For fifty years psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman has been an outspoken advocate for the gifted, who she feels have been neglected in schools and misunderstood in society. Whether a child shows extraordinary intellectual gifts or struggles with a learning disability, or both, Silverman says teachers should be responsive to each student’s individual nature and pay attention to both educational and psychological needs.
While still in high school, Silverman became interested in children who were ahead of their peers in intellectual development. As a young teacher she created scholarship-preparation courses and math clubs for the gifted and spoke frequently at conferences. In 1979 Silverman founded the Gifted Development Center (GDC), which is now a subsidiary of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development. (She directs both organizations.) Based in Denver, Colorado, the GDC is the largest organization of its kind, with extensive data on more than six thousand children and their families (gifteddevelopment.com).
Giftedness isn’t a popular field of study, and Silverman hasn’t always had a smooth career path. At times she has struggled financially, and she’s clashed with entrenched university bureaucracies, the IQ-testing industry, and the not-so-subtle sexism in the predominantly male world of science. Her approach, which involves not just testing but also getting to know children, is controversial to some. “I’m very child-centered,” she says. “I relate to them person to person, soul to soul, not adult to child.” Although she does administer standardized IQ tests, she also admires Annemarie Roeper, who developed Qualitative Assessment, a method of determining giftedness that doesn’t involve a written test or a structured interview. Roeper said that “the only instrument complex enough to understand a human being is another human being.”
Silverman received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from SUNY College of Education at Buffalo and her PhD in educational psychology and special education from the University of Southern California. She served on the advisory panel for the fifth edition of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and has been instrumental in raising the ceiling of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children so that it can test for IQs above 160. She coined the term “visual-spatial learners” for children who think in pictures and find it challenging to conform to written class work and tests. Her books Giftedness 101, Counseling the Gifted and Talented, and Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner are read by psychologists and counselors who work with gifted children and by parents who want to understand their exceptional but sometimes difficult and often puzzling offspring. Silverman is also the author of Advanced Development: A Collection of Works on Giftedness in Adults and the founder of Advanced Development Journal, the only professional journal on gifted adults.
I first met Silverman in 1967, when, at the age of fifteen, I was a member of a group she’d organized for gifted high-school students in California’s San Fernando Valley. Many of us also joined an antiwar organization Silverman had started, and we hung out at her house, which we called “the Commune.” She and her husband were raising two children and two nieces and provided a welcoming environment for many young people. In 1972 the Silvermans moved to Colorado, where they helped raise several foster children.
After I went to college and started my own family, Silverman and I continued to have contact. She frequently visited our home and tested our three children, and my ex-wife continues to be mentored by her. But I hadn’t seen Silverman in about a decade when we met up again recently in Silicon Valley, California, where she spoke to two packed rooms at private schools. She’s a vivacious communicator with a sharp intellect. Now in her mid-seventies, she is still as quick to laugh as that young teacher I met in 1967, when she was a novice in her field.
Leviton: What does it mean for a child to be gifted?
Silverman: We say children are gifted when their intellectual ability is advanced beyond their age. A four-year-old girl who can pass all the items on an IQ test that an eight-year-old is expected to be able to do would obtain an IQ score in the 200 range. Children who are developmentally advanced are out of sync with their peers, and also out of sync with the expectations of teachers and parents, which leads to vulnerability. They need individualized education and counselors who understand how to work with these children.
Gifted children are wired differently. They have powerful emotions and may cry easily. They form deep attachments to people and animals. Some have a need for physical activity. Others might be like the Peanuts character Linus and his blanket: they respond much more to touch and texture. Annemarie Roeper noted that they have greater awareness and sensitivity. A five-year-old boy, for example, might become extremely concerned with global warming. They show aesthetic appreciation for nature and music. These overexcitabilities continue throughout their lives.
Leviton: What other signs of giftedness do you look for?
