Albert Einstein Aged 4 - Image courtesy of NASA
Albert Einstein – Aged 4 – Image courtesy of NASA

OK..I’ll probably get it in the ear for using the term but it’s a word that usually grabs everyones attention.  So here is my 2 cents worth on what ‘genius’ is or isn’t, along with the definitions and terminology used.  I’ll keep it simple because that is how Einstein said it should be.

Let me start with my take on it.

‘Genius’ is not what a person is, it’s what a person does.

No surprises there.  Even Edison said that ‘genius’ was 1% inspiration but 99% perspiration.

Thomas Edison –

But what does ‘genius’ technically mean? The modern idea seems to have it’s roots in the work of Sir Francis Galton who published ‘Hereditary Genius‘ in 1869. As perhaps might be expected of the time and the social standing of Galton, high intelligence belonged only to certain groups in society.  Other races to his own were considered inferior.

Certainly we have an idea of what a genius is (but see note above!).  A genius is a person who excels at one or more endeavours.  Tiger Woods is a genius golfer. David Beckham is a genius footballer. That said, Professor Joan Freeman considers people with just one talent ‘a boffin’ ( Channel 4 – ‘Child Genius‘). Leonardo Da Vinci was considered a genius everything!

Alfred Binet –

If we thought we had a baby Leonardo Da Vinci, how would we know?  Arguably we would try to  measure their intelligence.  Into this field in 1904 came Alfred Binet who wanted to discover why some children in school lagged behind others.  He never intended that the intelligence test he developed would be used as a means of concretely determining who was intelligent and who wasn’t.  He fully appreciated that a number can not be the sum total of a human being. His intention was to identify how to help weaker students.

Binet’s test was adapted by Lewis Terman to create the Standford-Binet test. Terman advocated for the development of the abilities of gifted children. Terman excluded the impact of the environment on the development of gifted children.  We know that this is a major factor in whether a child with exceptional ability will be able to exploit that ability.

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences sought to broaden the understanding of what intelligence is.  That is, there isn’t one intelligence but several, each of which may enable an individual to relate to knowledge in particular way that at first may not seem obvious. Additionally, it is clear that an intelligence test does not test all the parameters of human intelligence.  Sir Ken Robinson describes the experience of Gillian Lynne’s mother discovering her daughter was not ‘sick’ but ‘a dancer‘.

Some people unfortunately confuse Gardner’s ideas with the notion that everyone is ‘gifted’ in their own way.  This is untrue. Everyone has a ‘gift’; but not everyone is ‘gifted’.

Malcolm Galdwell in Outliers describes how selected individuals achieved success. He considered the impact of environment on producing people who reached the top of their field such as Bill Gates and the Beatles. He concludes that ‘no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone’.  He reckoned that 10,000 hours of practice would place someone at the top of their field.  While there is volumes of truth in ‘practice makes perfect’, it is clear that there are children born with a predisposition to learn at a faster and deeper rate than other children.  Deborah Ruf’s Estimates of Levels of Giftedness clearly illustrates the extent to which some children are born with such a predisposition.  It doesn’t mean that such a child will become a ‘genius’; it is clear that on a neural level, talent may be lost if it is not fostered.

Ruf Estimates
Image by kind permission of Deborah Ruf –

What seems clear is that a child may be born with the potential to be a ‘genius’ but that is all.  We know that children of average intelligence from middle class families can achieve better than children of superior intelligence from working class families (Joan Freeman Gifted Kids Grown Up 2001).  So it seems to make sense that for genius flower, it needs to be attended to and encouraged. That is why for me, a genius is not what a person is, it is what a person does. It is also why the gifted child in the classroom needs a teacher and the specific talents a teacher can bring to encouraging the gifted child in the pursuit of their potential.

In Ireland we refer to ‘genius’ children as Exceptionally Able (EA). The NCCA and CCEA Exceptionally Able Children – Draft Guidelines for Teachers states

The term exceptionally able is used in the guidelines to describe students who require opportunities for enrichment and extension that go beyond those provided for the general cohort of students. It should be noted that good practice for exceptionally able students is also good practice for all students and can improve the quality of teaching and learning throughout the school.

The Guidelines regard Exceptionally Able children are those whose abilities lie in the top 5 to 10 % of the school population. In my experience this is an extremely wide band; I would argue that Exceptionally Able children are those in the top 5% of the school population.  Children in the top 1% are profoundly Gifted/Exceptionally Able.

Children who are Exceptionally Able but who also have a learning difficulty such as dyslexia or another condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) are termed ‘Twice Exceptional‘.

In the United Kingdom, the term ‘Gifted and Talented‘ is used to describe children

with exceptional abilities. ‘Gifted’ refers to children with exceptional academic or intellectual abilities. ‘Talented’ refers to children with exceptional ability in music, arts or drama.  This could also include sport.

I have used the term ‘Gifted and Talented’ for this site because it is a more common search phrase than ‘Exceptionally Ability’. I was never very comfortable with the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘genius’.  My preferred term was ‘highly able’. However, this term did not really encompass the fact that there can be very distinct differences between the top 5% and the top 1% of students in terms of academic ability. Nor does it take into account particular collections of personality traits evident in gifted children.

The defining characteristic of Exceptionally Able children is asynchronous development or asynchrony. In simple terms, this occurs when a child’s intellectual abilities develop or grow beyond the norm for the child’s age group. Imagine a 5 year old with the intellectual ability of an 10 year old.  That is asynchronous development. You can imagine the issues that this would create both in the home and in school.

What a ‘genius’ is not.

The stereotypical image of a ‘genius’ is one of a bespectacled, sickly and skinny child hunched over books or working out mathematical equations in an Einstein-like manner or even cooking up potions in a home-made chemistry lab. Genius’s are loners, anti-social, eccentric and quite possibly mad.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Gifted children are as normal as other children. Even saying that sticks with me a bit because it ought not to be mindset requiring a defence. When teamed with children of their own ability and interest, they are indistinguishable from other children relating to each other.  What sets gifted children apart are systems and institutions that do not recognise their ability and that do not fulfill their obligations to them as children.

Indeed, the lack of recognition in some quarters has led to gifted children being misdiagnosed with ADHD and other learning disorders. Here, and Ken Robinson mentions it nicely.

If we knew in advance that a child would one day grow up to be the best soccer/rugby/hockey/golf player, we would take that child and ensure s/he had the best coaching.

We can know in advance that a child has the potential to be academically, musically and/or artistically brilliant. Isn’t it only fair that their ‘coach’ in the classroom recognise this.



  1. Hi Peter,
    Very good piece with excellent interpretation of terms used in the confusing field of ”Genius”. Your personal passion is very evident and I envy all the children of such ability who have access to teachers with your kind of understanding and encouragment. Maybe a teacher such as yourself will be able to inspire other teachers who should not be afraid of this challange but embrace the opportunity to make a difference. These children will never forget the teachers who make their experience of education a good one. Best wishes to all the lucky children under your tutorship.
    Ann Marie

  2. Ah, yes, of course Margaret. England and Wales I presume. Thanks for the correction. What definitions are in use in Scotland?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.