Any child can be a genius, but…


WHETHER it is buying products that promise to make their babies read or packing their kids’ schedules with extra- curricular activities, parents the world over are taken with promoting genius in their offspring.

It is a move some educators endorse, even as they urge caution, having regard to the possible negative outcomes if parents get too carried away with realising their goal.

For one educator, the first concern has to do with the very word ‘genius’.

“The term genius refers to someone who achieves at exceptional levels; someone who is beyond the ordinary,” said Dr Rose Davies, senior lecturer and head of the Institute of Education at the University of the West Indies. “We know that geniuses are found in the minority and most children are born with fairly average intellect. So there lies the first improbability — that all parents could expect that they can make all their children into geniuses simply by their own promotional efforts.”

According to Davies, the parents’ drive to make their children into little geniuses can actually have quite damaging results. “What I would prefer to say is that parents should provide children with appropriately supportive and stimulating environments within which they can play, learn and maximise their intellectual and other developmental potential,” she advised.

At the same time, Davies said that there was no questioning the fact that “there are advantages to parents making an effort to stimulate their children’s interest in and love of learning as well as to encourage them to always strive for excellence”.

As for the apparent obsession of some parents with products claiming to help children realise genius, Davies said parents should get in the know about their child’s pace of development and learning.

“Forcing children to learn at too fast a rate is a futile effort as several child development specialists throughout the world have conducted research on children that show, beyond a doubt, that children develop in milestone stages from birth. Their abilities are different at each stage, becoming more complex the older they get,” said Davies, who also chairs the Joint Board of Teacher Education.

“To my mind, it is not a natural phenomenon for young babies (for example) to read in the true sense of the word,” she said. “Children acquire particular intellectual skills when their brains are ready to absorb such. So giving them tasks that they are not ready for will only frustrate them. Parents need to know their children well, to know what they can and cannot do and to provide them with the toys and learning materials that will comfortably challenge them to achieve at higher levels. It is important to read the labels and recommended age range before purchasing educational toys/ books.”

Dr Beverley Bryan, head of the Department of Educational Studies at the University of the West Indies, holds that any child is capable of realising genius if given the appropriate type of stimulation.

“Any child born with an undamaged brain and given the right kind of support and access can become a genius. I don’t think that genius is about biology, I think it is about sociology,” she told Career & Education.

“It is about the cultural capital. Some children are born in Jamaica, they have no chance. I know that if a child is given the opportunity, given the access — you take a child, say in some inner-city school, you get somebody like me going down there — suddenly that child is seen as different, suddenly people start paying attention to him, suddenly he is no longer the one at the back of the class.”

She cautioned, however, that stimulating genius in children from poor socio-economic backgrounds is made that much more difficult in a society like Jamaica with high levels of disparity.

“The idea of genius cannot be taken seriously in a country of such inequality. It is absolutely shameful the inequality that exists in this country… Some children just don’t have the chance. They start without the chance at grade one and unless there is some powerful intervention, they remain that way. And what is really inspiring is those who just get that opportunity and just make life, they just come through,” Bryan noted.

Tony Sewell, a consultant at Reading University in the United Kingdom, is himself in favour of parental efforts to realise genius in children.

“No. I have no problem with parents trying to promote genius in their children,” he said. “In fact, every parent thinks that their young child is a genius. We need more parents from poorer backgrounds to believe this. However, just like plants, we can cultivate genius in our young. Those brought up amongst books and wise teaching can be guided into genius,” he said.

“If genius is something that we create for our children, then the implications are powerful. Just think how many Marcus Garveys or Einsteins are stopped in their track because parents keep saying their stubborn child is ‘dunce’ or there are poor teachers in the local school. Genius is all about hard work and the privileges we give children. It is not God-given,” added the man who founded the programme ‘Generating Genius’.

The UK-based Generating Genius, according to information drawn from its website, is “a charity with a mission to encourage and develop underprivileged talented students from diverse backgrounds and have them aspire to professions in the various fields of scientific endeavour — engineering, medicine, bio-technology, life sciences, etc”.

According to Sewell, Jamaicans perhaps need to become more elitist in pursuit of excellence in the education system.

“I notice that Jamaica spends much of its education resource on remedial education, trying to fix children who are doing badly. I think this is a mistake. Resources should be spent trying to support the diamonds in the rough. Education policy needs to be more positive and, dare I say it, more elitist,” he said.

“The model is seen in athletics. Why is Jamaica so good at this sport? It has found a way of promoting excellence no matter what background you come from. If athletic success was only drawn from the middle-class, Jamaica would be nowhere. It must be the same with intellectual genius; we need to discover ways of promoting mental activity from all backgrounds. Our education system has failed to do this. It lobs off few people who have had the advantage of prep school and private tuition,” Sewell added.

“When I first conceived of my programme Generating Genius, I went to a certain high school in Kingston and asked if they could supply me with any 12-year-old recruits for our free science summer camp. The principal said: ‘Sorry, there are no geniuses here.’ Contrast this to how we feel about Champs, where everyone believes we can be winners,” he said further.

Still, Davies cautioned against the dangers of pressuring children into becoming geniuses.

“Trying to make children into geniuses might put undue pressure on them to achieve beyond their capabilities. This could lead to behavioural problems, psychosomatic illnesses, loss of interest in school and so on,” she said. “Children can definitely suffer from burn-out when they are pressured in this way. They will develop a dislike for school. Sometimes you meet ‘can’t miss’ young children who seem so bright and promising. Then as they grow older they just lose interest and really become very ‘ordinary’ people. These could have been the children who were pushed and hurried too fast too soon to become the genius their parents desired them to be.”

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