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How do academic prodigies spend their time and why does that matter?

Nature or nurture? Madhavi Kuram, CC BY-NC-ND

How do academic prodigies spend their time and why does that matter?

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes a decade of intense practice – roughly 10,000 hours – to achieve mastery in any field.

So, how does this apply to gifted students? Do gifted students from different countries actually invest their time differently in accruing those 10,000 hours needed to become masters of their field? And, in comparison, how do students in the US fare?

As researchers of how academically gifted students develop talent, we recently surveyed academically advanced seventh grade students in the US and India. We found differences in culture and education practices between these two groups that could have significant economic implications.

Who is putting in more academic hours?

There have been numerous articles emphasizing how even the most academically advanced US students, compared to students from other (often Asian) countries, are lagging on math and science subjects, when compared to their international peers.

US students are considered to have less of a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas. A recent Pew Research report shows that international students outpace US students in earning STEM degrees.

India is second only to China in sending over 100,000 students to universities in the United States. Pew found 38% of Indian students in the US are studying engineering and 26% are studying math and computer science.

Along with Duke University Talent Identification Program colleagues Martha Putallaz and Patrick Malone, we surveyed 668 US and 353 Indian academically advanced seventh grade students one week after they participated in talent search testing.

One of the unique challenges of studying such rare individuals is finding samples large enough so that findings can reasonably generalize. This is what we were able to do in the current study. Our paper was recently published in the journal Gifted Child Quarterly.

Neither exhausted nor sleep-deprived

We asked these students how they spent their time both inside and outside of school, during the week and on the weekend across a variety of areas, including academics, electronics, sleep/family, and extracurricular activities.

We found these academically advanced US and Indian students spent very similar amounts of time on extracurricular activities and with family. Students from both countries reported sleeping over eight hours each night.

In “Today’s Exhausted Superkids,” journalist Frank Bruni argued that “many teenagers today are so hyped up and stressed out that they’re getting only a fraction of the [sleep] they need.” Our findings, based on our survey of over 1,000 academically advanced students, run counter to this idea.

On the weekend, we found that US students in our study spent essentially no time on academics, whereas Indian students did.

Differences between US and Indian kids

We were surprised to see that Indian students spent about seven hours more per week than US students on academics generally, with significantly more time spent on STEM subjects.

KIds in the US are spending a lot more time on entertainment. Stefan Roßkopf, CC BY-NC-ND

Conversely, US students spent about seven hours more per week than Indian students using electronics (TV, internet, social media, video games, smartphone, music), most likely for entertainment.

Given that the typical Indian school year is about four to eight weeks longer, this means spread across a year, academically advanced Indian students spend about 400 to 600 more hours on academics (including STEM areas) each year than their US counterparts.

Such large academic gaps give Indian students a substantial head start in accumulating their 10,000 hours. This head start initially may not appear impactful, but just like compound interest, a consistent investment of time in STEM or other academic pursuits across a long period of time can develop into large differences in the development of expertise.

We also found US students had significantly less freedom in choosing how they spent their time during the week than their Indian peers and had more of the time determined by family. There were no significant differences on the weekend.

The amount of freedom students had to structure their time runs counter to the stereotype of the Asian “Tiger Mom” or dad, who are considered highly controlling and strict when it comes to kids and their academics.

Our findings also suggest that “helicopter parenting,” or the hovering parent who is especially concerned with educational aspects of their child’s life, may actually be more common in the US, especially when it comes to academically advanced students.

Why focus on these kids?

A focus on the development of the most academically advanced students in various countries is of great importance. These students will grow up to influence intellectual and economic outcomes.

Psychology professors David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth has demonstrated that academically talented US students grow up to earn STEM PhDs, publications, patents, university tenure and even income at rates well above the general population. For example, these participants earned STEM patents at about 8.7 times the rate of the general population.

Researchers Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson too have shown that the academically talented of each country tend to have a disproportionate impact on even gross domestic product (GDP) or a country’s wealth.

The researchers found that an increase of one IQ point among the academically talented raised the average GDP by US$468, whereas an increase of one IQ point among the average raised the average GDP by $229.

There is a reason that US students are lagging in STEM

Our study opens a window into understanding how academic prodigies in the US and India spend their time when they are young. This also helps us understand cultural values and how they might shape future talent.

The Pew report indicating that India sends huge numbers of their academically talented students to the US as graduate students in STEM fields suggests that many of these students more than adequately developed their talent in India, their home country, which then allowed them to enter prestigious STEM graduate programs in the US and seek greater opportunity.

One of the largest academic gaps we uncovered shows that US students tend to spend more time on electronics, whereas Indian students tend to spend more time on academics and STEM subjects.

If these findings are found to be consistent over the years, they could have important future implications for US students.

Author and journalist Fareed Zakaria has noted that too much of a US focus on STEM education may not necessarily be a good thing. At the same time, scholars Chester E Finn Jr and Brandon L Wright recently argued that we should be more concerned about other countries producing more scientific innovators.

Our study examined US academic prodigies, the precise population from which the nation’s preeminent future STEM workforce is largely drawn from. And the fact is that US students may not be doing as good a job as other countries in accruing those 10,000 hours of practice to acquire mastery in whatever field they choose.

Other nations are fast racing ahead. So perhaps the US focus on increasing STEM education is not misplaced.

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