Have you ever wondered why your child came out of an IQ assessment glowing with excitement, asking, “When can I come back?” If you had bad experiences with testing, this positive reaction might have taken you by surprise. What kind of magic goes on in there?
The secret may lie in a concept originating with Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1897-1934). Dubbed “The Mozart of Psychology,” Vygotsky made lasting contributions to psychology and education in his brief 37 years. Unlike Mozart, Vygotsky was not well known or appreciated in his lifetime. His work became influential after his books were translated into English in 1962 and 1978.
One of Vygotsky’s most famous constructs is the zone of proximal development, which describes the optimal opportunity for meaningful learning. “The teachable moment,” “sweet spot,” and “flow,” are related to this phenomenon. When the mind encounters a perfect challenge, and has an “Aha!” it releases endorphins that create exhilaration. Learning, then, is its own reward.
The zone of proximal development is the distance between the child’s ability to solve a problem independently and his or her potential development with guidance or collaboration. Some gifted children have a narrow zone. If they can solve a problem quickly, they call it “too easy,” and if they can’t solve it immediately, they call it “too hard.” Navigating this meandering gully successfully to keep the child engaged requires the teacher to be an intuitive artist. The same can be said about parenting! Trust between child and adult is paramount.
Assessment of children’s intelligence is also an art form, as the examiner must gauge how to keep children engaged in problem-solving tasks beyond their current level of understanding. This is why we encourage parents to play guessing games to prepare their children for testing. Guessing allows children to take leaps into the unknown—outside their comfort zone.
When gifted children are only given the opportunity to demonstrate what they already know, no real learning occurs. Unproductive patterns can result, leaving the child resistant to challenge and afraid to tackle anything new. Perfectionism is exacerbated. The antidote is sufficient challenge. But the challenge has to be within the child’s confidence level, or the response will be, “I can’t!” This is where the zone of proximal development is most applicable. Children need to be offered carefully constructed challenges on the cutting edge of their competence that build on what they have already mastered.
This is exactly what happens when your child takes an IQ test. The novel problem-solving tasks are engaging and designed for your child’s zone of proximal development. This sweet spot is just beyond the child’s current understanding but close enough to her grasp that she is willing to take the leap into new territory. When this “Aha!” occurs, she is flooded with positive emotion—the joy of new awareness. The challenge is intoxicating!
The authors of the original Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale taught psychologists to begin the test where the child passed some items and failed others. The beginning was neither too hard, nor too easy. If the child passed just one item at an age level, she was offered all the items at the next age level until no further items could be passed. Examinees had loads of opportunity to stretch. Amazing how they thrived being asked so many difficult items beyond their capabilities!
We still use the old Stanford-Binet as a supplementary test for exceptionally and profoundly gifted children. It goes up to age 23, while the WISC has a ceiling of 16 years 11 months. Children who attain 99th percentile on 2 or more subtests of the WISC are qualified to take the more challenging test. When asked which they enjoyed more, nearly all say the SBL-M. Why? They are in their zone of proximal development for more of the test. “It was fun!” “It was harder!” Their brains have never had to work that hard before and they absolutely loved it.
Newer IQ tests are designed to curtail children’s discomfort with items beyond their ability. Examiners are advised to stop offering items after a child misses only two or three items. The discontinue criteria prevent undue frustration and fatigue in children of average or below average intelligence, who would not succeed if given harder items. Shorter discontinue criteria also shorten test administration time, which is a practical consideration in schools. There is little funding available today for psychological assessment in school.
But gifted children actually enjoy being asked difficult items. We usually continue to offer items after a child reaches the discontinue point, especially if he is engaged in the task. We have so many children who pass items after missing two in a row. One boy solved six items correctly in Matrix Reasoning after missing two, but could not be given any credit for these.
We have given the SBL-M to thousands of children. They didn’t fall apart when asked items way beyond their ability. The children were told that they were not supposed to know all the answers. We said that some items were for children much older than themselves. They received credit for every harder item they passed, no matter how many they had missed. Sometimes twice exceptional children or children with asynchronous abilities would get one item right at an age level, and miss five others. This could happen several times in a row, with the children missing dozens of items and passing only a few. But when they got one of those harder items right, their eyes danced with joy! A glorious moment for the child and the tester.
The greatest tragedy is when misguided parents coach their children for IQ tests. Coaching destroys the magic, the joy, the fun for the child, as well as invalidating the test results. There is no way a child can be in the zone of proximal development when he is trying to remember the right answers. This is a terrible mistake. It also teaches the child to be dishonest. The end never justifies the means. The best way to prepare your children for testing is to encourage them to guess when they are uncertain; this maintains their confidence when given difficult challenges.
The window into the incredible abilities of gifted children comes from seeing how they use their problem-solving abilities to approach novel tasks. Their success with easier items gives them the confidence to attempt progressively more difficult items. This is the first opportunity some gifted children have to really stretch their problem-solving abilities. A giant mental muscle is used for the first time and it feels great. The tester is as excited as the child. The examiner’s palpable joy at the child’s success fuels the child’s exaltation. Both are in the zone!