EDUCATION

Charting a brighter course for genius

Gifted children's needs are slowly being acknowledged

Wendy Dennis October 19 1981
EDUCATION

Charting a brighter course for genius

Gifted children's needs are slowly being acknowledged

Wendy Dennis October 19 1981

Charting a brighter course for genius

EDUCATION

Gifted children's needs are slowly being acknowledged

Wendy Dennis

She claims she’s going to be an actress. Yet when gamine-faced Erika Loughran announces this common-enough dream of 10-year-olds, it’s clear she’s not playacting. As one of the 175 students in Toronto’s Claude Watson School for the Arts, a public institution for gifted children that just opened this fall, Loughran has reason to hope: with the normal school subjects dispatched by lunchtime, she will pirouette and paint away her afternoons. “It’s just like I’m in the middle of this great big sea with everything wonderful coming towards me,” she says. “There’s just nothing that is a chore.” A year ago, though, her ambition was the stuff of dreams. She languished in Brian Public School, bored by a steady diet of straight school fare.

For Loughran and her confreres across the country, recognition of their exceptional ability has been long overdue. But the educational pendulum, so long at rest in the slow learners’ camp, seems to be stirring. Parents of bright kids are lobbying government for education funds, special schools and programs. Researchers in the field are proving that many of the gifted are not being spotted and encouraged, while a host of studies show that intelligent

children frustrated by school can tear angrily down delinquent paths.

The belated acknowledgment of bright children’s special needs is arriving as burgeoning research underscores

the dramatic influence parents can have on early intellectual

growth. The findings suggest a child’s potential can be enhanced even in the womb and that IQ can leapfrog by as much as 20 points before age 5. Overly anxious to nurture a Wunderkind, parents have gone to such extremes as enrolling their not-yet-conceived offspring in early learning schools, like the Evan Thomas Institute in Philadelphia.

There, five-day-old infants, spirited from

hospital care, are immersed in a program that teaches crawling babies to read and introduces four-year-olds to math.

As a result of the push for geniuses, a plethora of privately and publicly funded classes have sprung up across the country during the past two years,

replacing the often erratic programs of the past. In Ontario, the country’s paragon in the field of education for the gifted, the number of students enrolled in special classes throughout the province has jumped from 7,711 to 16,673 between 1975 and 1980—even though the over-all student population has declined by about two per cent yearly. The Claude Watson School for the Arts is only one of several such public and private institutions in Canada. Others include Montreal’s McGill Summer School for Gifted and Talented Children and Calgary’s Oakley Centre, where children master computers and write under the tutelage of established authors. Meanwhile, more schools are introducing special programs in which the gifted can thrive on a range of activities, from illustrating storybooks to attending operas. Sometimes the option involves the rigorous European approach as in the International Baccalaureate program, a highly competitive academic course of study offered in 17 Canadian high schools.

Underscoring these innovations are signs of support from provincial ministries of education. In Ontario, last year’s trendsetting Bill 82 enshrined the rights of the gifted (along with those of the handicapped) by requiring every school board to meet all exceptional children’s needs by 1985. Gordon Bergman, director of the special education branch, says his ministry has earmarked $75 million to implement the legislation. Yet Dianne Luciani, Toronto vice-president of the Association for Bright Children, says enlisting teacher and legislator sympathy for

bright kids’ hardships is a struggle when handicapped children’s needs are more pressing. No other province boasts such far-reaching legislation. Since 1978, however, Saskatchewan boards of education have had the option of providing special programs for the gifted if they find existing classes inadequate. (For example, Regina Grade 9 students can take computer programming at the University of Regina for credit.) And in British

Columbia, Wayne Desharnais, executive director of the division of special education, is busily perusing existing Canadian and British laws to draft timelier legislation on behalf of the gifted.

Getting new laws on the books, however, amounts to lighting only one small

candle in the darkness. While the study of gifted children flourishes, many educators, psychologists and parents are still groping to define the group. Some subscribe to the narrow view that giftedness, which occurs in an estimated three per cent of the population, is simply dazzling academic cleverness —the ability to think conceptually or solve abstract puzzles. Yet others fear such tunnel vision will populate the planet with too many computer freaks and too few Picassos. Edward de Bono, director of the Cambridge Cognitive Research Trust in England, proposes viewing exceptional ability through a wider lens. Says de Bono: “Intelligence is comprised of sensitivity, courage, perceptiveness and so much more.”

Meanwhile, the IQ debate still rages. University of Manchester educator Joan Freeman argues that IQ tests are good achievement indicators but should never be taken as a sole measure of a child’s abilities. The tests stress verbal deftness, not wisdom, fail to judge social and emotional competence and the mysterious process of creativity. Nor do they unearth the forgotten

bright kids who hail from culturally disadvantaged homes. In a recent study of more than 200 English children, Freeman found that youngsters measured as intellectually gifted by the nonverbal Raven’s-Matrices intelligence test, which measures spatial and conceptual abilities with the use of geometric shapes, attained a much higher achievement level on the widely used Stanford-Binet IQ test, which evaluates verbal and math skills, if their homes were educationally superior.

Overemphasizing heredity’s role in giftedness stirs the embers of a timeworn debate: can parents mould a prodigy if they haven’t had the good fortune to bear one? While experts agree that parents should not harbor unrealistic expectations—today’s klutzy tutugarbed swan is not necessarily tomorrow’s Karen Kain—they do believe that at least 20 per cent of a child’s abilities can be nurtured. “And that 20 per cent,” says Joan Freeman, “makes all the difference between success and failure in life.” Arguing that the genetic component of intelligence still remains undefined, Albert Jacquard, a French geneticist, says: “A living being is an interaction of input from his genes and his environment. A gene alone is a word without a sentence; its meaning comes

through discourse and grammar.” Or, as John McLeod, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Institute of Child Guidance and Development, puts it, “Mozart may have been writing concertos at age 4, but it didn’t hurt that his parents had a piano either.”

Transforming bright kids into the guiding lights they should be is no simple task. Ontario parent activist Luciani, a homemaker, has reared four bright kids (two can boast 165+ IQs) who have been educated at private, public and separate schools. She remembers the day she packed twoyear-old David —already reading, writing and computing basic math—off to nursery school. A mere half-day of “silly games” later, he returned and begged to quit. Recalls Luciani: “I had a twoyear-old dropout on my hands.”

Luciani’s experience is not untypical. According to a 1978’79 Canadian Education Association national survey, only Ontario teachers required special certification to teach gifted and talented children. But even in Ontario, actual training can be sorely inade-

quate, since part one of the

special education certificate—minimum requirement to teach the giftedcan be earned over one summer in a course that sweeps broadly over all exceptional qualities, one of which is giftedness. As well, certification legislation is rarely strictly enforced, for if a principal, in these days of shrinking staffs, can’t find a qualified teacher, he or she will simply make do with what’s available. If a parent wants his offspring’s rights acknowledged, finding the proper balance between persuasion and arrogance often requires diplomacy and persistence. Says a mother of two gifted kids, Sandy Kreutzer: “Sometimes you just have to be pushy. School boards are afraid of parents who know what they’re talking about.”

So far, opportunities like the Claude Watson School for the Arts remain rare but greatly appreciated offerings for the gifted. “It’s not the Taj Mahal,” says the school’s principal, Neil Johnson, “but we’ve got dance and visual arts studios.” Adds Luciani: “In answer to whether life is improving for the gifted, can only offer a qualified yes.” But only a month into Grade 5, Loughran’s optimism is far from qualified: “This place makes me feel right at home.”

With files from Catherine Rodd and Bunny Wright.