Highly intelligent students, staff, and their bright children

by Jens Joschinski (@JensJoschi) and Vivian van Gerven


In November 2019 I hosted a workshop on talent development in higher education. Around 60 teachers, students, researchers, program managers and others interested in talent development in higher education from throughout Europe joined this event. During the workshop we refined and tested instruments to identify talented students, to reflect on one’s own views towards talent development, and to provide further information on talent development. Have a look here.

This post is jointly written by a postdoc in ecology/evolution, and a PhD student in education sciences. Our backgrounds may be very different, but we share the interest in changing the learning culture at university, which currently leaves some of the brightest minds behind. To explain what we mean by that, we would like to take you on a personal journey about our own struggles and how they shaped our views on the higher education system. We mark Vivian’s (education sciences) views in italics, while that of Jens (ecologist and father of 3 children) is in normal font.

I am in my first postdoc position and I graduated nearly three years ago. I have three children which are now 6, 5 and 2 years old, so the first was born shortly after I started my PhD. I was incredibly lucky to grow up (academically) in an environment that supports young parents in any imaginable way, but we still struggled a fair bit. Of course, we had to find a work-life balance and come to terms with our new roles as parents. But there was also something odd about our second kid. The intense questioning, the exceptional skill in logical arguing (yes, I’m still talking about a toddler here), the emotional sensitivity and, most importantly, their strong will drove us mad. These issues are something any parent can relate to, but our #2 seemed somehow more extreme than other children. For example, #2 would cry at random book stories, as there was too much emotional stress involved in the plot; the intensity of their imagination and role-playing bordered on delusions; and don’t even ask about the discussions/tantrums every morning about what to wear. Oh yeah, and #2 is also quite smart, but that never was an issue. For example, our child learnt all letters and numbers on their own, without much help or motivation from our side.

At some point the social behaviour of said kid changed, which made the kindergarten teachers worry. But then we moved to my 1st postdoc, and the new teacher of our then 4-year old immediately recognised the problems and told us that #2 may be gifted. This was a bit of a strange word for us, and I would connect it with religion (gift of the gods) or with some superpowers rather than expecting it from professional education staff. The German and Dutch words (“hochbegabt”, “hoogbegaafd”) are also not better, as they imply that our children are not normal. I’m still having trouble explaining those terms. Vivian, could you try?

Yes, it is really a difficult term that is riddled with prejudices and myths. The term giftedness used to mean exceptionally high intelligence (2 standard deviations above the mean) as measured by IQ-tests, but this static view has been replaced over the past decades by a dynamic view on giftedness that incorporates personal and environmental factors (like teachers or motivation) as well as developmental aspects. Currently, the view on giftedness itself is broadened: not only cognitive skills are focused on but also further talent areas like music, mathematics, creativity, or social/emotional talent.

It quickly became clear that our teacher was probably right, and that their high intelligence explains most of the daily challenges[1]. We went to specialised psychologists for IQ tests, read some books on gifted education and received some accommodations in school[2]. The diagnosis helped us understand and address #2’s needs better, and made life a bit easier. We also noticed that our oldest child is equally gifted (and probably our #3 too), it only did not show so strongly due to differences in their characters. We might have found out only years later, or not at all, wasting their great potential and potentially causing a lot of mental distress!


Calculations done by my nearly 5-year old. The math (6-10 = -4, 6-11 = -5, etc.) is quite advanced for that age, but the motoric skills are age-appropriate (thus most numbers are turned around). The asymmetric development can cause a lot of frustration.

So, why am I telling this anecdote? First of all, intelligent parents tend to have intelligent kids[3], so there is a good chance that many readers of this blog can relate to the problems mentioned here. Secondly, my story is actually a bit unusual. Gifted children are often not identified as such, or only much later in life. They may never receive the cognitive challenge they need, and they may suffer from that. And the same is true for adults, such as some of the students the reader may meet every day.

I can relate to that. I was tested in primary school due to several school problems my older brother suffered. I do normally not share the fact that I (or my siblings) have been tested, especially not the IQ I scored. It still feels uncomfortable. But it is important to understand the role of teachers and a (school) system on the biography of gifted students, as well as the fact that not every gifted student is part of Mensa[4] or proudly talking about “not being normal” (whatever normal means).

I remember how my parents and the counsellor explained the outcome of my test. “That explains, why I feel different” (“Deshalb bin ich anders”), was my first response. I always struggled with fitting in from early childhood on. The IQ score itself did not matter to me (or my parents). But with testing me I could give it a place. This strange feeling.

