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Interview with David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow
The following interview took place at the American Psychological Association Conference in Toronto in July of 2003
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Well it really happened in my senior year in college. I was planning at that time to go on and become a clinical psychologist. And I signed up for a course taught by Julian Stanley on psychological testing. And in that course Julian talked an awful lot about mathematically gifted kids. And I thought it was truly fascinating to listen to him and the stories—What they were capable of doing, and to hear about his research and the programs that he had. So at the end of the course I came up to him, and I said well, would he be interested in having a graduate student study with him because I just found the topic so interesting. And Julian, as [is] very characteristic of him said “Well, here’s a whole bunch of books.” And he loaded me up with stacks of books like this [indicating a large stack] and he said “Read those and come back, and if you’re still interested” you know, “we’ll talk about it.” So I got the books and went home for Christmas to visit my parents in Italy. I took all those books with me and I read them. And I just became even more interested and more fascinated by the topic. And so when I came back and second semester started, I made an appointment to see Julian and say “Well, I think I’m hooked.” And I applied. And that’s how I got interested in the field. So I changed from becoming a clinical psychologist to one working with gifted children.
Of course Julian Stanley comes to the forefront. I mean, he had a tremendous influence on me as an undergraduate, and made me shift career choices and fields. And I continued to work with him as a graduate student after I got my Ph.D., or actually, I got an Ed.D. I continued working with him, so he had an influence on me. And we’ve been collaborating, or working together, ever since. Julian’s still alive and we still communicate and work together. So he continues to be a great influence. And I call him my professional father. Another influence on me has been Lynn Fox. She worked with me on my dissertation and was my advisor. So she had an influence. I think that the biggest influence was Julian, but as a historical figure who kind of shapes my way of thinking about the gifted and how you approach it—it would be Leta Hollingworth. And, although I don’t know her individually—Just her work has—has moved me. But those were probably the three individuals who have influenced my career path. But of those, clearly Julian’s the one that has had the major influence.
Oh well--you know, our study was founded really—Julian began the study in the early 1970s because he…had met a few mathematically gifted kids. He wondered well, if these were so precocious, then it made him wonder how many more were out there. And once he had realized how many were out there, he realized that he needed to do something, and he wanted to intervene and so something educational, to be more responsive to their needs. He didn’t want to lose all this talent through boredom in school. And so the study was designed to really look at mathematical talent--how we can develop that talent—and to study its unfolding over time. Well one of the—One of the things that kind of popped at anyone at the beginning was these sex differences in SAT math scores. No one anticipated it. No one was looking for it, and no one really had an expressed in sex differences when they appeared. But they were there. And the first year that the talent search was conducted—It was pretty much dismissed. People thought, well, we didn’t know what we were doing; if we do it again next year it will probably disappear. But as we conducted talent searches throughout the 1970s it became quite clear that these sex differences in SAT math scores that we were finding through our talent search—Well, they were pretty robust and stable. Uh, so at the end—in the end of the 1970s I decided to kind of summarize all those sex differences across the 10,000 kids that we had tested at that point in time. And I put it together in an article and we were going to submit it to Science. And when I was ready to submit it got a lot of comments—A couple of people told me, “You know, that’s going to be pretty controversial.” And I said to myself—naïve—I was only a graduate student at the time—naively I said “Well why? It’s just data. Why should anyone get upset?” Well, they kept telling me, you know “I think that’s going to be really controversial.” Well you know, it got accepted and um—and the article appeared—and you know, that morning that the article appeared, as David [Lubinski] was mentioning, I got up in the morning and I went down stairs to dress my eldest son and get him ready for school—when my ex-husband turns on the radio and screams down “Camilla! Listen! Your work is on NPR!” [laughing] And well, that day—That was the beginning. And the phone never did stop ringing. And for about a month it was just busy responding to the whole controversy about these sex differences. What we found in 1980 was a difference in means between the males and the females and we really couldn’t ascribe those differences to some of the common explanations that were being used at that time to say that there are diff—“We are finding differences in math scores between males and females. But they’re not real” they were saying. And what our data showed us was that, gee, you know, if those math score differences were not due—were not being—But people were saying that there were no differences because boys were taking more math than girls. And what we found is that here, these boys and girls were taking the SAT and they had identical formal experiences in mathematics and they still had these differences. We also looked at some things like socialization—like how much they liked math, how important they thought math was. And on every variable that we looked at, there were no differences between our boys and the girls. And so we kind of concluded that it was premature to conclude that it was only socialization that was causing these sex differences in SAT math scores. And of course that set the world on fire in 1980, because that’s not the way we were thinking at that time. Today I think if you said that—I don’t think that it would be—arouse such a controversy. But in 1980 it really did. [laughing] And it sent me into the doghouse with a lot of people. [laughing] And so—That was our study. We did follow it up a couple of years later. We had 40,000 more cases, and what we found out then was that the difference—the SAT score difference on the math portion wasn’t due to the fact that boys on average got a few more problems correct than the girls did on the SAT math. It was due to the fact that there were many more high scoring boys than girls. And that there was really an excess of extremely mathematically talented boys. And that so that the distribution was a bit skewed. If you looked at the