Silverman: When I started the Gifted Development Center, I created a list of sixteen characteristics of giftedness, including personality traits such as perfectionism. I’d noticed that gifted people set higher standards for themselves and tend to be fussier than others; they may eat their M&M’s in a certain order, or have to write with a particular pen. That list has since grown to twenty-six items. When parents want to know whether they should have their child tested, they can go to our website and see how many of these descriptors fit their son or daughter: learns rapidly, has a large vocabulary, is morally sensitive, has excellent problem-solving abilities and a strong desire to learn, is an early or avid reader, is concerned with justice or fairness, is a keen observer, and so on.
Testing is necessary for schools to take the needs of these children seriously. The educational system often fails to recognize giftedness or does so inconsistently. A child may be put in advanced mathematics one year and the next year be forced to relearn the same material with the rest of the class. When a child is developing at a faster rate than schoolmates, parents worry that he or she will learn to underachieve and won’t have many friends. We help gifted children get appropriate education, qualify for special programs, and find each other.
Leviton: Do you think gifted children have different educational needs?
Silverman: Definitely! When I was seventeen, at Buffalo State Teachers College, I believed that gifted children were wasting most of their time in school waiting for the rest of the class to catch up with them. I remember interviewing Rita Dickinson, who pioneered gifted education in Colorado. She said that she’d observed her son’s classroom and watched him wait with his hands folded for forty-five minutes after he had finished his assignment. There was nothing else for him to do. We should find out what gifted children have already mastered before we teach them. We should let them learn at their own pace, and we should allow them to skip the needless drill and practice that turn them off to learning.
Leviton: Are most gifted children affluent?
Silverman: No. At the GDC we have had some parents who save for years and pay us in dollar bills. But private testing is expensive, and many cannot afford it. Although you will find a higher percentage of kids identified as gifted in affluent areas, the majority of gifted individuals in the world are poor, because the poor vastly outnumber the rich. Giftedness is found in every culture. I’ve had the good fortune to speak all over the world, and everywhere I go, there are children who develop at a faster rate and pass developmental milestones at earlier ages. They may never take an IQ test, but they are certainly gifted.
When giftedness is seen as the capacity for complex thought rather than as high achievement, it is observed in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Hope Academy is a preschool program for culturally diverse children in Five Points, one of the poorest areas of Denver, Colorado. Many of the gifted children there have limited opportunities and few books in the home, but they display the same intensity of feelings and empathy, the same high curiosity and passion for their interests.
The characteristics of the gifted appear irrespective of gender, too. At the GDC we have documented as many gifted girls as gifted boys. It was IQ tests that actually established the existence of giftedness in females. There are those who still maintain that males are more intelligent than females because there are more men in prominent positions, ignoring the fact that in a patriarchal society the deck is stacked in favor of men.
Leviton: Are many gifted kids introverted?
Silverman: Yes. At the mildly to moderately gifted level there are many more introverts than there are in the general population. In the exceptionally and profoundly gifted range, most children are highly reflective and introspective. Parents and teachers may find it more difficult to understand a child’s introversion than to appreciate his or her level of intelligence.
Leviton: Are most gifted kids unhappy misfits?
Silverman: I wouldn’t say that. I’ve met a lot of gifted kids whose parents really understand them and are supportive and can invest energy in home-schooling or mentoring. There are many schools for the gifted and distance-learning programs designed for gifted students. Those gifted children who find others like themselves and are allowed to learn at their own pace are socially well adjusted and happy. But those who aren’t identified and who are not engaged learn how to underachieve and may get into trouble because they’ve got all this mental energy that has nowhere to go.
Some gifted kids hide their abilities. They do whatever other kids are doing, even if they don’t have any interest in it, because they want to have friends. A lot of girls, especially, don’t reveal that they are gifted. They may look happy, but when you put them in their element, then you’ll see them become really happy! I’ve worked with girls whose vocabulary jumps six grade levels when they get in a group of other gifted children. Even their body language changes. They are enthusiastic and animated. They didn’t appear miserable in the regular class, but only because they wore facades.
