Schools group kids by age, but scientists have a better idea.

Working memory affects how we process, retain and use information. Specifically it’s memorizing and repetition to retain the information. A common trait among prodigies  is having incredible working memory.

How you’re born is 75% responsible for being a prodigy, according to the most recent research, and how hard you work is 25%. This research applies to rules-based expertise that kids develop by age ten which is why math, chess, music are the areas most likely to see prodigies

The 75% of magic that prodigies are born with is working memory; people with exceptional working memory are able to understand, store and apply knowledge at a much faster rate than other people. We are able to predict working memory because the brain is smaller in the prefrontal cortex region but overall the brain with exceptional working memory grows faster than the typical brain. We don’t measure everyone’s brain to see who has the brain of a prodigy, but scientists have measured enough to find that the measurements of the brain of a prodigy also predict autism.

What’s so special about the prodigy/autism brain? Working memory.
Each of us has strengths and weaknesses, but the neurotypical brains have strengths and weaknesses within a relatively tight range. Someone with autism has strengths and weaknesses within a very wide range.  Normally, when testing IQ there are five areas tested and the average score of the five areas is the IQ. When scores are extremely divergent, an average is not informative. For example in one study of musical prodigies working memory was at 145 and fluid memory was at 108.

School kids should be organized by working memory instead of age. This would ensure that people who have wide ranging capabilities can still learn. Kids with low fluid memory learn abstract ideas better through pictures than abstract words. And kids with high fluid memory and low working memory need to be taught slowly in order to leverage the talent for fluid memory.

Fluid memory is linked to creativity and working memory is linked to performing well on standardized tests. There is no point in putting kids with extreme strengths in classes that call on the kids correlating extreme weakness. (Don’t like tests? Try Hampshire College.)

We must stop mistaking working memory as a trait that make a happy life.

And herein lies the danger of prodigy: seeing a young child exhibit the mastery of an adult in music/math/chess is breathtaking. But by the time that kid gets to be 20, many people have achieved that same mastery. It’s a well-documented prodigy problem: only the few kids with an similarly competent fluid memory and working memory will move past the oh-wow-that-kid-is-so-cute phase of life. That next phase involves developing artistry that you can’t achieve with even the most earth-shatteringly high-scoring working memory.

School grades kids based on right answers. And right answers are predominantly a measure of working memory. So schools should separate kids based on working memory first and perhaps the by age.

There are a lot of problems with grouping kids by fast and slow track. For example, in many instances, if you tell a kid they are slow that hurts their self-esteem over the long-term, and also evidence shows tracking systems are simply one more method of institutionalized racism in schools.

But  the real problem with tracking is that our celebration of the fast track in school is misguided. All kids are gifted in something and there are gifts far more useful than working memory. Don’t treat school as a race because learning is not a race and life is not a race. The people who internalize that wisdom have the best lives.

Moreover, most of the kids on the fast track have autism. That is, a very high score for one type of intelligence and a very low score for another. School is an island of non-reality where the person with the best working memory wins. But in the real world, the people with similar scores across five types of intelligence do the best.

The truth is that we should all hope are kids don’t get put on the fast track. Because science has shown that is not a path to happiness.

7 replies
  1. Mark
    Mark says:

    So true in many ways. A downside to the status quo scoring protocols in school systems is also that someone (like me) with an Asperger’s diagnosis (later in life) can get good grades but never be identified as having other problems in areas where the deficits hide.

    ASD stuff is always a world of extremes – very good at some things and not so good at others. When diagnosed I found that my cognitive scores were all over the 90th percentile even though I refused to answer some questions because I thought they were stupid. Alternately, some of the “non-cognitive” tests (spatial processing I think) were near the 50th percentile. Typical of extremes…

    When my wife met the psychologist she shared some of her own concerns such as that I might get run over getting the mail near the road (absent minded professor syndrome). Doctor wrote a letter to the post office saying we need to move the box to our side of the street or I might get run over….again.

    That’s another story but true. People who think that just because someone is pretty smart (and good looking!) that they should “get over it” and not be autistic anymore just don’t get it. Sad but things are getting better as more articles like this show up which talk about these differences and real-world impacts…for good and bad.

    As we learn to recognize and deal with ASD issues for people on the spectrum, it is going to end up helping us learn how to teach everyone better, and in ways they are built to learn. Bright future.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I had/have good working memory. It’s what got me through school with very good grades: I could store prodigious amounts of stuff in my head for the short term and regurgitate it for the tests. But that doesn’t mean I could actually *do* anything with that knowledge. Here’s a story of a time I did that in college and it saved my bacon:

    It’s also why I used to be a good programmer. With complex codebases you sometimes have to stack a huge wad of info in your head and pop each item off the stack as you use it, to be able to get through a thing you’re coding. I say “used to be good” because I hated debugging and gave up coding as a result.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jim, Thank you for the link. I love your phrase “the extended dance remix of college.” I think there were way more people at that party than I realized when I was there myself.


  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I found the idea of grouping children by memory ability quite thought provoking, though entirely unworkable. I also don’t see anywhere that scientists propose it.

    I did like the metaphor of the picture, though – a classroom for all the fiddles, and another for all the cellos, no matter what size they are.

    I wasn’t able to read the article characterizing the study of musical prodigies, as it’s behind some sort of paywall. That sounded interesting, though somewhat irrelevant personally; nobody in my family is that sort of prodigy.

    I was checking up on the kid of a friend of mine, who is that sort of prodigy: gold medal in prestigious math competition, math PhD from prestigious university, now a post-doc at another prestigious university. Bully for him, though it sure doesn’t pay much.

