01/03/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2014

The Sky Is Not the Limit: Girding the Gifted for What Lies Ahead

Critical issues are being raised in the education of gifted children. Observations are being made that the strongest students in America lag their international counterparts, and as the world becomes increasingly driven by innovation in technology the United States risks falling behind unless steps are taken to nurture and develop our "best and brightest." Of particular note, America's rankings in math and science continue to languish below dozens of other industrialized nations.

There is no single panacea to reversing this alarming trend. There are myriad suggestions for how to jumpstart America's math and science rankings, from more engaging classrooms to accelerating the learning pace to psychological balance -- all of which recognize the particular needs of gifted students.

Yet all of the above, while necessary, are simply not sufficient. We who educate the gifted see a case to go even further, to take the kind of leap that sees Sputnik, draws a deep breath of inspiration from the sight and puts a man on the moon. We advocate taking a leap in the education of the gifted that acknowledges we are in the throes of a seismic shift: a third industrial revolution with a paradigm that focuses less on acquisition of facts and more on the skills that make young people intellectually fearless, flexible, and high functioning. In our current maelstrom, the pace of change itself is constantly changing, and bewildering teachers and students alike. We must regularly reassess what kind of curriculum will equip our children to be ready, resilient and committed to participate in this future as it unfurls?

Math and science should be taught with the highest possible standards underpinning the content, but not simply through a content lens -- as much curriculum is, perhaps driven by the test-taking hurdle at the end. Instead, math and science should be taught as an exercise in creative thinking, communication, and diligence. As often as possible, curricula should be developed with no ceiling and students should be encouraged to weave in topics of personal interest. They should also be supported by teachers who are trained and empowered to fine-tune or even upend the curriculum if something more interesting, more edgy, or more relevant emerges in class. We see this happening regularly in our school environment, such as when second graders conducting an investigation into the origins of the various forms of journalism wondered how AM and FM radio differed. The classroom teaching team invited the school's STEM specialist to create a unit, in real time, about the electromagnetic spectrum and the history of radio as a communication vehicle.

Alongside the academic expertise is the importance of psychological skills. This is not just to ensure that gifted children have the stability to navigate school and college but also to sustain their gifts far beyond the academic walls. If we seek to develop iconoclasts, game changers, and individuals who will have the courage and capacity to confront the unknown difficulties that lie ahead, expertise is not the key ingredient. We can safely predict that, whatever technology kicks up, future leaders will need to work together, to persist through setbacks, to bring new knowledge creatively to novel situations, and to have the empathy to listen to others and be receptive to new ideas.

Can we actually teach these skills? Is it possible that a curriculum could outline critical raw capabilities --grit, empathy, integrity and team spirit, for example -- and find a way to map and develop them, assess progress and then refine the protocol? We believe that it is not only possible -- it is imperative. Our fifth and sixth graders recently participated in a beta version of an EQ map designed with and for the school. Applying metacognitive skills learned since kindergarten, the students honestly evaluated themselves with a series of questions that built to a profile. They were fascinated by the process -- "this allows me to look behind myself" was common refrain -- and eagerly anticipate repeating the protocol in Spring to see if anything more has been learned.

We cannot wait for the results of a 25-year longitudinal study to measure effectiveness of a specific program before we take further bold action. Modification of existing tools already used in finance and industry may be warranted, as may new professional development protocols for teachers who will learn to infuse their entire curriculum with metacognitive awareness and training. As new approaches are implemented in schools or programs for the gifted, they should be carefully analyzed for effectiveness and in parallel with research on what benefits accrue to students who persist, reflect, collaborate and think creatively.

Underlying all this is the importance of character; even if American educators can distill curricula that instill self-concept, creativity, persistence, and an ability to listen to and work with others, the lessons will be valueless if our graduates lack integrity.

Perhaps most importantly, rather than focusing on how to catch up in the math and science league tables and play "me too" with Asian and other foreign country educational systems, we should be seeking to forge a curriculum that answers not only to the future, but encourages our most high-potential students to ask the right questions. The quality of these questions, and the humanity of the answers, more than anything else, will determine how well we will empower our future cadre of leaders, scientists and citizens.

Paul Deards and Connie Coulianos are Heads, respectively, of the Middle School and Lower School at the Speyer Legacy School, an independent, co-educational K-8 school in New York established to meet the needs of advanced learners.