Is there an upper limit to giftedness?

Is there an upper limit to giftedness?

I saw this post on Facebook the other day, and I simply couldn’t resist answering it.  For the first time in a long while, I felt inspired to write.  The original poster actually asked, “Is there an upper limit to giftedness or is it theoretically possible for a 6 month old to learn Calculus or to learn seven languages?  

Is there an upper limit to giftedness? I suppose that depends upon how you define “upper limit.”  It also depends upon how you define giftedness.  I think that we have to look at two different things – -giftedness and demonstrated giftedness.  The first represents individuals with the ability to perform at higher levels when compared to others of the same age.  The second term, gifted behaviors, describes individuals who demonstrate characteristics or traits that we tend to associate with giftedness.  For the purpose of this evaluation, we’ll focus on gifted behaviors related to achievement.  By no means am I saying that the only gifted behavior is high achievement, it’s simply what I’ll focus on here.  Statistically, as we reach the higher levels of giftedness, there will be fewer individuals that meet that criteria.

Giftedness and IQ

The most common method to assess an individual as gifted is an IQ test.  I don’t necessarily agree with using the sole tool for gifted identification; IQ testing is far from perfect, and it wasn’t even designed to be used as a gifted identification tool.  Nonetheless, it’s the most commonly accepting (and concrete) way to assess high ability.  Generally, people consider an IQ of 130 or higher to be gifted. That’s in about the 97th percentile. An IQ of 135 is in the 99.0184693146 percentile. An IQ of 160 is in the 99.9968313965 percentile. If we look at an even higher IQ, the likelihood of finding an individual in the current population continues to decrease rapidly.  In fact, we don’t even have IQ assessments to evaluate an IQ of 180 or 190.  Statistically, we’d have to search through generations upon generations upon generations to see an individual with an IQ of say – 200. So, statistically speaking, yes there’s an upper limit. 


Historically, Marilyn vos Savant had the highest recorded IQ, with an IQ of 228.  She was included in the Guiness Book of World Records for “Highest IQ;” however, this category was retired because the results were found to be unreliable.  She took the Stanford-Binet, an assessment which doesn’t actually have the ability to assess an IQ that high (none do).  It’s upper limit is an IQ of 170.    The psychologist who came up with this number extrapolated this data, but their methodology was inherently flawed, and this methodology does not hold up to scrutiny.  Several years later, she took Hoeflin’s Mega Test, which yielded a score of 186.  This assessment has also been scrutinized as being improperly designed.  So, even this result is debatable.


Internet searches will yield some pretty interesting results regarding individuals with the “highest recorded IQ,” but it’s important to recognize the limitation of intelligence testing.  Statistically speaking, only 1 in 20,000,000 same-age peers would be expected to obtain an FSIQ of 180 or higher.  Moreover, the reliability of IQ as a measure of intelligence diminishes as we reach the upper limits of these assessments.  In creating the WISC-IV extended norms, 2,200 cases were evaluated.  Of these, only one student earned a GAI of 151.  No child earned an FSIQ of 150 or higher.  As such, scores beyond that aren’t really founded on any true research or data.  It’s extrapolated data based on assumptions and projections.  Essentially, fancy guesswork.  That doesn’t, by any means, invalidate an IQ of 155 or 160 or even 170.  These individuals are certainly highly intelligent, but one has to wonder how a single assessment can truly quantify an individual’s intelligence or potential for success.


Using IQ as the sole measure of giftedness may also be flawed.  The first intelligence test, the Binet-Simon scale, was designed to help determine which students might have difficulty succeeding in school.  In essence, the goal of the assessment was to identify students on the opposite side of the spectrum.  Binet did not believe that his assessment could be used to measure a single level of intelligence in individuals.  In essence, an individual’s intelligence cannot be quantified by a number.  He suggested that a number of factors influence intelligence and that it changes over time.  Despite this, psychologists, educators, and researchers today often tend to quantify intelligence with this one single number (IQ) that (theoretically) does not change significantly over time.  


Biology and Child Development

IQ is mostly related to mental abilities, but physical development also plays a role in what’s possible — or probable — for an individual to be able to achieve.  In the second part of this question, the user asked if it would be theoretically possible for a 6 month old to learn Calculus. This seems like an extreme example, but I’ll roll with it. Calculus is math, but math requires more than basic computation skills.  It requires abstract thinking, communication skills, and fine motor skills.