I struggled with the school system, other pupils, and with teachers throughout my whole school career. I was bored, frustrated, I did not think I could learn something in school. Even though I was allowed to skip the fifth grade, afterwards no one ever bothered about me being gifted. I did not do a lot (I even did less than in primary school) and still I was able to cope (don’t ask about Latin though). I did not visit school frequently, yet I did not learn or repeat school content at home – and even though missing classes I got my Abitur[5]. I have not learned how to learn, how to focus on school content. I did not learn what the point on doing so would be. Besides losing time. Sounds fantastic one could think. Not going to school, not wasting time on learning, still getting through while others would have struggled. But I struggled with not being challenged, with being captured in a system and a surrounding not giving me anything at all. I was highly frustrated for several years. Finishing school was one of the best days in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I did never complain (and would not do so now), but sometimes I wonder if I better should have started to rebel[6].

I started studying after a year abroad. Starting highly motivated. University. This must be it. It must be harder now. I will struggle, I will learn something. I will meet people thinking things through like I do. I forgot about statistic. 2-3%, you remember?

I’d say it’s more complicated than that, because intelligent people should be more likely to be drawn to university. Possibly there were many others feeling the same but also not talking about it?

That might be true, and maybe those recognize the feelings I got after starting my study: I again faced the same demotivating factors I knew from school. Only difference: no one bothered if I showed up in a lecture or seminar. I was finally let alone with me being slightly awkward. I still did not like group work, I still asked too many questions in a seminar and was too fast with solving questions and tasks meant to fill the whole time of a class (of course not always).

I never told a teacher in university about my giftedness. And no one ever asked me. When I look back now as a researcher in giftedness, I would use the term underachiever to explain my school and university life. I did not perform as high as my cognitive ability would suggest me to do[7]. As earlier mentioned, one does not only need a high ability but also personal as well as environmental factors to achieve.

In the end, I was lucky. University structures and the study I chose (educational sciences) made it possible to work besides my Bachelor and Master. During my entire Master study, I followed an international Honors Program and a further training. I did my internship and the research paper parallel to my Master thesis within six weeks – while working, too. I passed my Master with a GPA of 1,5.

Just like Jens’ story, mine is only a glimpse, a personal thing, not statistically quantifiable. But we can learn from those stories. We can look at our own biographies, at those of our friends, parents, or children. Gifted students do not automatically achieve high[8], they only have the potential to do so – it is up to the environment (lecturers, mentors, fellow students, colleagues, and of course luck) to transform the potential into talent[9]. You must unpack your gift to see what’s in it for you.

Talent development really is the core of our profession. I am convinced that we could do more to help others reach their potential, but we talk much too rarely about those things. There also seems to be way too little incentive to concentrate on talent development, as opposed to achievements.

While the US offers a huge network for honors students and a broad range of different programs, in Europe we are only starting yet. The Netherlands – due to a nationwide sponsoring called SIRIUS – have been successfully establishing honors programs throughout their universities and universities of applied sciences. Still, some programs clearly focus on the high achieving students. Thinking about the different experiences and behaviours mentioned above, I am sure that we might miss some gifted students who are not (yet) showing their talent in university.

Indeed, and also the honors programmes focus (by design) only on a minority of students. I argue that we need broad-scale approaches in our regular teaching[10]. But that requires, first of all, awareness about the problem.

We are looking for other community members (ecology, educational sciences or even beyond) that would like to engage in a discussion on gifted education and talent development, and how it applies to our field. Hopefully we could put together a review/opinion paper that lands right on the desk of many regular researchers? We are looking for co-authors with as much diversity in opinions and cultural background as possible, so if you’d like to contribute please get in contact with me. We’re especially looking for early-career researchers and students. And related to that, I’d also be interested in some work on the special challenges and opportunities of raising gifted children as a scientist, and how it may affect our careers. A very early draft with some outline is here, and if you have kids and would like to contribute, get in contact with me.

[1] There may still be other things going on, such as ADHD or autism. These are common misdiagnoses, but is also common to have both (“twice-exceptional”).

[2] Acceleration: our kid skipped a class to receive more challenging material; enrichment: they are placed in pull-out programs for 2 hours per week to engage in intellectually challenging topics not covered in regular class

[3] There is a fierce nature-nurture debate revolving around the terms in the USA, because ethnic identity, economic background and access to education are highly correlated. When talking about intelligence, IQ or gifted people, one can quickly venture into the realm of inheritance of cognitive functions, racial differences and so on. We put together a few references at the end. The take-home message is that intelligence is not very transient, but rather can be seen as stable character traits that get fixed at some early age (no matter whether its genetics, parental provisioning or opportunities).

[4] A high IQ society. one can only become member with an IQ minimum of 130 points.

[5] Highest School graduation in Germany

[6] Gifted boys are more openly struggling with the system while gifted girls tend to fit themselves in. As a corollary, gifted boys are more likely to be identified and to receive help.

