PROFESSOR JUNE MAKER recognises talent when she sees it. Citing her belief that the most gifted among us are those who solve real-life problems, she recalls her delight at discovering a Hong Kong student, Michael, who noticed his school library was very short of books. After thinking about it he set about raising $1 million to fill the shelves. If you think you are out of Michael's league and the world's problems are beyond your grasp, Professor Maker of Arizona University's special education and rehabilitation department, begs to differ: 'There are gifted and talented people in every culture and country and many of these difficulties could be overcome using better understanding and knowledge of each other and of ourselves and how we learn.' Maker began as a teacher and contributed to the development of the first legislation in the United States to cater for the needs of high achieving students and helped found the National Association of Gifted Children. This work led her to become director of Discover Projects (Discovering Intellectual Strengths and Capabilities while Observing Varied Ethnic Responses) in 1987 to study, categorise and measure a broad spectrum of problem-solving strategies used by various age groups of differing ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds. With a group of educators at Witts Education Centre in Causeway Bay, Maker recently revisited the definition of 'giftedness' she first used at a conference in Australia in 1988: 'The key element in giftedness or high competence is the ability to solve the most complex problems in the most efficient, effective, ethical, elegant or economical ways.' At the time this challenged accepted models and proved controversial. Traditionally, definitions focused on academic achievement, usually in formal tests. Maker, an experienced educator who had spent the majority of her career organising programmes for the gifted, was undaunted. For several years, she had studied groups of children identified as 'gifted' as well as successful scientists who had overcome disabilities. As a result, the American academic tried to isolate factors contributing to exceptional success. She was convinced the traditional measures, such as IQ tests, extensively used in Hong Kong, were fundamentally flawed in identifying real ability. 'They do not accurately predict success in life or in a career,' she says. 'The average correlation [with IQ tests and success] is only 0.17, almost negligible. In fact, a better predictor is involvement in extracurricular activity.' The real answer, in her view, lies in looking at multidimensional and multifaceted approaches. She gets her theoretical structure from Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences and Robert Sternberg's Triarchic Theory. Asserting that giftedness is not just about traditional academic skills such as mathematics, Gardner's work, published in 1983, focused, like Maker's, on the ability to solve and discover practical problems as a means of acquiring new knowledge. He describes eight relatively distinct common intelligences: linguistic; logical-mathematical; spatial; naturalist; interpersonal; intrapersonal; bodily-kinaesthetic; and musical. Sternberg classified just three; analytical, creative and practical. The second of these, creative intelligence, is crucial, according to Maker. 'We need creative problem solvers to deal with the increasingly complex problems of the world. These problems are what we call 'fuzzy'.' She argues that the classroom is the place to start: 'Future problem solving should be the core curriculum. Individuals cannot possibly hope to cope with the sheer weight of information available nowadays. We really need to rethink education.' Maker is well qualified to do some of the rethinking. Assessments she has devised at Discover consist of observing and noting reactions to being presented a series of problems. Maker defines a problem as, 'a question or situation that presents doubt, perplexity or difficulty: a question offered for consideration, discussion or a solution'. Activities designed by Discover produce a map of strengths, or profiles, schools can use to determine eligibility for gifted programmes. These are designed to form a powerful bridge between the assessment and curriculum. The child being assessed receives a rating between one and five in the five problem categories. The combination of ratings signifies the areas of strengths and gives a rough idea of how the child might learn best. This helps to pin down specific gifted areas avoiding pupils being given a less helpful general label such as 'brainy'. But more importantly it enables schools to customise all aspects of the curriculum. 'I believe the kinds of teaching strategies we use for the gifted are quite successful with most children. Although there are certain children who need a programme over and above the normal classroom, we will find more and more children becoming gifted if we do it properly,' she says. By way of an example she describes her work with people of the Navajo nation: 'I got funding from the US government to find and serve gifted students. We had to create different assessments that worked well with others as well as Navajo people who did not want labelling and separating. We therefore condensed a number of principles to be understood by teachers to be used in a classroom setting,' she says. She lists these principles as active hands-on learning (using apparatus), integrating culture and language (a multicultural element to teaching), using group activities, flexible pacing of lessons and learning, inter-disciplinary themes (cross-curricular elements), varied problem types (using the Discover model), use of visual and performing arts and students selecting their own formats. The problems Discover uses for assessment are categorised according to their structure and the method needed to solve them. The approach is as important as whether the answer is actually right or wrong. The five major types of problem range in a continuum from the closed type (I) in which all elements are known to the presenter and solver to open-ended ones (Type V) in which everything, including the definition of the problem, is open to interpretation. Maker has Discover projects running in France, Taiwan and Egypt. But she gets most excited by her work in more than 500 schools in China. 'The projects are part of a large-scale educational reform effort to investigate multiple intelligences and creative components,' she writes on her Web site. 'After our work in Zhucheng, the city has revised its secondary exams to include the five major problem types.' She hopes to extend this work to schools in Hong Kong. She has an ally in Chan Pui-Tin, who starts as chief curriculum development officer of the Education Department's special needs section in March next year. 'I totally agree with Professor Maker,' he says. 'We shouldn't just be labelling students. I do believe giftedness is inherent provided we give them the opportunity to succeed.' He says he wants to build on and extend current practice: 'Our assessment and curriculum put too much emphasis on closed problems. I would really like to look into giving more of Maker's types four and five [open-ended].' Rosie Barrett, director of Witts, wants to bring like-minded educators together in Hong Kong. She aims to establish a group of those interested in Maker's ideas. They will consider how to incorporate problem-solving strategies into the work they now do. Maker herself will act as a consultant. International schools in Hong Kong report several ways of extending pupils, including workshops, specialist teaching, differentiated work and special events. Planning is under way for one such event that aims to see schools network with each other here and internationally. Maker recommended the Future Problem Solving Programme in her talk as one of the few that extend and challenge students. It is a worldwide programme developed in 1974 by Dr Paul Torrance, chairman of creative studies at the University of Georgia. Skills learned can be applied across the curriculum. An estimated million students around the world take part. Teams of four primary or secondary students use a six-step process to identify and solve a problem from a scenario provided for them. Their solutions can stand alone as an enrichment exercise or they can go on to compete with teams from Australia and the US. A recent scenario asked students to help newcomers to the first deep-sea international community established in 2042. They are given an overview of the undersea facility and asked to help the new inhabitants develop solutions and strategies to deal with the many challenges they will face. A group of teachers is interested in establishing the programme in Hong Kong. Audrey Young, a teacher at Quarry Bay School, who has entered teams from Australia and Hong Kong, is eager to promote it. 'Perhaps we should have an Asian final,' she says. 'It normally takes a couple of years until students are good enough for international competition.'