Geniuses, prodigies, chips (children of high intellectual potential) – whatever you call them, schools often fail to respond to their needs. Also in Switzerland there is no unified approach to dealing with precocious progeny.
Margherita learnt to read when she was four; Amos is six and has memorised the names of all the dinosaurs and distances between planets. They are so-called high-potential children: they have IQs above 125, an advanced use of language, excellent memories, are very curious and have a level of comprehension that is more like that of adults than of their peers.
In every society an estimated three to five per cent of people have an IQ above the norm (85-115). In Switzerland this works out at more than 240,000 people – on average one pupil per class. Child prodigies? Not exactly.
“High-potential children are not more intelligent than others but have a different way of thinking,” according to Doris Perrodin-Carlen, who has worked for years as a specialist teacher and consultant.
“They have trouble reasoning in a linear way. They think by association and often jump from one idea to the next, catching out whoever they’re talking to and in particular teachers.”
The story of Ivan (not his real name), from French-speaking Switzerland, highlights the problem. Now 19, Ivan was called “Mr Why” by his parents when he was small because he was always asking questions, often about history or nature.
“I absorbed everything like a sponge,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I never needed to study.”
Ivan’s problems started at junior high school and continued at secondary school. He would get bored increasingly often and struggled to follow some subjects, such as German.
“The teachers gave us long lists of vocab to learn by heart – I tried, but just couldn’t do it.”
The problems multiplied and Ivan ended up repeating two years at secondary school. Many teachers kept faith with Ivan, convinced of his potential, but no one could understand how this brilliant young student, who turned out to have an IQ above 125, could struggle in certain subjects. They viewed him as a slacker.
Following the advice of a teacher, Ivan sought help from a specialist on new strategies on learning – something he is still working on with a view to getting a decent grade in all of his subjects. And then?
“I’d like to go to university and then teach history or French in a secondary school.”
His mother hopes as an adult Ivan can find a stimulating intellectual environment that will enable him to grow.
“I’d like him to be able to live [with his IQ] as a gift and no longer as a handicap.”
So how can state schools contribute to the development of children like Ivan? The buzzword seems to be differentiation – adapting education to the needs of individual pupils, from those who struggle to those who are more advanced.
However, this type of pedagogic system clashes with school programmes based on the “average” pupil, with greater expectations placed on teachers.
Today, every Swiss canton provides for the possibility for high-potential children to skip a class or be exempt from certain subjects.
In German-speaking Switzerland, where selection takes place earlier, educational institutions often reserve specialised classes for such pupils and can count on the advice of a specialist.
In French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland on the other hand, the idea of encouraging precocious children is not viewed highly and is often left to the initiative of an individual.
“If children are uncomfortable or are blatantly bored, the school has a duty to help them,” said Edo Dozio, a teacher at a pedagogic school in Locarno and co-author of a study on the issue.
“But this rarely happens – last year in Ticino only one problem case was reported. When these children manage to adapt, however, it’s not up to the school to come up with a policy actively promoting their talent,” he said.
“Not to mention the fact that the recorded number of talented kids can be counted on one hand.”
He added that his school in Ticino preferred to integrate gifted children, rather than push them to join a more competitive environment.
Nevertheless, a few initiatives have been launched in recent years. Various cantons, including Ticino and Neuchâtel, have issued guidelines for teachers.
A few years ago in cantons Jura and Vaud these children were brought together half a day a week to learn how to overcome obstacles, deal with mistakes and discuss their fears and any recent books they had read.
But is this active promotion of talent or simple fulfilment of a need? For Doris Perrodin-Carlen, the answer is clear.
“Insisting that a child learn to read before he or she is ready is counterproductive, but here it’s a question of reacting to an individual’s thirst for knowledge,” she said.
“It’s clear that it’s necessary to remain vigilant so that parents don’t put their children under pressure by thinking they are all unacknowledged geniuses. But the schools can’t wash their hands of this.”