Gifted children might express their boredom by acting out. They might behave especially badly in the classroom of a teacher they don’t respect. It’s not just a matter of intellectual stimulation. Gifted children need teachers who are fair. If the child thinks the teacher is giving out inaccurate information to the class or showing favoritism, he or she will sometimes become rude and disruptive. The gifted possess a well-developed sense of right and wrong and react strongly to injustice.
Leviton: Do you ever see gifted children with learning disabilities?
Silverman: Yes, I work with many “twice-exceptional” children — intellectually gifted children who also have disabilities. Some can’t write, or they hate writing by hand. You can tell how smart they are when they talk, but they won’t pick up a pencil. There are kids who love being read to but can’t read, because they are dyslexic. Sometimes they are told they aren’t trying hard enough or they are called “lazy,” though they may be working twice as hard as their classmates. Bright children who can’t read, or hate to write, or can’t memorize math facts, or can’t spell often feel stupid. But from the moment they realize that their parents and other adults believe in them, their self-image changes, and they start to believe in themselves. If the school gives them more time for tests or lets them use a computer keyboard instead of insisting on having everything written by hand, they can be successful.
Specific learning disabilities can pull down gifted children’s IQ scores, so that no one realizes how smart they are. Giftedness also masks disabilities, making it more difficult to detect even serious deficiencies. Twice-exceptional children use abstract reasoning to compensate for visual- or auditory-processing disorders until the work gets too hard or the print gets too small. I am able to unravel complicated cases in which one psychologist says attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, another says Asperger’s, and a third says there’s no learning disability because the child’s test scores are average. My forte is figuring out these conundrum kids.
I’ve worked with girls whose vocabulary jumps six grade levels when they get in a group of other gifted children. Even their body language changes. They are enthusiastic and animated. They didn’t appear miserable in the regular class, but only because they wore facades.
Leviton: Don’t all parents think their kids are gifted?
Silverman: Actually they don’t. That’s one of the big myths. I think all parents want a smart child, but they don’t want a gifted one, because giftedness is scary. It makes your child different. It brings with it too much responsibility, too much worry. When I first moved to Boulder, I created the Boulder Association for Gifted and Talented. I’d speak at back-to-school nights to perhaps four hundred parents about the new organization, telling them it cost just five dollars to join, because we wanted it to be affordable for everyone. If their child had an interest in a subject the school couldn’t provide, we would find a free mentor to teach the child poetry, or art history, or whatever. Sounds great, right? But I would get no takers. If every parent wants a gifted child, why didn’t any parents sign up?
After one talk a father came up to me and said, “My son’s no Einstein, but . . . ,” and he told me about all the accolades the boy had received, all his accomplishments and interests. Clearly the son was gifted, but his father did not believe it. Most parents want a “normal” child who fits in. They want to send their child to school in the morning and know that the teachers have the skills to work with him or her. Parents don’t want to have to check in constantly to see if the child’s needs are being met. That’s more than they signed up for.
Leviton: Do you believe parents are good at detecting giftedness in their own children when they know what to look for?
Silverman: Yes, based on data from all those parents who fill out our forms at the GDC. I looked at the IQ scores of the first thousand children who came to us and found that when the parents had checked twelve of the sixteen characteristics of giftedness, the child very often tested at least in the “superior” range of intelligence, with an IQ of at least 120. Usually, the more characteristics they reported, the higher the IQ. We now ask if each characteristic is “very true, true, uncertain, or not true.” When there is an even split between “very true” and “not true,” I’d be willing to bet that the child is twice exceptional.
Leviton: There’s a persistent belief that giftedness is indicated by the child’s achievements, but you don’t agree with that. Why not?
Silverman: The achievement point of view has been around since 1869, when Victorian psychologist and inventor Francis Galton wrote the book Hereditary Genius. He was a very productive human being, quite worthy of the title “genius” himself. He studied medicine and mathematics, traveled widely, created the first weather map, invented hearing tests, and practically invented modern statistics. He may have been the first to apply the word gifted to intelligence. He decided who was gifted based on the number of books written about a man after he died. (I call this the “posthumous definition” of giftedness.) Galton thought the cream naturally rose to the top — that the gifted would automatically become famous. And he applied the term “gifted” only to men. We should remember, too, that he was the father of eugenics and believed in a caste system with Anglo-Saxon white males at the top. He was racist and sexist, not egalitarian.