[7] I am still struggling if underachieving is a “real” problem or made up by high expectations (due to an IQ-Test result) and the surrounding of a gifted child/student. There are a lot of underachievers happy with not achieving high in an educational system.

[8] This is especially true for twice exceptional students, who show a difficulty while being gifted, for example difficulties in spelling and/or reading. Students whose brains are working incredibly fast but whose hands struggle with the pace. Some of them are never diagnosed as gifted. Some struggles remain unseen as the giftedness helps them to cope – even though it costs an enormous effort. Throughout my work and through personal experience I always wonder what do we see? Do we see the giftedness, the possibilities and the talent of a human being or do we focus on the difficulties, the differences?

[9] In higher educational institutions the terms giftedness, talented, high achieving, or highly able are not consistently used.  I will be publishing an article in the Journal of the European Honors Council on the various terms soon.

[10] I am lucky to be involved in an Erasmus+-Project focusing on better equipping teachers to spot those students as well as to mirror their own teaching didactics towards talent development. You can have a look at our project and test the tools for free at our website.

In case you are now curious about giftedness and talent development, we put together some further reading and resources:

  • There are several dedicated civil societies, e.g. Mensa, that can help with general questions. For parent’s with gifted children there are several national societies, e.g., ,
  • For the academically interested, the most important journals are: Gifted Child Quarterly; Journal for Education of the Gifted; Gifted Child Today; Journal of the European Honors Council; Journal of Educational Psychology
  • Talent development (in universities):
    • Blaas, Sabrina (2014): The Relationship Between Social-Emotional Difficulties and Underachievement of Gifted Students. In Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling 24 (2), pp. 243-255.
    • Wolfensberger, M. V. C. Talent Development in European Higher Education: Honors programs in the Benelux, Nordic and German-speaking countries. (Springer International Publishing, 2015).
    • Preckel, F., & Brüll, M. (2008). Grouping the Gifted and Talented: Are Gifted Girls Most Likely to Suffer the Consequences? Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 32(1), 54–85.
  • parenting for gifted children:
    • Gilman, Barbara J. (2008). Academic Advocacy for Gifted Children: A Parent`s Complete Guide. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
    • Webb, James T.; Gore, Janet L.; Amend, Edward R.; DeVries, A. (2007). A Parent`s Guide to Gifted Children. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
  • Twice-exceptional
    • Yewchuk, Carolyn R.; Lupart, J. K. (1993): Gifted handicapped: A desultory duality. In Kurt Heller, Franz J. Mönks, H. Passow (Eds.): International handbook of research and development of giftedness and talent. 2nd London: Pergamon Press, pp. 709-725.
    • van Viersen, Sietske; Bree, Elise H. de; Kroesbergen, Evelyn H.; Slot, Esther M.; Jong, Peter F. de (2015): Risk and protective factors in gifted children with dyslexia. In Annals of Dyslexia 65 (3), pp. 178-198. DOI: 10.1007/s11881-015-0106-y.
    • Brandenburg, J.; Klesczewski, J.; Fischbach, A.; Schuchardt, K.; Büttner, Gerhard; Hasselhorn, Marcus (2015): Working memory in children with learning disabilities in reading versus spelling: Searching for overlapping and specific cognitive factors. In JOURNAL OF LEARNING DISABILITIES, p. 2
  • Intelligence concepts
    • Gagné, F. (2005): From gifts to talents: The DMGT as a developmental model. In R. J. Sternberg, Janet E. Davidson (Eds.): Conceptions of giftedness. Cambridge, pp. 98-119.
    • Heller, Kurt A.; Mönks, Franz J.; Subotnik, R.; Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.) (2000): International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent. Amsterdam: elsevier.
    • Ziegler, Albert; Stöger, Heidrun; Vialle, Wilma; Ziegler, A.; Stoeger, H.; Vialle, W. (2012): Giftedness and Gifted Education: The Need for a Paradigm Change. Gifted Child Quarterly 56 (4), pp. 194-197. DOI: 10.1177/0016986212456070.
    • APA statement on intelligence:–files/definitions-structure-and-measurement/Intelligence-Knowns-and-unknowns.pdf
    • Otto, S. P. (2001). “Intelligence, Genetics of: Heritability and Causation,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, eds. N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes (Oxford: Pergamon), 7651–7658. doi:10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/03377-5. Reprint

Author biographies:

Jens Joschinski is a postdoc at Gent University and studies insect diapause. He is interested in the role of bet-hedging strategies and phenotypic plasticity in a rapidly changing climate. You can find him on twitter.

Vivian van Gerven is a PhD student and research assistant at the University of Münster and studies learning disabilities of gifted (twice-exceptional) children. She is also enrolled in different Erasmus+-projects focusing on talent development in Higher Education.

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