Punching above their weight

 

DCU’s Centre for Talented Youth is giving eight high-ability TY students a taste of college life by inviting them to attend undergraduate lectures

THE CENTRE FOR Talented Youth in Ireland (CTYI) looks for bright sparks. Students who show above-average ability are given opportunities to study subjects at a level that will both challenge and motivate. Based in Dublin City University (DCU) the CTYI has been in existence since 1992 and, with over 4,000 names on their database, they have been kept busy.

This year they are piloting a new TY project where eight students have been invited to attend undergraduate courses in subjects as diverse as engineering, applied physics and economics, politics and law. The students are from schools in Dublin, Meath and Laois and would have all attended CTYI programmes before.

Yvanne Kennedy (16) is from Alexandra College, Dublin, and is studying three modules from the DCU bachelor’s degree in economics, politics and law. “It wasn’t all new,” she says. “I had already done some work in legal studies and criminology at the CTYI so had some background in the areas. Plus secondary school subjects like history, English and CSPE are all useful for law and politics at third level.”

The programme is a pilot so there will be no qualifications at the end of their term. Still, the eight students are happy to take part in the experience and enjoy the challenge.

There is, however, the whole question of a secondary student fitting into the college fold. “There’s not much communication between students and the lecturers in class so you can just blend in,” explains 16-year-old Harry Lachenmayer of St Killian’s Deutsche School in Dublin, who is studying applied physics. “Most people didn’t know we were from TY, but were curious to know why we were coming in for one term. They thought I was a student repeating first year,” he says.

Harry has, in fact, blended in quite well and is now helping some of the other students with their introductory software development module. “I’ve done a lot of work on this subject before so some full-time students have come to me for a little bit of extra help,” he says.

Caitriona Fitzgerald is the academic co-ordinator of this early university entrance programme, which has been the basis for her PhD. “We have a number of support mechanisms for them here,” says Fitzgerald. “I meet them every week to see how they are doing. They also have mentors here in DCU, mainly postgraduate students, who keep an eye on them and try to answer any questions they might have. We were conscious the students might end up bombarding lecturers with questions so the mentoring scheme was a way of overcoming this.

“I was very nervous at the beginning that it wouldn’t work,” she admits. “I was concerned that social issues might become a problem – the integration of students into campus life and the lack of their own peers around them. But the group of eight have got on really well with each other.”

One of the most beneficial outcomes of the CTYI programmes is that students get to interact with others of their own ability.

IDENTIFYING HIGH-ABILITY students at primary and post-primary is not as easy as first thought. It is not always demonstrated or, indeed, recognised. Large class numbers, ill-equipped teachers, the desire to fit in and stigmas attached to being “special” are enough to make some gifted young people stay in the intellectual closet.

This has certainly been the outcome of a research project carried out by Dr Joyce Senior in the UCD School of Education. Looking at UCD graduates who achieved high honours at third level, Senior found that many of them had not performed particularly well at primary or post-primary levels. “Many would have deliberately hid their ability in school,” says Senior. “It was a social thing. Most teenagers just want to fit in. So there’s a high proportion who don’t achieve at primary or secondary. Some of the people I interviewed at third level had completed their PhDs at 24 and had a string of academic awards to their name. But their Leaving Certs would tell you something completely different – very average for most. A lot more support is needed for gifted students. Unfortunately, the Department of Education only sees ‘special needs’ as a negative term.

“Some teachers do go out of their way to identify and support high-ability learners,” she adds. “But the teachers we train here in UCD don’t fully understand the spectrum of giftedness. If a student’s writing isn’t perfect, or they aren’t good at maths, it is assumed they are not gifted.”

This is a fallacy. Most gifted students are not all-round high achievers, just in certain areas that interest them. This becomes increasingly evident when gifted students with the same interests are put together. “You can see with certain subjects how the same kinds of people will be interested in them,” says 15-year-old Aisling Fulcher of St Peter’s College in Dunboyne. “The three of us taking applied physics share the same interest in music and games and we all get along quite well.”

“Gifted students have a slightly different way of thinking and are much better able to handle abstract concepts,” says Fitzgerald. “They generally pick up information at a faster pace. There’s a misconception that high-ability students are brilliant at everything. That’s rarely the case. Most have a high aptitude for certain subjects but there’ll be lots of others that they don’t like and are average at.”

There are exceptions to this rule though. Mairead Ryan (16) from Presentation Convent in Thurles studied novel writing when she first started coming to the CTYI but is now getting into applied physics.

“I’m not sure which subject I prefer,” she says. “I could link them together and be a science fiction writer, perhaps. Actually no, I prefer music to both.”

Top grade: Myths about high-ability students

According to the Irish Association for Gifted Children (IAGC), there are a number of myths associated with high-ability students.

Many might think that those fortunate enough to be gifted would have it easy. However, if it is not identified and nourished early, giftedness may not only wither, it may also become a source of embarrassment.

It is believed that gifted children don’t need special help at school, that they will be academically successful anyway. On the contrary, the academic level in school can be so low for gifted children that they tend to develop poor study skills, a bad attitude to work, and therefore underachieve throughout life.

It is also assumed to be an issue solely for the privileged classes. The truth is that giftedness among young people can be found in every class, gender, colour or religious denomination. Opposition to special assistance on account of it being an advantage to an “already advantaged group” is simply not the case.

While some gifted children may naturally stand out, many deliberately conceal their talents in order to fit in with the rest of the class. This is particularly common among girls. Teachers with no formal training in special needs may routinely associate giftedness with “children who are polite, neat, conformists, or are of middle-class backgrounds”. But the signs are subtle. “There are plenty of teachers who want to help but are not certain how to do it,” says Leslie Graves, vice-chairperson of the IAGC. “Some are simply bemused by a child who knows more than they do in their chosen subject.”

Another myth suggests gifted children are always proud of their ability and so putting them all together in a special programme will only make them overly aware of their abilities. But, as we have already learned, many hide their true talents just to fit in. So placing them with students of similar ability helps them to discover that there are others like themselves. It also gives them the opportunity to socialise and learn with others who are as capable, if not more so, than they are.

“Some would say that pushing kids into ‘gifted’ classes might lead to psychological problems,” says Graves. “All kids are individuals so it will suit some and it won’t suit others. It’s important that all are carefully vetted to make sure they are ready for it. I’m originally from the US and there are groups of parents over there who are just sinister, pushing their kids in and out of competitions. I’ve found, after 30 years in the IAGC, that Irish people have a different approach. In fact parents of gifted children here rarely push them at all. We shouldn’t worry about that.”