We still have this tendency to define people as gifted in terms of what they achieve. Do they get straight A’s? By their grades shall they be known! But I define children as gifted by the qualities of their minds and their sensitivities. Some gifted children are high achievers; many are not. And high achievers are not necessarily gifted. I look at the whole child, including hidden capabilities. IQ tests often reveal high intelligence that does not result in high grades. If a child has a high IQ score, then the child is unquestionably gifted. You can’t fake abstract reasoning. And even if a child has a low IQ score, he or she could still be gifted. But IQ tests will not falsely identify a child as gifted.
I use IQ tests, but I don’t believe those numbers are the child. I want to know what the child is seeing, how he or she views the world.
I use IQ tests, but I don’t believe those numbers are the child. I want to know what the child is seeing, how he or she views the world.
Leviton: Why were IQ tests invented in the first place?
Silverman: When education became compulsory in France, psychologist Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to identify children who would not profit from regular schooling. He also had an interest in prodigies and loved to study children who excelled in math or music. Binet was fascinated by developmental differences at both ends of the spectrum: those who lagged behind the norms as well as those who were ahead.
There have always been brilliant children, but since the Industrial Revolution our methods of education have become standardized in order to create good factory workers: obedient, able to show up on time and follow instructions, used to learning step by step and keeping a rigid schedule. Once education adopted the factory model, it no longer fit students on either end of the intelligence spectrum. So tests had to be developed to figure out which ones weren’t going to fit.
Leviton: Do you think IQ tests are scientifically valid?
Silverman: Only when they are interpreted within the context of qualitative information about the child. I perceive testing as an art form as well as a science. An excellent doctor trusts his or her clinical judgment more than the results of tests. In psychology, however, we trust the scores more than we do our own observations. There are dozens of reasons why a child might obtain a score much lower than his or her true capabilities. But because we are obsessed with objectivity, we see the scores and not the child.
Leviton: What does an IQ test actually tell us about someone?
Silverman: An IQ test should measure abstract reasoning, and once upon a time that’s what it did test. The essence of giftedness is the ability to think abstractly. Now we are designing tests to measure abilities that are less related to general intelligence, including memory and how fast children think. Most modern IQ tests measure five to seven factors. The more factors a test tries to measure, the weaker it becomes as a tool to assess reasoning ability.
Leviton: When we think of someone with a high IQ, we picture a person who might win on the television show Jeopardy!, which tests acquired knowledge.
Silverman: Acquired knowledge is a function of greater opportunity, and intelligence is far more complex than that. Children with few resources can have powerful minds that absorb and connect ideas in astonishing ways. Introverted, reflective thinkers have shifted our perceptions of the world. Our studies at the GDC have shown that few gifted children are fast thinkers. Twice-exceptional children often have brilliant visual-spatial abilities but poor memories.
I look for patterns. If a child has gifted verbal reasoning and gifted visual-spatial reasoning on an untimed test, but shows much poorer performance on a timed visual-spatial task, I wonder if the child’s eyes are working well together. I would refer the child to an optometrist for a vision evaluation.
Leviton: Annemarie Roeper said, “The only instrument complex enough to understand a human being is another human being.” So why use IQ tests at all?
Silverman: Annemarie was able to tell if a child was gifted, and to what degree, after observing the child for an hour. She was keenly aware of the signs of giftedness. Others are carrying on her work and using her Qualitative Assessment method to identify gifted students, but very few people believe such observations are valid because they are so subjective. We live in a society that demands objective evidence. I supply that with IQ tests.
