Gifted Education

Marcin Kotowski (Institute for Quantum Computing, Waterloo, