When tots' maths skills don't add up

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
TODDLERS IN Mensa and children with precocious mathematical skills may not be truly "gifted", according to experts.

The Scottish Network for Able Pupils (Snap) believes some have simply been trained rigorously in certain skills, and that more sophisticated approaches are needed to identify able children.

Project leader Margaret Sutherland pointed to the example of Mikhail Ali, a three-year-old who is Britain's youngest member of Mensa. Earlier this year he was shown adding four-figure numbers in a Channel 4 documentary, at an age when other children are learning to count to 20.

Mikhail, from Bradford, later appeared on the same channel's Richard and Judy show and was given some complex sums to do. But on this occasion he was unable to provide the answers. This may have been because numbers were placed side-by-side, whereas he usually saw them one above the other when practising with his parents. That strengthened the argument that he had merely become superficially adept at a very precise skill. It could also be that he was fed up with performing for adults.

Mrs Sutherland, who spoke at the annual Snap conference in Glasgow last week, explained that Mikhail's parents had trained him rigorously in maths and were confident when he sat an IQ test that he would beat a previous score. In fact, his score went down. Mrs Sutherland speculated that the maths training had been at the expense of other development.

"A child may have an identified ability, but we need to remember the whole child," said Niamh Stack, Snap development officer.

Dr Stack drew attention to a more sophisticated way of detecting ability, developed by the University of Szczeci in Poland, which focuses on mathematical creativity. Photography was used so that, for example, children were asked to give an example of infinity. Pupils responded by returning with pictures of a clock - to represent time - and the sky.

Carrie Winstanley, a Roehampton University expert in high-ability children, warned that those who sailed through school could be vulnerable when dealing with a single failure at university, sometimes becoming distressed.

She said it was healthy to be exposed to the risk of failure at school.

Dr Winstanley also said that, while gifted children should have the chance to mix with "like-minded peers", they must also mix with others in their age group if they are to turn into well-rounded adults.

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