It’s worth noting that Annemarie’s assessments and the test scores would almost always match up. She would say a child’s IQ was around 145 and I would obtain an IQ score of 147. It was uncanny! When Annemarie’s estimates differed significantly from the test scores, I would always trust her judgment over the scores, and time would prove her right.
Leviton: Many respected scientists reject the idea of IQ tests altogether, including Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote an entire book on the subject: The Mismeasure of Man. Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner writes about “multiple intelligences” as a more accurate paradigm and originally identified seven types of intelligence but has since added an eighth.
Silverman: Gould was concerned about racism and eugenics, about how low IQ scores could assign certain people a permanent inferior status. But Binet, who invented the IQ test for children, thought intelligence involved personality, emotion, and environment. He believed it was malleable, that it could evolve with opportunity. Yes, IQ tests have been misused, and they are not always interpreted accurately. Galton, who developed the first intelligence test, thought he’d “proven” that males were mentally superior to females.
But testing does have benefits. Take the SAT. It’s focused on specific subjects, but it correlates highly with IQ. Some people would like to eliminate the SAT and other College Board exams because they are not egalitarian. But if, in an effort to be more egalitarian, we get rid of all tests, how is anyone going to determine the likelihood that a student will succeed in a given program? Are we to use only grades, which are more subjective, more prejudicial? Critics of testing, including Gould, forget that if it hadn’t been for IQ tests, there’d have been few Jews accepted into college. For decades those who controlled admissions to higher education didn’t let Jews, other minorities, or women in, but when IQ tests and aptitude tests were introduced as evidence of high ability, the universities were forced to open their doors to all qualified applicants. The IQ test is less prejudiced than any other method we have found to select capable candidates. Grades sometimes measure only who is the best teacher-pleaser, but tests will find truly brilliant students who are not attuned to school.
When Gardner wrote Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983, people loved it, because it appeared to broaden the scope of intelligence. Gardner said that people could be “body smart” or “music smart” or “nature smart.” It’s an appealing thought, and he may have expanded the ways in which you can earn recognition — interpersonally, mathematically, and so on — but it’s still an achievement-based model, which means it strongly favors males. The only women mentioned in Frames of Mind were dancers.
Leviton: You also speak a lot about genetics and how it influences intelligence. Isn’t that a reductive, genes-as-destiny kind of thinking?
Silverman: There is a strong genetic component to giftedness. Research on this has accumulated for more than a century, and the evidence is mounting with DNA studies. Heritability is largely misunderstood; it is not destiny or reductionism. You can be born with a genetic propensity that is either neglected or nurtured by your environment. Giftedness runs in families. If one child is gifted, the other children are likely gifted, too, even those who do poorly in school.
When I first spoke of this observation in my presentations, psychologists and educators would ask to see my evidence. I wondered if they believed that gifted children were delivered by the stork only one to a family. So I conducted a study of 148 sets of siblings and found that nearly three-fourths of them were within 13 IQ points of each other. When they were farther apart, one of them usually had a learning disability that depressed the score.
In graduate school I had to study the work of a psychologist named Robert Zajonc, a dedicated behaviorist who believed that intelligence is primarily environmental. He received federal grants to support his research in which he “demonstrated” that the oldest child exhibits the most intelligence and that every additional child receives a smaller piece of the pie because the child receives less attention. The textbooks in psychology and education taught us that small families had smarter children and large families had dumber ones. Genetic research has debunked this.
Leviton: Still, you’re saying that some people are just born intellectually superior to others?
Silverman: I don’t see it as superior versus inferior. There is a continuum of intelligence, just as there is a continuum of height. We don’t say taller people have “superior height.” I’ve been begging the IQ-testing industry for years to stop using those terms. Over the last century we have changed the scientific terminology for those at the other end of the intelligence spectrum multiple times. “Idiot,” “moron,” and “retarded” were scientific terms that have been abandoned because of the pejorative associations they accumulated. So why, after a hundred years, are we still officially using “superior intelligence” and “very superior intelligence”? The testing industry says we have to keep the terms because they are codified in state laws, but if we label one child “superior,” it implies that others are inferior.