An individual could have an IQ in the 99th percentile, flunk out of high school, never learn basic math, barely learn to read, and live on the streets. That doesn’t change their innate abilities or giftedness. Giftedness doesn’t result in the automatic generation of knowledge and skills in a person’s brain. Knowledge must still be acquired.


The question posed, “Could a 6 month old learn Calculus,” doesn’t just require the acquisition of knowledge. The child would have to develop physically at a pace that’s never been recorded before. The rate of physical development — of fine and gross motor skills, speech, etc required to fulfill this example has never been seen before. Biologically speaking, it’s also highly improbable. Then again, if we’re talking about this theoretically, we don’t know what the future holds. If we agree with the idea of natural selection (and I do), we (as humans) developed from a species with much more limited communication skills (among other things). So, this scenario could be more likely in 1000 years — 10,000 years — or 100,000 years from now. That is, if we’re still considered “humans” at that point. To that end, I doubt we’d still be using similar assessments of human (or animal) intelligence at that point.

Nurture -vs- Nature

The eternal debate of nature vs nurture is vital to consider when trying to answer the question, “Is there an upper limit to giftedness?”  Again, are we looking at innate ability or gifted behaviors and achievements?  There’s a difference.  A child may have extreme levels of innate intelligence, but the child’s gifts must be nurtured to be fully realized.  I, for one, believe that without proper nurture at a young age, a child may never be able to fully realize these gifts.  


The early years of a child’s life are very important for a child’s emotional, mental, and physical development.  Various hereditary and environmental factors interact to produce individual differences in development.  While it may seem obvious that a parent or teacher’s involvement in a child’s life has an effect on when, or if, a child gains certain skills or knowledge, it can be difficult to distinguish which characteristics are simply humane instincts and which are learned.  Certain functions, the result of our autonomic nervous system, such as breathing or pumping blood through our bodies, are ingrained in humanity.  Other functions, however, are learned through exposure, observation, and often instruction.  Exclusionary studies, that is ones that exclude certain criteria, can be most useful to understand the relationship between heredity, the environment, and child development.  


It would be unethical and immoral to deprive a child of basic essentials needed to develop normally; however, several cases of feral children allow us to look at the effects that exclusionary tactics have on the development of children.  Feral children are, by definition, a human child who has lived without human contact from a very young age and, thus, has little or no experience with human behavior, language, or care.  


Feral children lack the skills necessary to interact with other humans and are often uninterested in forming human relationships; this suggests that care and nurture during early nears gives way to the human desire for relationships.  

Feral children fail to develop human language and, in many cases, are unable to develop human language suggesting that exposure to human language is necessary to learn language and, moreover, there are indeed critical periods in development which allow children to gain language skills.  Danielle Crockett, for example, was held in captivity until she was 7 years old.  Despite rejoining human society at 7 years old, she was never able to move beyond following basic instructions (suggesting poor auditory language skills) or form human language.  While Danielle has regained society and is exposed to human language daily, she has failed to develop oral or auditory language skills.  If Danielle had been raised in the company of other humans, it’s probable that she would have developed normal oral and auditory language skills.  Whether these would have been average, above average, or below average, we don’t know, but we can assume that she would have developed skills that we take for granted as “basic human functions.”  Early childhood experiences (or lack thereof) deprived her of the nurture necessary for her brain to develop in a way that we would consider “normal.”  


On the opposite side of this spectrum, can nurture alone make a child “more gifted?”  I don’t believe so.  Again, there’s an upper limit to a child’s (or any individual’s) abilities.  Throw a calculus textbook in front of your infant and you’re unlikely to see them engage with it other than to turn the pages or climb on top of it.  Read to your baby during every waking moment of the day.  Does that mean your child will be an early reader? Maybe. Maybe not.  They’re certainly more likely to start reading before starting school than a child who’s never been read to, but there’s no magic formula for determining how many hours of parent-child reading interaction teaches a child to read.  Why not?  It varies!  Children are little humans.  They’re variable, and we cannot force them to learn something before they’re mentally prepared to do so.  


So, can you make your child gifted?  Probably not. But you can provide a nurturing and patient environment that allows your child to explore their interests and stretch their abilities without pressuring your child to do the impossible but rather following your child’s lead.    

