The curse of being `gifted’

`CHRIS” is 11. He has just finished several year 10 subjects and written a 26,000-word novella. Next year he will study VCE English literature.

You’d think he’d be a catch for any school; don’t they love having smart kids who boost their academic results? Not if catering for them requires too much effort, they don’t. And gifted students like Chris can be hard yakka.

Chris isn’t even “in” school. Plodding along with other children years behind his mental age made him miserable, so for the past three years he has studied at home with his mother. Their suburban house is walking distance from two schools, but he is learning under the distance education system set up for rural kids.

“Gifted” is a curse of a label. It makes a child sound blessed, endowed with nature’s riches. It makes him sound like he needs no help.

“Gifted” is the kind of label that might confuse even a Labor government oriented towards equity. To the uninformed, it seems hard to justify special resources for children with high IQs when there are slow learners needing help just to learn to read and write. It seems like robbing the poor to give to the rich.

Alarmed parents recently wrote to the Education Minister, Mary Delahunty, following rumors that the gifted education section of her department faced the razor. This week they learnt that its already minuscule staff of four had been reduced to three.

Worse had been feared, and the gifted section has not been singled out for cuts. The department is reorganising to put more resources directly into schools. But it is worrying that a spokesman for the minister this week guaranteed only that there would be no cuts to gifted programs in schools next year.

Is their long-term future guaranteed? Does the department understand that gifted children are also special-needs children? Their classroom needs are as far from the norm as those of the learning disabled.

If they don’t get what they need, we lose them. In Australia, home of the decapitated tall poppy, gifted children have almost the same high-school dropout rate as slow learners and, as adults, twice the average incidence of depression and a correspondingly high risk of suicide.

A 1986 Senate select committee found gifted children were among the most educationally deprived students in Australia. Given that none of the committee’s recommendations was acted upon, they probably still are. (Victoria spends only $500,000 on gifted education out of a total schools budget of $4 billion, even though up to 5 per cent of children are gifted.)

Standard classrooms drive these children bananas. They need only one exposure to new ideas or information that normal children must repeat half a dozen times to master. Repetition is purgatory to the gifted child, who becomes bored and frustrated and turns off learning. Too many are diagnosed as gifted only when they’re sent off to a psychologist for behavioral problems.

They need to work at a higher level than children the same age and at a faster rate. Most of all, they need to work with students like themselves: children who get their jokes, spar with them academically and tolerate their idiosyncrasies.

Many dumb themselves down or become the class clown in an attempt to win acceptance in a country that values sporting excellence, but derides its intellectual counterpart.

“In Australia, the kid who’s going over the high jump higher than any other child in her class is applauded and cheered by the others,” says Dr Miraca Gross, professor of gifted education at the University of New South Wales. “But the kid in the classroom who uses a wide vocabulary and comes out with unusual ideas often will get negative feedback, so the child will bring her vocabulary down to the point where she’s not mocked.”

Teachers are sometimes no better, she says: “Many are afraid of the idea that there might be kids in their class who know more than they do about some things. But piano teachers and sports coaches would never fear a child being more able than themselves.”

In Victoria, about 20,000 children have been identified as gifted and at least 20,000 more are estimated to exist. Girls, migrants and underprivileged kids are least likely to have found the help they need. Australian studies show that when teachers without special training were asked to identify their gifted students, more than 70 per cent of those they picked were boys and more than 90per cent came from the Anglo middle-class.

Some Victorian state schools are setting up gifted programs, but these are few and usually limited in nature. NSW, which has set up “opportunity schools”, is way ahead.

The gifted education section educates teachers (many of whom learnt little or nothing of giftedness in their initial training) and initiates programs for students. Its work should be expanded, not cut.

Gifted education is not elitist. “From each according to his ability” really does depend on “To each according to his needs”.

First published in The Age.