Wasted talents

February 23, 1996

Identifying and educating very able children is fraught with difficulty. But higher education may provide the answer. Tony Tysome reports. Could do better." It is such a school report cliche that, when it is used, parents and teachers may fail to realise its significance. If children under achieve in the classroom, it is not always because they are lazy or because they are of low intelligence.

Consider the boy misbehaving in class and disturbing the other children to such an extent that he was sent to stand in the corridor by his teacher. He went into the toilets and there used his ingenuity to divert the flow of water from the cisterns so that every time a plug was pulled water flowed on to the floor. By the time teachers realised what had happened, three classrooms were flooded. The boy was excluded from school and sent to the child guidance clinic where the educational psychologist discovered he was of exceptional intellectual ability.

Such instances of unrecognised and frustrated talent are an all too common feature of our education system, according to Frieda Painter, managing director of Able Children (Pullen Publications), who cites this example in a paper on the identification of gifted children. Her research into the attainment levels and characteristics of intellectually gifted school children has found that classifying the abilities of children is "fraught with dangers". Very hard-working children who have a need to please adults may be classed as gifted when they are not of exceptional ability, while others who cause trouble in class or seem to have learning difficulties may be found to have very high IQs. Painter, a MENSA member, former Open University counsellor and further education lecturer, says that even when a very talented child is correctly identified, it is difficult for schools to respond appropriately. "It is very hard for schools to do anything about the cleverest children, because there really is very little special funding available to support their needs, although there is for the slow learners."

Educationists complain that while the Government pours millions of pounds into its assisted places scheme, which provides places in private sector schools for talented children from the state sector, only a few thousand is available to support teachers in helping very able children reach their full potential. Joan Freeman, professor and visiting lecturer in education at Middlesex University, despairs of politicians. She says they rarely listen to experts about how to educate the brightest children. Her research into the area over the past 30 years led her to conclude that attempting to identify the so-called prodigy is "a complete waste of time". She found that, contrary to the stereotyped image, highly intelligent children do not necessarily wear thick-lensed spectacles, prefer homework to sports, and have trouble-making friends. Testing for high ability can also be problematic. Even the IQ test is not necessarily a reliable indicator.

"There is nothing wrong with IQ tests in themselves, but they are limited in what they measure. They do not measure motivation, personality or aesthetic ability, for instance. They only measure the ability to do well academically at school," she says.

Schools struggle to cater for the very bright, with teachers not trained to cope with their demands, and often without adequate resources to help. Freeman observes: "Primary school teachers are practitioners, not intellectuals. They are not thinking around their subjects - they are dealing with the practicalities of their jobs. There is no time to do anything else."

Educationists and psychologists disagree on what is the best solution to these shortcomings in the school system. Some say special schools for gifted children, or "hothousing", is the answer. Others point out that this can lead to emotional problems and difficulties in relating to "normal" children.

Peter Tilsley, principal lecturer in education at Worcester College of Higher Education, has conducted research on both sides of the education/psychology divide. He concludes that the notion of a fixed measure of intelligence, which in most people's minds means the IQ test, is "nonsense". Such tests fail to measure what is known as "divergent" thinking, which is often responsible for big new ideas, but tends to be inhibited by the typical school ethos. He suggests that both peer pressure and the limited scope of the curriculum combine to surpress the talents of many gifted children.

Fundamentally it is to do with the nature of the curriculum tasks children are expected to engage in, and whether these provide an opportunity for very able children to use their abilities. There is also the key question of what is in it for the child to show very high ability. If it just means more uninspiring work or bullying then that is not much of an incentive," he says.

Many experts are opposed to accelerating very bright children through the education system as a solution to the inadequacies of the curriculum. Such moves may fail to take account of the maturity and social needs of the child, as well as intellectual development. But there is growing support for the idea that further and higher education should play a greater role in providing the expertise and teaching support needed to cater for the needs of high-flyers.

At Worcester College, attempts are being made to develop modules on educating gifted children. These are part of in-service training courses for teachers and can also be incorporated into a masters degree programme. Meanwhile at Brunel University, a new Able Children's Education Centre has been set up to develop appropriate curriculum materials for very bright children and provide in-service training for teachers. Ron Casey and his wife,Valsa Koshy, who co-direct the centre, think higher education could play a greater part in educating gifted children, so long as it is in partnership with the schools. It is in this spirit that they run a Maths on Campus Saturday workshop for pupils and teachers.

"If we are doing it in collaboration with the schools and the local authority that is very satisfactory, because there is no point having this unless the teachers are present and available for cross-examination and feedback," Casey says. He and his wife work on the basis that most gifted children need a broad and challenging curriculum, and teachers who are aware not only of their special needs, but also of the fact that there are different kinds of high ability.

Koshy says: "We subscribe to the theory that you do not just look for one type of intellegence. Children have different strengths. We need provision to develop diverse kinds of logic so that you end up with balanced individuals rather than people whose talents have been channelled into just one particular area."

Casey and Koshy worry that, faced with the difficulties in this area of work, the system may resort to a crude classification scheme under which pupils with an IQ score of 130-plus would be rated as "gifted" and the rest as "non-gifted". Though such a move might be popular among some politicians, it would send the wrong messages to children, their parents and teachers, they say. What is needed instead is training for teachers to help them develop "whole-school" policies for a more flexible curriculum that could benefit children across the ability range, as well as the very bright.

In other words, it is our education system that could do better.

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