Children of high intelligence and creativity, as teachers well know, can demonstrate their precocious abilities in many different ways. But they do share several cognitive characteristics, including a thirst for knowledge, a propensity for rapid learning, above-age conceptual thinking and a tendency to see the broader picture - they're more likely to see rising food prices as the result of environmental pressures than as a problem for their pocket money.
Several neuro-imaging studies over the past decade have shown that children of high intelligence and creativity can do these things because their neural networks are better interconnected. So neuro-imaging of children with average intelligence solving mathematical logic problems typically shows higher activation in one hemisphere, while children of high intelligence show higher activation in both hemispheres. Such greater interconnec-tivity seems to explain these children's ability to process symbolic information, such as numbers in mathematics, letters or characters in languages, and computer code instructions in technology. In turn, this makes possible a higher degree of executive functioning. Numerous studies show that parts of the frontal lobes of the brain are critically involved in executive functions, and that these are more active when people have to think creatively about difficult problems. Consistently, children with high intelligence have more brain cells in these parts of their frontal lobes, and the neural development of their frontal brain is more like that of older children.
Research reveals that, compared with children of average intelligence, those with higher intelligence and creativity exhibit greater levels of focused attention, evaluative selection and the ability to delay decisions until they have taken more into consideration. They also have greater working memory capacity. These are all key aspects of executive functioning.
The importance of neural interconn-ectivity cannot be over-emphasised. Children who have it can benefit in several ways. They have more pathways available to transfer information to and from other modules, and they have more connections with their frontal lobes to support efficient executive functioning. The potential result at a cognitive level is high intelligence and creativity. But how well that potential is realised depends on opportunities to engage in challenging, thinking and learning.
Our neuro-imaging work in Oxford shows a connection between the ability to draw creative analogies and accumulated knowledge. For creative imagination, children or adults make use of what they know. So if you were asked to create in your mind's eye a pink unicorn, it's easy: connect your knowledge of pink with that of unicorns. But if the task were to think of a pink potteroo, most people outside Australia (and many in that country) would be unable to complete the task for want of the relevant knowledge. Knowledge is the power... to be creative.
There are implications for pedagogy and curriculum for children of high intelligence and creativity, to foster the interconnected thinking that's the basis of creative intelligence. These include:
- Tasks with high memory demands, per-haps with multiple components
- Reducing the quantity of small tasks, such as repetitive maths examples
- Using above-age learning materials
- Using tests to evaluate prior knowledge and find out whether children actually need the content planned for the year's class. Canadian research shows that 25 per cent of children in any primary school class don't because they already know it
- Designing assessment with higher order skills in mind, such as the pupil's ability to analyse or synthesise
- Dividing into groups using intellectual ability, regardless of age, forming classes by prior knowledge and acquired abilities
- Employing subject specialist mentors, such as retired professionals
- Offering lessons on topics beyond the regular curriculum
Of course it is not apparent which individual children will benefit from high levels of cognitive challenge, so my recommendation is to offer them to all children who are willing to try and who can be encouraged to do so.
John Geake is professor of education at Oxford Brookes University and co-founder and convenor of the Oxford Cognitive Neuroscience and Education Forum at the University of Oxford
Geake, J, A Brainy School of the Future. Learning Matters, (2007), 12(1), 36-40
Geake, J, Educating to Optimise Working Memory Function (2007)
Geake, J, How Children's Brains Think: Not left or right but both together, Education (2004) 3-13, 32(3), 65-72.