Both ends of the spectrum have children with “special needs” who develop in a different manner and need individualized assessment to determine what they can or can’t do. They need teachers who are trained to work with them and to teach them in the ways they learn best. And we do give individual attention to those with learning disabilities, emotional problems, hearing and visual deficits, and so on. We need methods of identifying all children with special needs, wherever they fall on the intelligence spectrum.
Leviton: You believe the vast majority of gifted children in the world have not been identified, especially those living in poverty or in remote areas. But you work mostly with children whose families have the resources to pay for private testing. What do you do to reach the hidden majority?
Silverman: I haven’t had the necessary financial backing to do extensive outreach. Even though the GDC has been around for thirty-five years, we barely make ends meet. We have managed to create a scholarship fund of fifteen thousand dollars that we use to help people who can’t afford our services. I have worked with institutions that serve disadvantaged preschoolers, such as the Hope Academy in Denver. But studying and serving the gifted doesn’t attract funding. Like other psychologists of the gifted before me — Leta Hollingworth in New York, who founded this field, and Rita Dickinson, who conducted studies of thousands of gifted children in Colorado — I have not received grants to support my research with disadvantaged populations. We all tried valiantly but to no avail.
Leviton: You have identified a style of learning called “visual-spatial.” Why did you think this distinction was necessary?
Silverman: It helps us identify gifted individuals who are often overlooked. The visual-spatial learning style cuts across all IQ ranges and socioeconomic groups, and it often appears in cultures that are less tied to the written word and teach through showing rather than telling. Artists, musicians, builders, mechanics, dancers, designers, and mathematicians are usually visual-spatial learners. They are more right-hemispheric. The right hemisphere of the brain doesn’t perceive linear time but understands space exquisitely. It communicates through pictures and feelings rather than through words. Visual-spatial learners sometimes understand computers in a profound way, or find heavily visual sciences like physics easier to grasp, or tune in extremely well to the moods and needs of those around them, or have a well-developed sense of compassion and moral sensitivity. They grasp the solution even when they are unable to show their work in sequential form. They see in pictures, big concepts, bursts of insight. Surgeons, architects, aeronautical engineers, and many scientists show a preference for visual-spatial reasoning.
We have developed a questionnaire called the Visual-Spatial Identifier and given it to urban and rural children in the middle grades, both English- and Spanish-speaking. The children are asked how true various statements about them are, including “I think mainly in pictures instead of words,” “I often lose track of time,” “I solve problems in unusual ways,” “I like to take things apart and find out how they work,” and “I have a hard time explaining how I come up with my answers.” Many visual-spatial learners feel marginalized in school.
Leviton: You’ve said that visual-spatial learners are more likely to miss easy questions and ace complex ones. They can also more easily repeat six random numbers than five. Wouldn’t that make them hard to test?
Silverman: Visual-spatial learners and twice-exceptional children both demonstrate these patterns, which makes it difficult to interpret their test results. IQ tests are administered from easiest to hardest, and the tester is supposed to stop once the child gets a certain number of problems wrong, because the rest are even harder. But for these children, harder is often easier. They may miss a few early items and then answer several more correctly. If the tester must stop offering harder items after these children have missed three, the scores will severely underestimate their ability.
Leviton: How do you teach visual-spatial learners?
Silverman: When there is a right-hemisphere preference, children may not apprehend isolated pieces of information. Yet if you show them the big picture, how it all fits together, they see patterns and connections. They struggle to recall individual math facts, such as 5 × 9, if presented on flash cards, but if you show them how every time you multiply 9 by a number from 1 to 10, the numerals in the answer add up to 9 (for example, 5 × 9 = 45, and 4 + 5 = 9), it fascinates them, and they remember it. I’ve coined the term “auditory-sequential learner” for those who learn better through step-by-step processes. Auditory-sequential learners are more left-hemispheric. They can better understand isolated facts presented in increasing orders of complexity, building knowledge gradually.
