Teacher Professor

May 1, 2010

Living Terman

Filed under: Gifted — Teacher Professor @ 9:44 am

There is a wonderful longitudinal study, commonly known as the “Terman Study“, that traced gifted children over their lives.  In 1920, Louis Terman, who had developed the Standford Binet IQ test, made the assertion that children with high IQs did not have an “early bloom, early rot” issue, but actually, would be the leaders of the country- that his test could identify children who had the potential to make a difference.  He identified a large group of children with high IQs and he, and his colleagues, studied them.  Every 10 years for their whole lives.  It’s an amazing study.

An IQ test at the time was considered highly inclusive and socially radical.  Before that, children got advantages only if their families could pay for it, or if they knew someone.  You were accepted to college based only on family connections and money.  Leaders were selected based on family history.  This process of selecting leaders, especially in the military, fell into question during during the late 1800’s.

In the middle 1800’s, England suffered some horrific battle losses during the Crimean War, particularly the Charge of the Light Brigade, led by the Earl of Cardigan.  The Earl of Cardigan was not known for his military prowess and even missed a battle because he slept in.  He was basically an arrogant idiot- the kind that made the English look bad.  When it became known how many men had died during those battles and how badly they had been led, questions were asked.  Questions of competence.  Questions of how the military selected generals.

And so, the need for a test was devised.  Louis Terman and his colleagues at Stanford came up with the IQ test as a means of identifying anyone- anyone with potential and not family connections for leadership opportunities.  They looked at the leaders, studied them, and tried to pick out those qualities- decision making, problem solving, pattern identification.  You could be from the poorest of the poor and if you had those qualities, you could have access.  It was all supposed to be very democratic and scientific.

Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way.  Turns out that the tests are often loaded for language, so children who grow up in English-rich environments with lots of books do better than children whose families work, are tired, and can’t afford books.  Turns out that Asian, Jewish and white children outperform Hispanic and African-American children because the test is trying to measure those very qualities that current leaders have (few of whom are from minority cultures)- cultural connections that many races and cultures do not have.  The IQ test is a very, very strong test, but it is limited in what it can do.

We now know much of its power and weakness from Terman’s study.  One of the things that Terman believed was that children with high IQs would be highly successful.  He was trying to combat the concept of a gifted child as a “weak” child.  There was (and still is) an idea that gifted children will “peak” early.  You hear these same ideas in “Oh, early readers level off quickly”, and “He’s such a brainiac- no social skills”.  You still have the iconic figure of the “geek”.

But what Terman found was none of these.  The gifted children in his study- all high IQ children, mostly white, from Palo Alto, CA in the 1920s, grew up to be fairly successful.  Known as “Termites”, most of the children grew up to become professionals- doctor and lawyers and upper-level managers.  Even the girls, when career opportunities were limited, became successful in their communities- leaders of volunteer organizations.  Most of them were fairly happy throughout their lives.  There was a small subset who underachieved, and a small, unhappy group, but IQ was not the deciding factor.  But, neither were there a large number of wildly successful people.  There was one President (Richard Nixon- and well, we know how he turned out), and a few university professor-types who made impacts on their field, but no Nobel Prize winners, no internationally recognized figures.

Apparently, there was more to success and failure than IQ.  There were other factors such as personality traits, perseverance, and luck.  There was even family connections.  IQ had a little to do with it, but not a lot.

I mention this, because I’ve just returned from my high school reunion of a lot of very smart women.  My high school selected girls based on intelligence and achievement and expected great things of us.  It provided us with an outstanding education.  And most of us are nicely successful- but not outstandingly so.

There is one media personality, a few writers, a few sales people, a few teachers and doctors, a few stay-at-home moms, and a whole lot of engineers, lawyers and financial managers.  There is one princess, but she doesn’t seek publicity.  Most of us are relatively happy.  Some of us were not.  Some of us are dealing with “stuff”- stuff that has nothing to do with our abilities and a whole lot to do with bad luck, personalities, and other people. It was good to see the humanity and the range of what and who we’ve become.  I quite liked us, much better than I did in high school.

It’s odd to see the research jump off the page and into my life.  We are the Terman study- 60 years later.

And I also love how ONE battle created an epic poem, a huge change in how we look at education, and Florence Nightingale, who changed the field of nursing.  Seriously- a turning point battle that most people don’t even know about.


  1. malcom gladwell has a fantastic book about this, “The Outliers” and looks into what really creates a successful person. i wholeheartedly recommend it. he follows up on the termites and much more.

    Comment by zola — May 1, 2010 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  2. Didn’t realize that he followed up on the Termites. GREAT book!

    Comment by profmother — May 1, 2010 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  3. May I ask, please, where you learned that Richard Nixon had been a Termite? I’d heard that rumor, too, and asked the present curators of they study. They denied it.

    Comment by James Speer — January 29, 2011 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

    • Hmmm.. I believe that I heard it at a conference from some folks who had been doing some follow up studies. Bob Plomin, maybe? Or maybe Marty Seligman? It was someone who was very “well-known”, but not directly involved with the study. I’m sorry I don’t have a good cite for that…

      Comment by profmother — January 29, 2011 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

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