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In our Study of the Day feature series, we highlight a research publication related to a John Templeton Foundation-supported project, connecting the fascinating and unique research we fund to important conversations happening around the world.

When he set out in the early 1920s to follow 1,500 talented California children for the rest of their lives, psychologist Lewis Terman, the man who put the Stanford in the famed Stanford-Binet IQ test, imagined that one of his main achievements would be to re-brand gifted children from a socially awkward stereotype to future high achievers awaiting encouragement to soar. In the century since the launch of the groundbreaking longitudinal “Genetic Studies of Genius,” Terman and his successors followed these children into adulthood, leaving a broad wake of books and papers. 

Although some of his views and techniques have been rightly questioned (he flirted with eugenics, included few poor and almost no non-white children, and compromised his data on later achievement by writing letters of recommendation for many of his subjects), Terman’s work has helped shape a century of studies on intellectual precocity, providing a valuable resource for other academic fields and a “national treasure” of detailed life histories of so many Americans.

David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, co-leaders of the longitudinal Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Vanderbilt University, recently used the 100th anniversary of Terman’s project as occasion to provide an overview of key findings about gifted children that have emerged over the past 50 years.

Lubinski and Benbow distill the decades of research into eight critical questions about intellectual precocity. Their overview affirms many of the field’s general themes; for instance, greater ability is always an advantage, and specific abilities are especially important for students with profound intellectual gifts. But they dismiss dead-ends such as the concept of multipotentiality, the idea that some individuals can, in appropriate environments, choose any number of competencies to excel at. 

The report is peppered with scatter plots showing the later-in-life accomplishments of gifted children, and it closes with a call for promising new lines of inquiry. “Perhaps the line of research with most potential for immediate impact is a talent search for spatially talented students,” they write. Since talent searches have usually focused on children’s mathematical and verbal abilities, visual-spatial reasoning (key for achievement in fields like architecture, engineering and medicine) has been neglected or treated as an add-on to math. Thus, “approximately half of spatially gifted students in the top 1% of ability are not identified by modern talent search procedures.”

Still Curious?

Read the overview and learn more about David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow’s ongoing longitudinal work on mathematically precocious youth.

Learn more about Lewis Terman’s at-times vexing legacy.