The left hemisphere of the brain reads phonetically. Only the left hemisphere can differentiate among la, fa, and ga. The right hemisphere works only with units of meaning such as fox or run. Many dyslexics are visual-spatial learners, and they sometimes master reading if it is taught with whole words and whole-word patterns rather than phonetically. They have difficulty discriminating lowercase p, q, d, and b. Their visual-spatial learning style sees those all as the same form, just oriented differently. This visual-spatial propensity is helpful if you are a cosmologist or a physicist, but it is difficult to take three-dimensional perception and squash it into the flatland of reading.
Education’s current obsession with literacy is also not sensitive to indigenous cultures. I’ve spent lots of time in New Zealand and Australia. Maori and Aboriginal tribes have oral traditions, and visual-spatial gifts are observed there more readily than gifts demonstrated through reading and writing. We penalize children too harshly for not being good readers. That’s our cultural bias. I have visited Navajo communities in Arizona where schools have taken away art programs, replacing them with remedial reading so that the children can do better on standardized tests. This dishonors the Navajo culture. There are more than five hundred recognized Native American tribes in the United States. We are working with several of them to initiate culturally responsive visual-spatial instruction that honors the way the students learn.
I think there are a lot of picture-thinkers in the lowest economic groups and in the many diverse cultures that populate our world. They don’t need to be “fixed.” They need to be included and valued for who they are, not set up to fail by our traditional teaching methods.
The Bible teaches, “In the beginning was the Word.” We may have taken that too far, because it rejects too much: illumination, mystery, ineffable beauty. But I believe that in the twenty-first century we are moving toward a deeper understanding of the value of both brain hemispheres, which, in turn, will enhance our appreciation of cultural diversity.
Those straight A’s, that violin solo, that sculpture — those are not the result of nature alone. There is no achievement without nurture. Nature is the raw material children bring with them; nurture determines what they actually do with it.
Leviton: How do you see nature and nurture interacting in the gifted population?
Silverman: Those straight A’s, that violin solo, that sculpture — those are not the result of nature alone. There is no achievement without nurture. Nature is the raw material children bring with them; nurture determines what they actually do with it.
Leviton: So achievement may not come, but the giftedness is still there, just hidden or denied. It’s permanent, correct?
Silverman: Yes. We wouldn’t ask whether an intellectual developmental disorder is permanent. I see giftedness as simply the other side of the same coin. It is lifelong, from birth to death. And it brings with it a number of specific issues — especially the feeling of being an outsider.
Leviton: Legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of people at the other end of the spectrum, but there’s no equivalent legislation for the gifted population. Maybe the idea is that the gifted can take care of themselves?
Silverman: This is another myth about the gifted. They do not all take care of themselves. Some are dropouts. Some are seriously depressed. Some commit suicide. Many hide, and most underachieve. There is federal and state support for an eighteen-year-old with the mental functioning of a nine-year-old, but not for a nine-year-old with the mental functioning of an eighteen-year-old. We live in an anti-intellectual society. Most of us refuse to acknowledge that there are individuals in our midst with higher intelligence. We can afford to be magnanimous and share resources with “unfortunates” who appear to have less intelligence, but we resent or feel threatened by anyone with higher intelligence. In a competitive society, deriding gifted people is accepted. Gifted boys, in particular, tell me they often face hostility from their peers. Some have been beaten up for being smart.
Leviton: But sometimes societal values change, and there’s a push for children to be smart. In the 1950s and ’60s there was a nationwide search for young people who excelled in science because the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union to get to the moon.
Silverman: At that time it was OK to be smart in math or science. Underachievement in those fields was considered bad for the nation. In 1960 John Hersey wrote The Child Buyer, a chilling novel about the effort to engineer superintelligent people. But even while the gifted were being courted because they could get us into space, they were still put down, made fun of, and ostracized in school.
We are living in a similar time now. We hear big talk about needing more engineers and computer whizzes, but little support is being given to gifted students in the classroom, where they are still often treated like freaks. Gifted children get mixed messages: “Be the best you can be!” but also, “Don’t be such a perfectionist.” “Be great at math and science,” but also, “Be able to throw a football.”