SAT verbal scores of our males and female participants, they overlapped perfectly. They were normally distributed just like you thought they would be. But if you took the SAT math scores of the females, they too were nicely normally distributed just like the SAT verbal. And although the means were different you could put the graphs and the distributions right on top of each other and you wouldn’t see a difference. Where we did see a difference was with the males on the SAT math. And there you had that skewed distribution. Um, so we—You know we kind of refined that to show that—where the differences were. And again, that promptly created a little bit more—It, you know, made you think—you have to look at different reasons to explain a shift in distribution like that to make it skewed. Then you would look at if there were some small mean differences that you were trying to ameliorate. And um, so that is how we took that, and of course we—as David [Lubinski] was mentioning—we followed up these participants throughout their adult lives. And as he was mentioning, uh, you know, all these males and females are achieving very highly. Doing extremely well. We know that if we intervene in their education and in their lives, um, they’ll probably do a little bit better than if we didn’t. We do see some differences there. But what we do find is that those differences that we find at age 13 are really—seem to mirror—really predict differences that you see at age 33 in terms of where they choose to focus their talents and so on. And so those differences—although many people at the time, in 1980, were saying “Oh. They’re meaningless. It’s only 40 points.” You know, and so on. Now as we’re looking at them at age 33—they did portend differences that were to come. And it’s—where to choose to focus their talents. And as David [Lubinski] mentioned, females tend to construct their lives a little differently, tend to develop their talents in different areas a little bit more than the males—but they’re all high achieving, and they’re all doing well. They’re just making somewhat different choices and decisions.
I think what we’re looking for here, in one way, is just to recognize that these gifted kids have real distinct educational needs, and that they’re not being met by the current environment. That is one mission that we have. And that intervening in their lives will lead to enhanced achievement, which society, I believe, will benefit from. So, in one way it’s a sense of saying these kids deserve to learn something new every day. Just like every other child deserves to learn something new every day. Every child deserves to be challenged in school, and gifted kids deserve to have that challenge as well. So therefore one part of that mission is to say in this world, where gifted kids have very few advocates for their needs, their educational needs—Some of us have to stand up, step up to the line and be willing to kind of go against the current trends and go against the current values and say not only is it right that these kids have it, but that if you do research and scholarship and research, it supports the fact that they have these needs and it shows you what they can accomplish if they were only given the chance--and how much loss of talent there is by not challenging--by not educating--these gifted kids to the level that they should be educated at. So there’s one part of that. I think the other part of that is looking at the optimal development of talent, and trying to understand that. And it’s not just a matter of abilities, as David [Lubinski] talks about. It’s also a matter of personality, environmental supports and so on. But it’s a matter of—As an article that one of our graduate students is now writing—is a blending of promise and passion. You’ve gotta be passionate in what you do. Because if you’re not passionate about your work, you’re not going to do your best work. And so you have to find your passion. And so part of what we’re saying here is to say not only should these kids be challenged, but you should help them find their passions. And then help them pursue those passions. And so—It is a matter of helping people find passions and pursue them at their potential.
…With giftedness, kids get pigeonholed into one category. And—and they really are as different as a group—You know, people say “Oh are they maladjusted?” No they’re not maladjusted. Sure we’re going to have one or two, just like in any group of individuals you’re going to have a group—But you know, on the whole, uh, gifted kids turn out well. They’re socially mature, socially skilled, and they attempt to contribute in nice ways to society. But I think that—what I’d like to add is—that right now a lot of people are very hesitant about having programs for these kids in our schools. They feel that they are elitist or what have you. Why give more to the individuals who already have so much? And so you have these trends of getting rid of gifted programs and so on. And what people don’t realize when they do that, is that they hurt the very gifted kids that they want to help the most. Now let me explain what I mean by that. And that is—You know, if you took away programs for gifted kids, say, in the school that my kids went to—You know, it wouldn’t affect my kids as much because you know, I know what to do. I’ve been highly educated and I have resources. And I would figure out some way to challenge my child, whether I would hire a tutor, send him to a special program, whatever. I would make sure that my children were challenged. And so would most middle-class, upper middle-class, and so on, parents who have some education—do for their kids. They have the resources and they would use them so that the kids would receive the kind of education they need. But what happens when you remove those programs, uh, and you have those—the lower—the kids from the lower SESs in those programs? You have parents there who may not know what they should do, who may not understand how important it is to challenge their bright child. They certainly don’t have the resources to spend $2000 for a summer program or to hire a tutor. And so what happens is, is that you remove programs for gifted kids from our schools—our public schools—those parents who have the means and resources will somehow find programs for their kids, and those parents who don’t—those kids will be left behind. And you will widen the gap, and the very kids that you want to help the most are going to be left behind. And there is really nothing more satisfying than when you can take a child who comes from maybe meager, modest circumstances, and you can provide him that intervention that pulls him up, that opens up doors and new vistas and new opportunities for them that they never even thought was possible. There’s nothing more satisfying than that. And that’s what schools were all about. And when we get rid of our gifted [programs], those are the kids who suffer—the minorities, the kids from the lower SES. It’s not the kids from the upper class. And that’s what I’d like to say because people don’t think about it that way.
