Bright children should be given the same individual attention as students with special educational needs (SEN) and should be allowed to skip school years in order to realise their potential, US academics say.
Teachers could be squandering the talent of the most creative and pioneering minds of a generation by not giving them personalised care, according to researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The researchers tracked 300 gifted children from the ages of 13 to 38, noting their academic achievements as well as their later professional successes. Their resulting paper, published this week, shows that the majority of these children went on to pursue high-flying careers. Some became senior leaders in world-class organisations. Others were successful doctors, lawyers, software engineers and novelists. One was a national policy adviser to the US president.
But David Lubinski, one of the authors of the paper, said that all bright children needed to face more rigorous challenges at school to stop them wasting their potential.
"The philosophy is that all kids have the right to learn something new every day," he said. "And gifted kids tend to know a lot about the curriculum that's taught in a lot of schools. They should be exposed to a more advanced curriculum.
"If you don't stretch them, they're going to be bored, and that's a recipe for misbehaviour. They won't develop study and work habits that are going to serve them well when they're adults. That can be a huge loss of potential."
Julie Taplin, of the charity Potential Plus UK, which supports gifted children, agreed. "To become resilient learners, you need to get something wrong and learn from your mistakes," she said. "Children need, on a regular basis, to have the opportunities to learn how to fail. If they're not being challenged, they're not able to develop those skills."
Often, Professor Lubinski said, these children completed set classwork without fuss. But he drew a comparison to talented athletes and musicians: "In a normal gym class or in band class, they'd be doing just fine. But compared to their peers with the same level of talent, they could be doing so much better. They require a lot of training that's atypical from the norm."
He would like to see gifted children given the same levels of individualised attention as those with SEN. Some children would merely need to be given more advanced work in one or two subjects, he said. For others, he advocated "grade-skipping": moving them ahead a year, so that they were learning with older children.
Ms Taplin was more sceptical of this measure, known as "acceleration" in the UK. "You have to look very carefully not only at the educational needs of the child but also at their social and emotional needs," she said. "Have they got the maturity to work with older children? Does the school have the capacity and the resources to put that into place?
"There isn't a right or a wrong answer. It's about the best provision for that particular child in that particular class in that particular school."
But Professor Lubinski insisted that there were no social costs to moving a child up a school year. "Kids tend to thrive more when they're with their intellectual peers," he said. "They understand their humour. They don't need to temper their vocabulary."
In addition, he believed that this measure would require no extra work from classroom teachers. "These kids don't need anything new," he said. "What they need is what's already available for kids who are a little bit older. So it's very cost-effective. And if kids graduate high school earlier, then they're contributing to the tax base earlier. There's a lot of win-win potential."