Yesterday, I was approved to join Intertel, an organisation whose website reminds of something from the early 90s. Membership in Intertel is open to anyone who have scored at or above the 99th percentile (top 1%) on a standardized test of intelligence, meaning an IQ of around 135. I've previously been a member of Mensa since many years, which is another, and perhaps the most well known and largest, high IQ society, with membership open to those scoring in the top 2% (an IQ of about 130).
Intelligence is a very strange thing though: high intelligence exists in all parts of the world, in any kind of occupation, regardless of education: rich and poor, liberal or democrat, medical doctor or dishwasher. And as such, Mensa, and I suppose Intertel as well, becomes a rather strange society where the members honestly have very little in common. It's almost as if you were to create a society whose membership requirement is to roll two 6s on a pair of dice.
If you think about it, you've probably met people whom you considered intelligent in most walks of life. It's not the same as an elite, though many people tend to mistake it as such. People can act as an elite if they're wealthy, good athletes, have a high education, or similarly. Or they don't. Elitism to me is how you view and value others: not about who you are.
Thinking about intelligence though made me reflect on my own childhood, during my time in primary and secondary education, a period of time which can often be troublesome for gifted children. Very often, gifted children are noted not by their performance and well behavior in school, but by their lack of performance. It may sound contrary to what one expects, but let me give you an example.
I remember when I was in high school. When we had written exams, they were usually scheduled for three-four hours during the morning or afternoon, and I can't remember a single instance when I stayed longer than an hour. Most of the time, especially in physics and maths, I just wrote down the answers to the questions in about half an hour so I could get out sooner.
It was very rare I encountered a question which forced me to need to think longer or find a different solution. And as you may have guessed, I was never a stellar performer on those tests. I made mistakes, frequently, and I usually ended up getting a wrong answer on a few of the questions, but I still ended up with the highest grade. I could not be bothered to put in my best effort, when significantly less effort would suffice.
Shirley Kokot, former associate professor at the University of South Africa, is one of the leading experts on gifted children. She has served as President of the National Association for Gifted and Talented Children in South Africa, founded Radford House, the first (and only?) school for gifted children in Johannesburg and leads the Centre for Integrated Learning Therapy in Cape Town.
In her 1999 book Help - Our Child is Gifted, a book which could have used another title, she gives some insight into the difference between a bright child, and a gifted child, much of which I can relate to in retrospect. Of particular relevance is that a bright child enjoys school, whereas a gifted child enjoys learning. The difference may appear subtle, but is one of the keys to be able to understand and relate to gifted children in their environment. A bright child is also a good memoriser, whereas a gifted child is a good guesser. I think it's fair to say I guessed my way through most of my school years.
The negative sides of being a gifted child is in part, according to Kokot, and I can very much relate to this, in no particular order:
- Develops carelessness, lazy, omits detail, resists guidance
- Tends to pseudo-intellectualise; makes excuses; loses contact with reality
- Impatient and critical of others, being "different" creates problems with peers
- Dislike for routine or drill; unwilling to get down to tasks; can easily become bored
- Stubborn; often refuses to change direction
- Sometimes interests take a single, narrow and inflexible path
- Frustration when things don't go own way; gets "turned off" easily
All of these come with positive sides too: learning comes easily, an ability to work independently, good memory, strong in analysing, good task commitment, a wide variety of interests, high energy levels, emphatic, goal directed, generates unique ideas, and so on and so forth.
But there's always a balance between the positive and the negative, and in environments which are not typically setup to recognize and cater to gifted children (such as most schools), it's easy for the negative sides to be the ones which are most often seen.
For myself, I would probably say that even now, close to 40 years into life, I've yet to master myself and at times, I can relate more to the negative sides of intelligence than the positive ones. If you view the Shuttleworth Foundation's review of my Fellowship, you'll see Jason speaking during the first minute about the complexity of the problem I was trying to solve.
That's a situation in which I thrive. But Jason also talks about pivoting and resetting my approach three times during the Fellowship: I was stubborn. To the point of a fault. I was beating a dead horse into the ground so hard that I'm surprised that even today, that same dead horse is miraculously coming to life in other ways.
Any gifted child, facing the same, need help. Being gifted does not mean you can work it out on your own. You need as much help as someone on the other end of the spectrum (because it is a spectrum, we're not talking about absolutes). It's a different kind of help, but help nonetheless.
Most of our education is currently failing most of the 5% of children whom we could consider gifted. And so my membership in Mensa, where I have almost nothing in common with most members, is in support of this: the Mensa-run Gifted Children's Program (GCP) is a program which work to increase the awareness that gifted children need support in order to become intelligent and harmonic individuals.
And that, I think, is a useful reminder not only for teachers and parents of gifted children but of children generally: we're all different, we all need different levels of support, and finding the right level of and the right support for each child is the momentous task of which we ask teachers today.