Recognising gifted children

Children playing in their dormitory at the Arts Centre for Gifted Children of the North, in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Photo: AFP

Children playing in their dormitory at the Arts Centre for Gifted Children of the North, in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Photo: AFP

It is 3.30pm on the last Friday of the month. Between 40 and 50 youngsters are waiting in the lounge of the National Curriculum Centre in Ħamrun.

Most schools in Europe have specially trained teachers who devise regular programmes for the exceptionally gifted
- Maria Pace

They look like any other Maltese teenagers except that they are here to attend a programme for the exceptionally gifted. Their school has selected them to attend this programme voluntarily. The session will be repeated for another set of students on another day.

This programme is led by the Education officer for Mathematics. At the beginning of every scholastic year, schools are informed about this programme. It is then up to Maths teachers to inform two of their brightest students about the programme and encourage them to take part.

In each two-hour session, the students sit around tables informally. A lecturer introduces topics that would not normally be tackled in Form 4 – such as Fibonacci numbers or Paschal’s triangle.

The participants are given puzzles and problems to solve. The speed at which they find solutions is breathtaking.

In Malta, this is one of the very few efforts of the Education Department specifically aimed at exceptionally gifted teenagers.

But, who are the exceptionally gifted? Are we reaching the right people by targeting those who excel in Mathematics? Is there more we could do to try and reach all those who would benefit from this programme? And shouldn’t we be identifying these children at a much younger age?

Exceptionally gifted children who are much more advanced than their peers when it comes to learning, constitute only about two per cent of the population.

Some may excel in a discipline such as music or drama. When they undertake an IQ test they score very highly, in excess of 145 points. Some may even score above 180. However, some of these very bright students do not achieve their potential if it is not properly challenged.

Every teacher appreciates the students who know all the answers and who put their hand up to answer the moment a question is asked. These children are encouraged to succeed and they do. But not all exceptionally gifted children conform easily within the school system.

Take Kevin. At the age of 11 he failed the secondary school entrance exam. By 13, he was a troublemaker upsetting his class with his unruly behaviour. He was labelled hyperactive. His headmaster threatened to expel him. Luckily, Kevin’s parents took him to a psychologist who gave him an IQ test. Kevin registered an IQ in excess of 145.

Somewhere, the school system had failed this young man. School-work did not grab his interest. Instead of following the lessons, he misbehaved to attract his teacher’s attention of and his peers’ admiration. He was fortunate that once out of school, he found help and moved on.

There are many others like Kevin.There are those who spend the day reading a book under their desks because they finish their work too quickly. Some are considered arrogant because they challenge the content of their lessons. Some want to do nothing.

In the playground they are sometimes visible because they want to play games that have complicated rules. A few are shunned because they always want to be leaders.

Life for the exceptionally gifted is not always easy. Boys don’t like to show they are clever and may opt to be troublemakers instead. Girls conform more easily, but some find schoolwork boring and want to leave school as soon as they can.

And yet these children often show their capabilities at a young age.

Take Timothy. At five years of age he could already read. He could recognise all countries on the map, draw their flags correctly and knew the names of all the capital cities.

His teacher did not know how to deal with him. All day long, he was left to trace maps from the atlas and to try and read from the encyclopaedia. He was also made the teacher’s assistant to help those who could not keep pace with the rest of the class. Eventually the boy lost interest in learning, only to recover many years later.

Parents who think their children might be gifted can provide a stimulating environment by sending them to extra after-school programmes such as drama or music. Some, however, do not know what to do or cannot afford to pay for extra courses.

The aims of the new National Curriculum, aptly called Towards a Quality Education for All, is to help each child fully develop their potential. The methodology it proposes will help children move at their own pace. But for the exceptionally gifted, this may not be enough.

Malta has made huge strides to integrate socially, physically and intellectually disadvantaged children and help them cope. Perhaps it is now time to consider exceptionally gifted children and provide them with enriching programmes in several disciplines. If left unrecognised, some of these young people end up frustrated, angry and even depressed.

The first thing needed is to create awareness so that teachers can identify gifted children early on. Most schools in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have specially trained teachers who devise regular programmes of creativity, inquiry, planning and debate for the exceptionally gifted.

Others have special enriching programmes during summer.

Perhaps it is also time for the University’s Education Department to start thinking of introducing special training for teachers for the highly gifted at master’s and doctoral levels.

The way forward is to make the best use of all human resources. According to Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, “the only good learning is that which is in advance of development”.

Malta would benefit from recognising the exceptionally gifted and helping them channel their gifts in the right direction.

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