Investing in gifted children

Sunday August 12, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2012/8/12/education/11807427&sec=education

OPINION
By SHARIFAH HAPSAH SHAHABUDIN

Recognising gifted children and honing their talents and intellect through specialised education ensures that the best brains are nurtured for the country.

IT is most exhilarating to know that the PERMATApintar® programme provided by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Centre for Gifted Youths is getting recognition from luminaries at home and abroad.

Since the annual end-of-school camp for children aged between eight and 15 years began in December 2008, and the opening of its school for gifted students aged 15 to 16 years in 2011, a stream of visitors, including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, education specialist Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng (the half sister of US President Barack Obama), and the first ladies of several countries, have visited the centre.

Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, who initiated the programme, gave a keynote address at the 12th Asia Pacific Gifted Education Conference last month in Dubai. Struck by what she said, several Education Ministers called on her to enquire about possible cooperation.

The PERMATApintar® Centre, in collaboration with the Centre for Talented Youths, Johns Hopkins University in the United States, has also conducted an All-Girls Summer Camp for 20 students, aged 16 years, from the Mawhiba Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity in Saudi Arabia.

The PERMATApintar® programme is aimed at uncovering exceptionally-gifted children, said to be one in every 100,000 in the population, and giving them a holistic education that will nurture their innate abilities and talents.

No child left behind

To ensure no child is left behind, two online IQ tests, known as UKM1 and UKM2, and a face-to-face test called UKM3, have been used to identify close to one thousand gifted children over the past two years.

They come from all walks of life and geographical locations, some so remote that two or three types of transportation have to be used to bring them to the UKM campus. The notion that providing opportunities for the gifted is creating elitism should be dispelled.

In her keynote address, Datin Seri Rosmah said: “Giftedness is a blessing from God, and it is our duty to provide the right environment for children to grow to their optimum potential … It is imperative that we do so because gifted and talented individuals are valuable assets of any country. When groomed from young, their giftedness can be optimised to surpass the highest level of performance in any given field … That is why some countries are willing to offer scholarships and citizenship to attract these children.”

Appropriate education

In addition to developing their intellectual giftedness, appropriate education is needed for the children’s emotional development.

Gifted children are often misunderstood. Their behaviour can be misconstrued as mischievous, disruptive and undisciplined, thus alarming parents and teachers. If we fail to provide special education for them they may drop out of school or become misfits.

The PERMATApintar® Centre provides a broad, balanced and challenging curriculum designed to meet individual needs, interest and pace. This is essential because gifted individuals are not a homogeneous group; some are gifted in one or two domains and others in more. Delivered in a nurturing environment, the curriculum ensures both left and right brain development by balancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), with the arts and humanities, multilingual competency, spiritual development, appreciation of the environment, leadership and volunteerism.

Learning by doing

Students develop higher order thinking through the concept of “learning by doing”. Independent learning is encouraged to help boost self-identity and promote self-confidence, essential qualities of future leaders.

A unique feature is the mentoring by UKM professors which arouses and nurtures their curiosity as well as develops research skills. Students have shown their research prowess by winning research competitions abroad.

UKM is collaborating with the New York Academy of Sciences to develop a Nobel mindset programme for PERMATApintar® students. Nobel laureates will visit Malaysia, and the gifted children will have a chance to work in their laboratories and enjoy the rich arts and culture of New York.

Such pedagogical approaches develop a deeper awareness of global problems and an appreciation of the ethical ways in which technology can be developed and deployed, as well as foster intercultural understanding for global peace, harmony and stability.

The more capable students are also given the chance to take university-level courses in Algebra and Calculus and Advance Placement courses in Statistics, Biology and Chemistry approved by the American College Board. In addition to the national examination, students take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Ten 16-year-olds who scored well in the SAT have been offered admission into prestigious universities in the US.

Optimising potential

The outcomes of the PERMATApintar® programme have shown wise investment in talents. We either help them grow exponentially or we suffer brain drain, and lose out in the race to create transformational progress in our technology-based environments.

In this endeavour we are lucky that the Government, the Prime Minister in particular, has shown commitment by providing support and funding for the programme.

This has allowed UKM to build a school, embark on research and postgraduate programmes, and train teachers for gifted children below 15 years of age. The PERMATApintar Centre serves as the referral centre for disseminating teaching approaches and support for teachers and parents.

More importantly, the experience of the PERMATApintar® programme should serve as practical input for the national revamp of our education system into one that will optimise learning opportunities for Malaysian students.

As Franklin Roosevelt once said: “While we cannot always build the future for our youth, we can build our youth for the future.”

> Prof Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin is Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia vice-chancellor.