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Help gifted children excel

September 12, 2012

EQUALITY IN EDUCATION

There is an urgent need to educate teachers in addressing the need of high ability children. What exactly are the needs of gifted children, and what happens when they are not met? Amita Basu explores

School-aged children are a diverse group whose needs, interests, and abilities vary.

While special education has become relatively widespread in India, as a nation we still lag behind on gifted education, i.e. education for children with high ability.  Several groups around the country have developed gifted education curricula, resources, and special schools.  But these groups tend to work in isolation.  We lack a unified approach to the identification, assessment, and education of gifted education.  This is in contrast to many developed and developing nations which have a well-established gifted education programme. Our teachers, too, need to be educated in addressing the needs of gifted children in and outside the classroom.


Around the world, equity is a major goal of education. We recognise that children vary widely in their opportunities and backgrounds, and we view education as a tool with which we can correct these discrepancies and minimise the differences between children.

Teachers believe that their primary duty is to help average students achieve a fixed standard, and then to bring below-average students up to the mark.  Excellence — helping children with high ability to exceed these standards — is under-emphasised.

Some stand out

While equity in education is a noble goal, it does not support the claim that there are no differences between children.  In reality, however, many teachers and other community members do make this claim. They refuse to take cognisance of the fact that, in any environment, some children stand out by their actual or potential performance. They also refuse to acknowledge that these children have advanced learning needs.  In other words, excellence is viewed as antagonistic to equity. Gifted education is viewed as undemocratic and unnecessary.

Let us examine some of the claims of those who oppose gifted education. One claim is that gifted education is “giving to those who already have a lot.”  The gifted are expected to make it on their own.  This claim undermines the importance of hard work.  No matter what a child’s ability level, for him/her to reach his potential takes hard work, drive, and the appropriate environment.  High ability is only one component of achievement.  It is up to our education system to provide all children, including gifted children, with the appropriate resources to optimise their performance.  Without appropriate education, a gift remains unfulfilled, wasted potential.

Let us reinterpret equity in education to mean “educate each child according to his/her needs” rather than “treat all children as if they are the same.”  We already acknowledge this interpretation in special education.  We don’t place a mentally retarded child in a mainstream classroom without special intervention and expect him to thrive.  It is equally illogical to do so to a moderately gifted child. On an IQ scale, a moderately retarded child and a moderately gifted children vary from the average child by exactly the same amount, in opposite directions.  We acknowledge that it is undemocratic to deny the special needs of mentally retarded or learning-disabled children.  We now need to acknowledge the needs of gifted children.

The needs of gifted children

What exactly are these needs, and what happens when they are not met? Giftedness in the broadest terms means performance beyond age level. Gifted children show advanced cognitive development, strong interest areas, and a preference for complexity.  In other words, gifted children often want to explore topics in-depth using their skills for critical and synthetic thinking.  The typical Indian classroom does not encourage this type of engagement.  Gifted children whose needs are not recognised or not met are prone to become bored, disengaged, and set up for a life of underachievement.  Their socio-emotional adjustment can suffer as well.  Many gifted children, finding no available channel for their abilities, hide their gifts in order to fit in. 

The debate about the political correctness of gifted education is part of the broader debate on the meaning and relevance of intelligence.  The popular press frequently claims that intelligence is a poorly-understood concept and that IQ tests don’t mean anything.  A huge body of research indicates the opposite.  Intelligence is the single strongest predictor of lifelong achievement, even stronger than socioeconomic class.  Intelligence also predicts a range of other outcomes from criminality to health.  Existing intelligence tests, though widely varying in form and content, mostly tend to agree with each other and to measure roughly the same general intelligence factor (Gottfredson 2003).

Undemocratic


Why are we so reluctant to admit that children vary in intelligence?  We readily acknowledge that they vary in height, athletic ability, personality, artistic ability, etc.  Intelligence has a chequered history: from the ancient Romans to the Nazis, many ethnic groups have claimed to posses superior intelligence, and have used this claim to justify military conquest.  Our suspicious attitude towards intelligence is part of our historical legacy.  However, to deny differences in intelligence is counterfactual.  And to deny appropriate education to our gifted children is undemocratic and unfair.

It is also a loss of human resource.  As India strives to become a superpower in the Information Age, we need more than ever before to identify and develop the potential of our gifted children.

A common complaint of teachers is that they are already too burdened to take on the responsibility of gifted education.  So far, gifted education has not been a national priority.  B.Ed curricula contain only a small module on gifted education, without practicals.  In some states at least, that is about to change. A revision of the B.Ed curriculum will reflect a growing national concern about our brightest minds.

Meanwhile, there are many things teachers can do for the gifted children in their school with a little planning and easily available resources.  We will describe some of these methods in our next article.

For more information on the Gifted Education project, please contact Ajay Chandra – 99161 61322 or acajaychandra69@gmail.com.  The National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) is interested in profiling children with high ability.  They are also looking for schools or teachers willing to participate in the standardisation of a teacher nomination form the project has developed.

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