies, written novels, made advancements in the treatment of cancer, and found new ways of compressing data for faster and cheaper storage and retrieval, all before they were old enough to vote. These young people benefited from parents, teachers, mentors, and communities that supported and encouraged them. Unlike so many of their talented peers, their genius was nurtured, not denied. We want to live in a world where such talent is harnessed and put to use. We can't expect to benefit from gifted children's creativity later if we let schools dull their minds into indifference now.
The simple solution, it seems to us, is to make sure that gifted children, like all other children, are given material that is challenging enough to allow them to learn. We also know that children learn best when surrounded by their intellectual peers. Yet in a country with one hundred types of toothpaste on supermarket shelves, schools still follow a one-size-fits-all educational model. Children march in lockstep through grades with their age peers, regardless of their capabilities. Changing schools so they focus on whether a child reaches her potential -- instead of focusing on whether she passes the standardized test and spends 180 days in a seat -- will require a major shift in thinking for parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers.
It won't be easy, but it is a cause worth fighting for. Such individualized education will make school more humane for all students and, particularly in the case of gifted students, will reap rewards for society for years to come.
The first three chapters of Genius Denied discuss the problem -- how schools shortchange their brightest students, even in gifted programs, and how America's lowest-common-denominator culture has created this educational neglect. The next four chapters show how parents, teachers, mentors, patrons, schools, and society can help gifted students achieve their potential. A What You Can Do section at the back of the book provides practical suggestions for nurturing your own gifted child or other gifted children in your community.
In five years at the Davidson Institute we have met hundreds of highly gifted students through our programs. We know these students can do anything if given the chance. In America today, however, too few schools take that chance. They prefer instead to live with the consequences of genius denied.
Copyright © 2004 by Davidson Institute for Talent Development