The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm. — Aldous Huxley
It’s back to school season and as parents all over the world prepare for their children’s return back to school, it led to reflection about how to ignite the gift of curiosity which leads to academic excellence and innovative thinking.
In July 2017, Maryam Mirzakhani died at the age of 40. She was heralded as a genius in the news media and in academia. She was the only woman to win the Fields Medal – the mathematical counterpart of a Nobel prize – and had been a Stanford professor since the age of 31, this Iranian-born academic had been on unstoppable since she started winning gold medals at math Olympiads in her teens.
The interesting thing is that she wasn’t a gifted child who exceled from a very young age. Maryam was born in Tehran, one of three siblings in a middle-class family; her father was an engineer. There wasn’t anything exceptional about her childhood except for the Iran-Iraq war, which ended when she began secondary school.
She was admitted to a highly choosy girls’ school, but math didn’t pique her interest – she was obsessed with reading. She loved novels and would read anything she could lay her hands on. She was always looking for more books to read with her best friend.
She did poorly in math for the first couple of years in her middle school (lower secondary school) but became intrigued by what her elder brother shared from his math classes. He also shared a famous math problem from a magazine that captivated her – and she became smitten.
The thing is, her background is the run of the mill for most Nobel laureates. Most were unexceptional in childhood. Einstein spoke sluggishly when he was a child and was nicknamed the dopey one by the family maid. He failed the general part of the entry test to Zurich Polytechnic – he was admitted eventually due to his high physics and math scores. He struggled to get a job initially, failing to get an academic post and being passed over for promotion at the Swiss Patent Office because he wasn’t proficient enough at machine technology. He however was diligent at solving problems and ultimately rewrote the laws of Newtonian mechanics with his theory of relativity.
A ground-breaking American educational psychologist, Lewis Terman set up a study in 1921 following 1,470 Californians, who surpassed others in the newly available IQ tests, throughout their lives. None ended up as the great thinkers of their age that Terman anticipated they would. He however did miss two future Nobel prize winners – Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both became physicists – whom he rejected from the study as their test scores were not above average.
There is a standard from research done on high performance, made over the last century, that advocates that it goes way beyond tested intelligence. Research has also depicted that brains are malleable, new neural pathways can be forged, and IQ isn’t fixed.
Benjamin Bloom, another distinguished American educator who carried out his work in the 1980s, drove the idea that family is fundamentally important to the concept of high performance.
His research focused on a group of extraordinarily high accomplished people in disciplines as varied as ballet, swimming, piano, tennis, math, sculpture and neurology, and questioned the individuals and their parents, too.
He found a pattern of parents who cheered and championed their children enormously. Bloom’s outstanding adults had performed very hard and constantly at something they had become obsessed about.
There was a research study carried out over 15 years by a team from Oxford and London universities, which looked in detail at 24 of the 3,000 individuals of their study group who were succeeded against the odds, found out that it was the tremendous support from home that made the difference. Half were on free school meals because of poverty, more than half were living with a single parent, and four in five were living in deprived areas. These discussions revealed sound evidence of an adult or adults in the child’s life who valued and supported education, either in the immediate or extended family or in the child’s wider community.
Einstein, the embodiment of genius, clearly had curiosity, character and determination. He fought against rejection in early life but was undeterred. He once wrote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
What was special about Maryam was she was curious and excited by what she did and resilient. Her published quotes depict this; “Of course, the most rewarding part is the ‘Aha’ moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new – the feeling of being on top of a hill and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight.”
We need to build this trait in our children; the gift of resilience and a formidable character. Then we can have child geniuses abounding everywhere.
Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.