Gifted children: what is “high potential” called?


Today, who has never heard of “HPI” – or high intellectual potential? Recently popularized by a television series , this acronym has been used since the 2010s to designate what were previously called “gifted” or, in the 19th century  , child prodigies.

This “high potential”, even new viewers of the series know that it is measured by an intelligence test, making it possible to evaluate the IQ – or intelligence quotient –, a somewhat magical number supposed to predict academic or professional success.

At the same time, psychology researchers are at a loss to define intelligence. Because both IQ and “high potential” – by convention, an IQ at least equal to 130 (which would represent, by construction, 2.3% of the population or approximately, in France, 1,550,000 people) – are notions mobilized mainly by practicing psychologists who have to decide either for recruitment in companies or for pedagogical decisions in the educational environment.

Even if there is no scientific consensus among specialists on what the term intelligence itself means , the interest of the tests, in the eyes of the general public, comes from their statistical correlation with academic success, and in general professional. But that’s probably the main thing…

A “supportive” social context

For around fifty years, researchers like Robert Castel have described a strong tendency to refer the management of social problems to psychology or psychiatry. The educational institution, which intends to take more and more into account the specificities of children – at the beginning of the 2000s, Ségolène Royal spoke of a “school for everyone” – demonstrates an “uninhibited medicalization” , particularly since the 1990s.

This development often leads to interpreting academic failures in terms of personal failings. Many children who struggle at school are referred to specialists and are labeled as “dys” – dyslexic, dyscalculic, etc.

It is in the name of this “right to be different” that parents convinced of their child’s exceptional abilities come together in an association (notably the National Association for Gifted Children (ANPES), created in 1971) and engage in a vigorous fight against the mistrust of the Ministry and teachers regarding the perceived elitist notion of giftedness , in order to have this other form of specificity recognized.

These parents highlight the fact that a child who is too bright often encounters problems at school, suffers from his situation and should therefore be able to benefit from specific courses or treatments. They end up being heard, and the Ministry admits (at the threshold of the 2000s) that these children whom it prefers to call “precocious” (a euphemistic expression of intellectual superiority) can experience problems.

In the law “For the future of school” of 2005 , it is written that “appropriate arrangements are provided for the benefit of intellectually precocious students or those displaying particular aptitudes, in order to allow them to fully develop their potential”.

Parents of students who contest the decisions of the educational institution

In a context of competition for educational or social places that are unequally prestigious and unequally attractive, these parents will request an evaluation capable of establishing a prognosis on future performance. The objective is for their child to benefit from special treatment, allowing them to optimize their school curriculum.

The diagnosis of precocity, made by a psychologist, most often from primary school, follows the request of parents convinced that their child has particular needs and qualities poorly understood by teachers.

These parents, generally much more educated than the general population, are comfortable with psychological culture, and feel entitled to challenge the educational institution . Armed with an IQ test delivering the verdict of “high potential”, they do not hesitate to exert pressure to get teachers to comply with their wishes, in concrete terms, to obtain for their child a class skip or accommodations. of schooling.

Today, some parents truly defend, not without material means, because you have to pay to have your child tested, a “cause” of intelligence (according to Wilfried Lignier’s formula), based on the school use of psychological diagnosis . It is in fact, thanks to this resource presented as indisputable a high IQ, a strategy of distinction, justified by the crucial nature of academic success.

We thus defend the need for specific care for these children by arguing that these “gifted” children can find themselves suffering , even if in reality the vast majority of students thus labeled will experience excellent schooling . These strategies of parents for whom the institution should be at their service are in line with the growing individualization of educational paths.

What exactly do IQs measure?

The fact remains that beyond this quest for testing, we do not really know what is being measured. IQ tests aim to give a single measure of a person’s intelligence, espousing the common conception of an intelligence which would characterize each person, in the same way as physical traits, each having more or less of them.

The first intelligence test constructed in 1905 by the psychologist Alfred Binet aimed above all to detect children incapable of following normal education, through various exercises covering what is in fact “schoolchild intelligence”.

Today, intelligence tests are still constructed based on what school requires: verbal, visuo-spatial abilities, reasoning, memory, speed… The most used of them, the WISC , allows children to be placed within their age group, around an average score defined by convention at 100, the majority being between 70 and 130, with only HPIs exceeding the upper limit. The score is therefore a ranking between children, in relation to the abilities required today by the school as it is.

Some people point out that many qualities such as creativity or empathy completely escape this measure, which is as narrow as the definition of academic merit itself. But the school must classify, and it does so on the basis of criteria that are easy to measure! The tests therefore “manufacture” a measure that is very dependent on the school, at the risk of endorsing a fantastic waste of talents and setting certain children up for life in view of performances which nevertheless prove to be very flexible over time and depending on the teaching practices of teachers.

Even if debates are recurrent on the explanation of this “more or less” – are these interindividual differences innate or acquired? – the score obtained on the IQ test irresistibly evokes the idea of ​​gift, referring to the order of nature. With obvious political implications: measuring intelligence has the aim, in practice, of assigning people to where their “natural” place would be, at least in the appropriate educational path.

While the issues surrounding the notion of high potential today take on a social importance out of all proportion to the often fragile nature of the instruments and the work on which they are based, it is important to relaunch the debate on the measurement of potential. intelligence and what we do with it .

Author Bio: Marie Duru-Bellat is Emeritus University Professor in Sociology, Sociological Observatory of Change at Sciences Po