    I’ve done such a terrible job raising my son, chortling with my peers about how little studying we did in school and such, that he has developed a rather ill-adapted aversion to studying. He claims he’s trying to learn things for the long term, and cramming only produces short-term learning, so he reads avidly about the things he thinks are interesting, and will deign to use spaced repetition for language learning, but never reviews material for tests. This brings the predictable results: he aces the tests on material he’s interested in, and his grades in other things… could be better.

    His intelligence profile is rather the opposite of the math/music prodigy, with working memory barely above average and the big numbers in verbal comprehension and fluid reasoning. (Speaking of which, the conclusion of that linked article isn’t that kids with better fluid reasoning than working memory need to be taught slowly, but that good fluid reasoning doesn’t help them at all without enough time to take tests).

    My son likes math an awful lot, but he’s not so good at it that he’s likely to do nothing else, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We are happy he’ll progress in math well enough to understand higher math and talk about it credibly, but as his stronger aptitudes are verbal he’ll probably not end up being one of those people paid a pittance to do it.

    Anyway, thought-provoking post.

  4. Mark
    Mark says:

    I don’t want to overstate my expertise here but like many adults with an ASD diagnosis I’ve read way more on the topic and related cognitive conditions than is practical.

    I’m not sure the PT summary linking prodigy and short term or working memory is correct. Here is an article by one of the world’s leading researchers on exceptional minds that touches on the topic of memory and prodigy.

    The author, Dr. Treffert, is an exceptional human being who has spent a lifetime working with autism and spectrum-related conditions. He is in his late eighties today but still thinks like someone much younger and not beholden to the status quo. This is super-exciting for “train-the-talent” type education – he and a local school district are opening a K-6 public charter school this year that focuses on teaching to kids with exceptional minds that focuses on their skills and talents rather than deficits. Link below.

    I’ve been lucky to meet the guy once or twice and we’ve held a limited correspondence over the past five or six years. His work focused mostly on savants (RainMan consultant), who might be thought of as prodigies with an underlying cognitive disability. These types all do have exceptional memories but I’m not quite sure about the link to short term or working memory. Dr. T came to my attention through Daniel Tammet’s “Born on a Blue Day” memoir (which led to my late-in-life realization about my own underlying Asperger’s condition and subsequent diagnosis). This Tammet guy remembered pi to over 20,000 digits and repeated them back over five or six hours without error. I’m not savant or prodigy but my Aspie profile is near average working memory with very good long term memory (never forget things that matter – facts). I didn’t realize that until diagnosed when the doc read what seemed like a full page of fact-related questions that I didn’t even know I knew but I got them all right. She finished with a question about fiction which I didn’t know. That is how it works for people on my end or fact-oriented place on the spectrum.

    Bostonian comments on the child “under study” sounds similar to me. Based on lots of reading it seems very common that people with similar neurological profiles have very high verbal IQ’s. Think of Penelope and her mad skills with writing and language but tainted by an overall tone-deafness in various ways.

    A final note on prodigy, savant, and the human condition – I think that over the coming decade researchers (genetics) will be able to figure out and prove that Homo Sapiens Sapiens are basically all on the autism spectrum. Others, including some in the field,believe this too. Treffert’s savants are sometimes severely disabled cognitively but they still have savant-level skills in math, music, and art. He coined and uses the term “genetic memory” which was the basis for most of our discussions. My take on this topic is that math, music, and art are what separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom and the fact that these skills are so prevalent in autistic savants is in some way a deep hint about the underlying nature of autism and humanity. Autism traits are human traits.

    Barry Prizant’s “Uniquely Human” touches on this and seems to me the direction we are heading. Lorna Wing ends here seminal book on autism with a similar perspective. This is where we are headed.

    With proper training and explanations neurotypicals should be able to understand this concept which might lead to better empathy for all people, and not only of “their type” (left-wing conservatives or right-wing conservatives). Human nature is conservative.

    Happy New Year Penelope and followers – I’ll probably disappear after this…

    Resolution to actually get back to the stuff I approached Dr. T about six years back. Being fascinated by everything isn’t the right thing. More focused and less well-balanced objectives for 2019.


    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Happy New Year to you too, Mark. Thanks for the interesting comment. I enjoyed looking into your links. This Treffert fellow seems to have done a lot of good for people. Bully for him!

      This did make me wonder if there are distinct types of gifted individuals. I think people usually only use “gifted” when talking about children. Once people become adults, I guess a different word is used, though it seems to me sometimes that only people who have not found successful practical application of their intelligence focus on the intelligence itself. I recall a college dean saying to me once, “the older you get, the less people will care about how smart you were at fifteen.”

      I’ve found a few typologies of the gifted, including this:

      The six-category gifted typology seems pretty well-traveled. I also found many repeats of a three-category typology of “high achiever/gifted learner/creative thinker.” It’s hard to do much looking into this before one is overcome by woo.

      I wonder how or how much the question of different subtypes of intelligence interacts with the environment offered to children to produce different types of gifted children. Specifically, as we were talking about WISC subcomponents of g, how do differing strengths determine personal typology? I guess I’d have to do more than a half-hour of googling before the rest of my family wakes up to find a decent answer.

      I know that one of the things I still find stunning about my kid is the firmness of his refusal to consider things that don’t interest him. It’s somehow admirable and frustrating at the same time, like Bartleby the Scrivener.

  5. John
    John says:

    Once I read nearly the same survey and ,my opinion still the same, age has nothing to do with knowledge and your development. Dividing by memory is great idea because every child was grown in different conditions so their opportunities are different too.

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