Well, you know, our work is with gifted children so we’re dealing with the upper end. And we’re working with them starting at age thirteen--then of course as you’ll hear later about our study—we are tracking them throughout their adult lives. A lot of our kids now are no longer kids. They are adults, and they’re in the process of developing eminence, high achievement in whatever field they may have chosen to partake of. And what I find as a dean, is that—a dean of a college of education—is that I’m really working with my gifted kids grown up! And so many of those principles of talent development, eminence and so on that I have been studying and working with for so many years are so applicable to the process of what you find in universities. Because really universities are places of talent development. Whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, or a faculty member—people are busy developing the talents of others or developing their own talents. And to be really versed in that literature, and understand about intelligence—how it unfolds, how you can influence it and intervene—and looking at the very upper parts, which is really what universities are about—encouraging excellence—that has a great beneficial influence on me in my life as an administrator. So, not many people may think about it in that way, but that’s the way I view my role as an administrator--is a facilitator of talent. And having had that experience and background I think helps me maybe see my role a little differently than others do, but it also helps me approach it in a compassionate way.
I don’t think that there is anything major that I’ve changed my mind on. It’s just that your—your thinking develops and becomes more sophisticated. And of course times change. I think when I started off as a graduate student working with Julian Stanley we really believed in radical acceleration and skipping kids several grades, bringing them to college at a very young age. Partly that was a response to what was available in our schools at that time for those students. AP courses at that time really weren’t that widely available. Kids didn’t have the option as readily as they do today of taking college courses while they’re in high school, and so on. Our schools today provide many more things for our gifted kids to develop. It’s still not sufficient; they still need more challenges. But it’s much better than it was in the 1970s. We have progressed. And what I would say is that I think my thinking on the need for acceleration is that I still believe in acceleration—I still use acceleration. I guess I was much more hesitant about the use of the radical acceleration, and I do feel that it is better if you can—if it’s possible to work it out—to bridge the students more slowly. When they get into their high school years, take a college course on the side. Take AP courses. Maybe graduate a year or so early, but enter with advanced standing. And make that transition much smoother. And I think that’s going to be more successful. That’s not to say that our kids early on didn’t—who we radically accelerated and went to college at age 14 or 15 haven’t done well. They have. I just think we can do it better and make it easier for them now. So if my thinking has changed and evolved about that—It’s not so much my mind on acceleration. It’s just that the context and the circumstances have changed somewhat and I guess maybe I’ve backed off a little bit and see that this is a better way of doing it.
What we’re also finding in that way, when we’re looking at the gender differences, is that if you look at males and females, and if you look at how they construct satisfying lives, they’re choosing to construct them a little differently. And here’s an area that I don’t think we have yet contributed to—but I think has the biggest potential; and that is—we have had a lot of studies on eminent men, and so on. We understand talent development and career development in men pretty well. But until recently, women didn’t have the opportunity to achieve. And there may still be limits, but they’re not there as they were to the extent that they were 50 years ago, where your choice was to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary, if you worked at all. Nowadays, women can become lawyers, they can become physicians, they can become professors. And we don’t know—and I think our study is ideally set up to do—is to say what are the career development paths of highly talented women? Who before couldn’t make these choices, but now that the opportunities are there for them--how do they develop? Do they develop along the same way, the same influences, as males do? Do they follow different paths? Are there things that they do at different time periods? There are lots of questions, but we certainly are seeing at age 33 that the males and the females feel it just as important to get a good education, to be successful in their careers. And they feel just as satisfied with their lives. But what we’re finding is that the females, in order to feel more satisfied, need to do—have a more broad set of interests being fulfilled. It’s “Yes I need to be successful at work, but it’s also important for me to have friends, to have a family, to you know, develop my spiritual sense.” Whereas for the males in our study, more often what you’re seeing is “What’s most important for me is my career development, making an important contribution, earning a lot of money.” The males are much more focused on their career development. Whereas with our females, in order to feel equally satisfied, they need to have all of these things, and they need to juggle all of these things. And so it’s a much more complex equation. And it’s going to be so interesting to see over time how these paths of our males and females crisscross and change. And you see priorities—I mean, you--you hear at age 50 so many men saying “Gosh. I focused so long on career. Here I’m at the pinnacle of my career and I’m finding out that this is all there is to it!?” And they go back and want to do different things, and they have a midlife crisis. Maybe women, because they’re balancing them all along are going make different things and come at that stage and say “Gosh. I’ve done my family. I’ve had my--you know…” and so on. “I want to spend even more time on career.” Who knows! We don’t know; I’m just speculating. But they’re definitely on different paths, and I think that’s going to be another interesting contribution.
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