Real-Life Evaluation

On a more realistic level: Most of the students in Ms. Voit’s Algebra I class are in 5th or 6th grade. These students aren’t “pushed forward,” and they could certainly move faster if they wanted to. I work exclusively with gifted students. If I had them full time, starting in Pre-K, I’d think that most of these students would take Algebra I in 4th grade without spending much more than 30 minutes per day in our math classes. I wouldn’t even consider that “extreme.” I’ve worked with many gifted students that I think could have easily taken Algebra I in 2nd grade if they’d been given the resources and opportunity to learn math at the pace that they wanted (and were ready for). I wouldn’t even say that that is the “upper limit.”


My average fourth grade student reads at a high school level. Not all of these students were early readers. Some of these students had speech delays. Some didn’t have any interest in reading until Kindergarten or even later in the primary grades. Some of them started reading before the age of 2. It varies. Giftedness does not always present as rapid early development.


So, can a 6-month old child learn Calculus? Probably not.  

Evaluation and Implications

Society tends to be fascinated by extreme achievements in young children.  When children start college at very young ages, society tends to balk at the achievement.  Parents are criticised for pushing the child.  Onlookers doubt the validity of the child’s achievement.  Others want to know how they can raise their child to do the same.  I’ve actually had parents ask me, “How can I make sure my child starts college by 6 or 7 years old?”  I always ask the parent, “Why?”  Why do you want your child to start college at such a young age?  Why do you think your child MUST learn calculus now?  Is it necessary or appropriate?  


All too often, parents want their child to enter advanced classes at very young ages that their child is simply not prepared or ready for.  If the child cannot benefit from the class, what’s the point?  What’s the point of putting your child in an Algebra class if they cannot yet add multi-digit numbers?  Seat time isn’t going to magically make up for hundreds of missing concepts.  


Now, if the child was TRULY prepared for the academic rigor of a college environment, I’d still have my hesitations helping a parent to achieve this.  I’d first want to explore any and all options that might exist to help the child keep learning whilst not requiring them to enter into an environment which I feel is socially and emotionally inappropriate for such a young child.  Moreover, while the child may be academically prepared for college at a very young age, we must also consider whether they’re ready for college in other areas such as executive function, accountability, responsibility, etc.  We must also ask ourselves, “Is this the best possible solution for the child?”  If we’ve exhausted all other options, we might consider this route, but that doesn’t make it a perfect solution by any means.


As parents and adults, we must be cautious.  Even when our gifted children might seem like “little adults” because their knowledge may even surpass our own, it is still our responsibility to guide them — to determine what’s best for them.  A child — no matter how brilliant — is still a child.  They lack the life experience to truly understand the consequences (both positive and negative) of their decisions.  I’ve seen children as young as nine start college and drop out of all school (college and otherwise) shortly thereafter, protest any form of learning or formal education in the years to follow, and actually reach adulthood with fewer skills than they had at nine years old due to the learning loss that inevitably comes from years away from material.  


While we might marvel at the young ages that a child could accomplish certain things, we must also consider what’s best for the child.  In many cases, acceleration is a necessity.  Boredom in school has consequences of its own, and we should never hinder a child’s ability to learn; however, as the parents and adults in their lives, we must carefully weigh the decisions we make for them and with them.  


As an educator, I aim to provide parents and students with the resources and opportunities to explore their interests at a level appropriate to them.  I place students by demonstrated math and reading ability rather than age or grade level in school.  I have strict policies in place that prevent parents from enrolling students in high level courses that their child is not prepared for.  My classes are accelerated, and I will always let a child move forward at a faster pace if that’s what the child wants, but I’m also cautious to ensure that a child is never put in an academic environment that causes them undue stress or hardship.  

In Summary


Is there an upper limit to giftedness?  Yes.  In a world with a finite number of individuals with similar biology, absolutely.


Can you make a child gifted? No.  


Can you ruin a child’s giftedness?  As long as you don’t lock them in a room and throw away the key or drop them on their head too much as babies,  I’m going to go with “probably not.”  Don’t deprive them of basic needs.  (obviously) . The best thing that you can do for a gifted child is to follow their lead. Provide them with access to appropriate resources Most importantly, love them.  Cherish them.  Appreciate them for who they are.  They’ll be just fine!

Can a child learn calculus at 6-months of age?  Based on the current development of the human race, no.

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