Academy helps students overcome the challenges of being gifted

Gifted students in Hong Kong face challenges, but one organisation is working to ensure that they fulfil their potential, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 9:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 9:34am

Gabriel Wong Chun-hui has had opportunities that many teenagers would envy - he has dabbled in the cultivation of stem cells at a university laboratory and joined international youth events. The reason is simple: he has been identified as a gifted student and nominated by his school and the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education for enrichment activities within and outside Hong Kong.

Before he joined the academy, the Secondary Four student was more drawn to mathematics and languages. He passed the Cambridge English Flyers test when he was in Primary One. Since joining the academy, he has been exposed to advanced science courses, which have fuelled his interest in the discipline.

Surely, every child is entitled to a curriculum that suits their needs
Dr Stephen Tommis, Academy for gifted education 

"I want to be a science researcher," he says. "In school we do not go into much depth in terms of knowledge content. We are only taught about the surface of things, but not so much the reasons behind things."

Although he enjoys school life, he now favours off-site programmes that satisfy his curiosity and allow him to meet other teenagers with comparable intellectual abilities. "At school, I don't get to discuss things with fellow students at the same level, or meet students with as much passion for learning," says Chun-hui, who was also chosen as the best all-round student by his school.

He is probably luckier than many gifted youths in Hong Kong. Not all schools devote as much attention to encouraging exceptionally bright students. La Salle College, where Chun-hui has been studying since Primary One, encourages students to sign up for enrichment events, such as the Space Museum's young astronaut training camp that takes 30 secondary school students to Beijing and Jiuquan during the summer. Chun-hui was selected to join the expedition by his school when he was in Form Two. Last December, he and six other local students took a total of five gold medals and four silver medals at the International Junior Science Olympiad held in India.

Myths surround the education of gifted children, and there is a lack of a long-term policy on nurturing future talent, according to Dr Stephen Tommis, the outgoing executive director of the academy. Since its establishment six years ago, the academy has been at the forefront of providing support and training for talented youths, teachers and parents.

Tommis thinks that schools can provide more support to gifted students. "Learning should be fun, but the dilemma for the kids is they see the potential there but most of their time spent learning is dull and they switch off in school."

Many exceptionally gifted children suffer from some kind of handwriting or spelling problem, which makes them appear less able than their peers, he adds. But instead of being given support, some are labelled as troublemakers.

Take the case of primary student Sam. When he was three, he could read dinosaur names and match them to their pictures. A year later, he was reading junior secondary-school-level books. He could not, however, write his name. In primary school, he couldn't sit still in class, and his writing and spelling were poor. His school life became miserable after the school decided that he needed special-education support - which concentrated on what he could not do, rather than on what he did extremely well. This "deficit" approach, however well meant, does not work for gifted youngsters.

"Without genuine understanding and the right kind of emotional and educational support, children like him sometimes start to fall apart almost as soon as they reach upper primary or junior secondary school," says Tommis, who was head of the National Association for Gifted Children in Britain before founding the academy with the support of the Education Bureau in 2008.

Needs vary among the talented who, according to Tommis, can range from the profoundly gifted with an IQ of 190 to those with an IQ of 130. On average up to 10 per cent of the student population worldwide can be classified as "high-end leaners", a phrase Tommis prefers to "gifted".

Those at the top end of the spectrum need something different from their peers. Advocating close collaboration between parents, schools and teachers, the academy is trying to identify the very brightest among its members and work out programmes to help tap their potential.

Tommis is adamant that the classroom environment should cater to students of different abilities. "Surely, every child is entitled to a curriculum that suits their needs. Learner diversity is the key to it all, and accepting the fact that a teacher strategy that suits one child may not suit another."

But he notices a fear or lack of confidence among teachers about differentiation in teaching strategies. "Where parents and schools work together, the opportunity of the child will be optimised, but often the parents recognise that their kid is gifted at home but is bored at school so you get a potential clash. Parents will ask: 'Why is my child bored?'

"We recognise that in educational teaching and learning strategies, one size does not fit all. The challenge now is to equip our teachers with the means for delivery."

At a lecture held by the academy last weekend, delivered by Professor June Maker from the University of Arizona's College of Education, teachers were challenged to develop problem-solving tasks that resemble real-life problems, and creative assessment tools for high-end learners. "If you really want creativity to be a goal you have to have a marking system that rewards that," she explains.

Teachers in the audience, however, expressed concerns that the current public examination system does not reward creative thinking.

Indeed, teacher training and educational policy are crucial to how well Hong Kong can nurture top talent.

"It would be helpful if we could identify the gifted education landscape: what do we want from GE in 10 years' time? Who are the key players and how do they work together? What is the platform for GE in 10 years' time?" says Tommis, adding: "The academy could play a more central role, as a hub which co-ordinates the work related to the nurturing of the gifted." It has potentially identified more than 170 high fliers in the city, aged between 12 and 18, and hopes to involve more universities in running research programmes for 13- or 14-year-olds with the intelligence of a 21-year-old.

Government support could well be on its way. Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim gave words of assurance at the opening of a recent lecture, by saying: "Gifted education should be made part and parcel of the DNA of the education community in Hong Kong."