The Future of High-IQ Education

This article was originally published on Whiskey & Gunpowder.

Mensa logo

Wonderful developments in education are on the horizon.

Mensa, the international association for people much smarter than I am, has just accepted its newest member: a toddler with an IQ of 154. Calgary’s Anthony Popa Urria is now almost three years old. Before he was one, he could sound out the English alphabet. He can now speak English, Spanish, and some Romanian, and he enjoys afternoons spent studying his giant atlas.

Of course, the question now turns to the proper education of this budding genius in diapers, and his parents are stumped. IQ isn’t perfect, but it is a rough measure of academic ability. Many schools recognize giftedness at around IQ 130, meaning the gifted students are smarter than 98 percent of all children. At IQ 154, Anthony is smarter than 99 percent of those gifted children.

Although genetics has an influence on intelligence, there is no natural geographic clustering of supersmart children like Anthony. Kids like him are born here and there around the world, often to ordinary folk like the Urrias. In effect, they are born isolated from their intellectual peers.

The Urrias might be able to homeschool for a short time, but Anthony’s potential could soon outstrip his parents’ abilities.

Private schools for children with abilities in Anthony’s range are very rare and very expensive. Their price is driven up, not only by the rarity and intellectual voracity of their pupils, but also by the ubiquity and financial voracity of the state.

A few years ago, then, it would have been the absurd and yet inescapable fate of an outstanding genius child like Anthony to be taught by people innately stupider than he is.

One of Anthony’s best options for a public school inside the country might be for his family to travel to Southern Ontario to join the Peel District’s “Gifted Education Program” (GEP). It starts gifted assessment and programming years earlier than most other schools, and it has dedicated classrooms for what it calls “enhanced” learners.

But in 2009, almost half of the children in GEP’s primary-school program said that it was not geared to their needs. And almost two-thirds of the kids in secondary school had the same complaint [PDF, see page 8].

This is not just a case of disgruntled adolescents; the teachers agree in nearly the same proportions that GEP is not properly suited to its students.

And among primary-school teachers in the program, almost four out of ten said they were not “confident” teaching gifted students. And why should they be? The teachers all get standardized training for the purpose of teaching standardized curricula to standardized children. The goal of public education is not to foster individual excellence but, as Robert Murphy puts it, “to produce acquiescence in the status quo.”

This quest for acquiescence is especially damaging to gifted kids, who often play down their abilities in order to cope with the jealousy of peers and teachers.

Sadly, the parents of those gifted children whose needs are being met can’t pay their successful teachers any more than they do the useless ones. That would be called bribery.

If a gifted adult did want to accept the fixed wages and teach in this environment, they would have to pass through the same teacher-training program as everyone else. Having worked in such a university education faculty for several years, I can tell you that the general opinion among most instructors is that the upper-year courses are not very difficult.

Joan Freeman, the British psychologist who tested Anthony’s IQ, warns that the gifted want “high vitamin learning,” and that when educators deny them such challenges, “that way lies boredom” [PDF]. What is the chance that a young adult genius who wants to teach child geniuses will make it through the university’s gauntlet of mediocrity with his love of learning intact?

Because parents cannot pay directly for the education they want — or, more accurately, because they must pay for mass education whether they want it or not — the market signals from gifted children and their parents are obstructed and distorted before they can get to a truly gifted teacher, someone really suited to teach a boy like Anthony.

So for decades, parents like the Urrias have found themselves sending exceptional children like Anthony into the care of ordinary teachers like those at Peel.

But this pathetic state of affairs is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Entrepreneurial ventures leveraging new technologies are pulling down the geographic, political, and financial walls between Anthony and a proper education.

Salman Khan

We are now seeing the rise of inexpensive online schools like the Khan Academy and the elite Minerva Project (and even the Mises Academy and Tom Woods’s new Liberty Classroom). Such players in this emerging global market can provide ivory-tower education at bargain-basement prices — in the case of the Khan Academy, absolutely free.

The Khan Academy consists of over 3,100 short video lectures on math, science, and other subjects. Salman Khan, a hedge-fund analyst, started making the videos and posting them on YouTube as a way to tutor his young relatives and friends. As his videos’ popularity grew, Khan recognized this as an opportunity to be involved in the education of the world; he quit his day job and began teaching online full-time.

In the Khan Academy, each student can choose to pursue different topics at different paces, by the simple expedient of choosing what video to watch next. This is an unprecedented customization of curricula. Furthermore, there are peer-to-peer chat and tutoring services built in. A brilliant child can easily find someone on his own level to help him in any given subject. As soon as he surpasses them, he can move on.

The Khan Academy once raked in $2,000 a month in ad revenues, but it is now completely funded by philanthropy, including by Google’s latest commitment of $2 million. Anthony Urria’s parents wouldn’t have to pay a dime or even put him on a bus in order to get him an education from a provider like Khan.

Khan doesn’t have the proper “education” degree required to be a schoolteacher. His degrees from MIT and Harvard are in mathematics, engineering, and business administration. So how do we know if this guy can teach? The best proof that Khan can is simply that the students keep coming back — his YouTube channel has 324,000 subscribers and 144,000,000 video views to date. The gatekeepers of formal education have been unceremoniously sidestepped.

Let’s do a brief comparison: What happened to Peel’s Gifted Education Program when nearly two-thirds of its secondary students said it didn’t meet their needs? Nothing. The teachers kept their jobs. The tax monies destined for the school district kept on flowing. And the kids stayed in the program, because it’s better than their alternative: mainstream classrooms or private schools their parents can’t afford.

What would happen to the Khan Academy if two-thirds of its viewers suddenly felt it didn’t meet their needs? Those viewers would instantly cease to use the Khan Academy. And, presumably, Google might become a little concerned about its investment. If the academy still depended on ad revenues, they would slow to a trickle.

The Khan Academy itself is now entering into partnerships with government educational monopolies. But the technological barrier has been overcome, and the free-market business model is already in place. Children can now be taught by anyone with a computer and a brain. And those with the best brains and software platforms will attract the most children, the most ad revenues, and the biggest donations from companies eager to be associated with their work.

A global market in education is coming soon, whether the reigning monopolists like it or not. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s completely international. Google’s grant to Khan is “to support the creation of more courses and … to translate their core library into the world’s most widely spoken languages.” So the academy will get even bigger and become accessible in wide swaths of South America, China, and India.

Almost certain to follow on the heels of these developments is increased specialization and division of labor in teaching. For instance, an instructor in New York who might excel at explaining long division will soon be able to coordinate with kids in New Brunswick, New Zealand, and New Delhi who have just that need. And at last — at long last — it will be possible for some distant genius, perhaps living in Calcutta, who would be wasted as a teacher of ordinary children, to guide the development of a high-IQ kid in Calgary like Anthony.

The natural geographic isolation of genius children from their intellectual peers is soon to be overcome. And heaven only knows what miracles of human achievement will come within reach thereafter.

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