There’s a lot of debate about what it means to be ‘gifted’. The National Association for Gifted Children Malaysia offers a simple and useful description of how gifted learners typically behave; a young child who displays academic capability and language proficiency on par with that of a teenager or adult, for example, is a good sign that they are gifted.
Their distinctive neurological makeup sets these youngsters apart from their peers, which can be a formidable challenge in other respects. Many gifted students are often unfortunately riddled with emotional issues, labelled ‘problematic’ in mainstream schools or even unintelligent when they don’t perform well in standardised school examinations because the way they absorb, process and act on information might be different from other people.
How have national initiatives tackled issues like these in recent years? The PERMATApintar programme by the National University of Malaysia (University Kebangsaan Malaysia or UKM) may have an answer. The PERMATApintar Centre at UKM (also called the Malaysian National Gifted And Talented Centre) uses a four-step approach to identifying and educating gifted children from across the country.
In the Talent Search and Management phase, students complete an online test, after which they are shortlisted to take a second test at designated centres. The two tests determine if they are selected to attend the residential School Holiday Camp and eventually, the PERMATApintar Educational Programme and ASASIpintar year-long pre-university programme thereafter.
In the school holiday camp stage, the students participate in enrichment programmes co-developed by UKM and the Johns Hopkins Center For Talented Youth, taught by internationally-certified university professors and lecturers.
Other plans have been made to accommodate gifted learners in a mainstream school setting – the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 released by the Malaysian Ministry of Education aims to develop and implement a comprehensive gifted education programme for all Malaysian schools by the year 2025.
At Nexus International School, ‘highly able’ learners are given a chance to stretch their academic capacity through various enrichment opportunities in class and other designated school resources. An extensive team of staff and resources are available to support students with specific learning needs.
“Provision for learners with individual needs ranges from looking at ways to extend our gifted learners to finding resources and strategies to support our struggling learners,” says Nexus International School Marketing and Communications manager Selwyn Khoo.
“All teachers have training with a multi-specialist Learning Support team so that learning is personalised to meet the needs of all learners.”
Kylie Booker is the Director of Curriculum and Innovation at the Australian International School Malaysia (AISM), who holds a Masters of Gifted Education and has over 25 years of teaching experience. She leads the school’s Gifted and Talented Programme, training the teaching staff to differentiate levels of competency in gifted students and help students reach their full potential.
Exceptional students at AISM (those who place in the 98th percentile or higher in recognised external assessments) undergo the ‘Curious Fridays’ programme, which is a series of inquiry-based learning projects. Students participating in this programme have opportunities to exercise high-order thinking and collaborative skills while building self-esteem through interacting with other children. A variety of enrichment opportunities at AISM benefit gifted students, not just in the maths and science fields but also in music, arts and sports.
The British International School of Kuala Lumpur (BSKL) is a member of the National Association for Able Children in Education. The school’s Gifted and Talented Coordinator for Primary, Chloe Tabley, says gifted students can demonstrate enhanced abilities in a range of areas across academia, arts and sports – not just in traditional subjects like Mathematics or Writing.
As such, a variety of enrichment clubs at the school serve to challenge more able primary learners in the fine arts, creative writing, mathematics, social issues and strategy enrichment among others.
Code cracking, logic problems, Tangram challenges and algebra practices: children who are gifted in mathematics can tackle problems like these when they participate in challenges like the Maths FOBISIA competitions. The young learners can also take on Nim, Backgammon and other games that require strategic thinking and application of tactics in the Strategy Enrichment club.
Members of the school’s Historical Writing Club have begun writing a series of narratives set in Florence at the time of the Renaissance, while arts students in Years 3 to 6 get to work on engaging projects like acrylic painting, sculptures, photography and photo mosaics in the style of the artist Robert Silvers.
Creating an enriching learning environment for gifted kids is no easy task. As BSKL’s Primary teachers work to meet this challenge, various activities and clubs at the school serve as a reminder for gifted students to give back to their communities and promote awareness of pressing social issues.
BSKL’s Big Ideas Club is an example: it’s a platform for Year 6 students to explore social causes important to them as they chronicle interviews with various people and produce eye-opening videos.
School activities that link the students to people and organisations outside of the classroom present great opportunities for personal growth and development. Not only do they build confidence in handling real-world situations, but they also encourage kids to interact with mainstream learners at a non-threatening pace.
While educators endeavour to make mainstream school environments more supportive towards students with unique learning needs, many parents still opt to home-school their gifted children or enrol them in tertiary education at a younger age.
Both options present their own distinct challenges and benefits: parents themselves may not have sufficient knowledge to help gifted children develop to the fullest of their ability, but they may also be more supportive and understanding simply by virtue of being their parents and having an intimate understanding of their personality and learning style.
Fortunately, support groups and communities like PERMATApintar, the National Association for Gifted Children’s ‘Gifted Children Forum Malaysia’ and the Malaysian MENSA Society can provide valuable help to parents with gifted children, especially when the time comes to make decisions about the best possible education for the child.
It is essential for budding talent to be recognised early and carefully nurtured to prevent children from feeling frustrated and ‘acting out’ or burning out from the weight of too-high expectations. While society in general still has some way to go before support for gifted children achieves mainstream recognition, steps are being taken in the right direction and this should benefit the young bright stars of the future.