Advanced Placement classes and honor societies not only encourage academic achievement; they help gifted children find friends. If you ask gifted children what they want, they do not say, “A straight-A average,” or, “To get into an Ivy League college.” They say that they want friends. No one wants to be lonely. The academic talent searches at many universities, such as Duke, Johns Hopkins, the University of Denver, and Northwestern, as well as the Davidson Young Scholars program, provide a safe place for these kids to find each other. I created Profoundly Gifted Retreat, a camp where families can meet and discuss the challenges faced by gifted children. The Internet has also made many families of the gifted feel less isolated.
We live more and more in a world of visual symbols, and our brain wiring is being altered as a result. Children now interact with computers, video games, and cellphones from the earliest years of their life, and those experiences are making a big difference in how they process information.
Leviton: In one publicized case, a boy you identified as being at the genius level was later shown to have been extensively coached by his mother, who also presented you with falsified test scores and personal details.
Silverman: I was gullible. I believe in people. I’ve tested more than six thousand children over the past thirty-five years, and I’ve been deceived by so few. Most of the parents who come to the GDC genuinely want what is best for their children. After that experience my therapist, Sharon Conarton, asked me to imagine what my life would be like if I were distrustful of people. “Haven’t you gained more by being open and trusting, instead of wary and cautious?” she said. Her response helped me see the experience in the context of my work, which to a great extent depends on my being openhearted.
As a result of that experience, we have implemented some precautions. We now have parents sign a document affirming that they will not coach their children or expose them to the questions beforehand. They agree that the test results will be invalidated if the child has been coached. And when the tester asks whether a child has seen a question before, the child will almost always answer truthfully. Unfortunately there are coaching agencies that sell kits to parents so that the children can practice similar activities. That takes away the novelty and compromises the scores. If a child has practiced, we can tell, and it invalidates the scores. But nothing can invalidate the personal observations of a trained examiner who knows how to properly assess giftedness. There’s no way to coach for Qualitative Assessment. I hope that it becomes the preferred method of assessment in the future.
Leviton: I watched one of your conference presentations online, and at the end you took questions from the audience. One person asked if you believed gifted children could have had past-life experiences that accelerated their learning. You didn’t dismiss the idea but didn’t endorse it either. What do you really think?
Silverman: Actually some children we tested have talked about past-life experiences. One boy said that he used to make sleeping mats when he lived in Egypt. Several children have told their parents that they chose them before they were born. I once asked a colleague who specializes in highly gifted children whether she thought these children were psychic. There was dead silence for a moment. Then she said, “Yes, but I don’t talk about it!”
In our parent questionnaire we ask if children are “spiritually sensitive.” When parents say yes, I ask about their children’s experiences, and it opens the door to realms not usually explored with psychologists. From these conversations I have concluded that it is not uncommon for gifted children to have psychic experiences. One profoundly gifted boy asked his father, “What is my responsibility when I can read other people’s minds?” A profoundly gifted girl posed the question “How do we know we are not part of someone else’s dream?”
Leviton: Eminent scientists sometimes talk about how solutions to complex problems come to them in dreams.
Silverman: I’ve found that most empirically minded scientists, when asked, will admit to having experiences that they can’t explain logically. There doesn’t have to be a divide between scientific inquiry and spiritual consciousness.
Leviton: What do you make of the Flynn effect, which proposes that overall intelligence has been increasing around the world since 1930?
Silverman: I think what we’re seeing is an increase in visual-spatial intelligence. James Flynn’s findings were mostly based on a nonverbal multiple-choice test of intelligence. An argument could be made that we live more and more in a world of visual symbols, and our brain wiring is being altered as a result. Children now interact with computers, video games, and cellphones from the earliest years of their life, and those experiences are making a big difference in how they process information. There’s more playfulness, more trial and error, in electronic media. The younger generation is growing up with new insights, and we need that energy desperately.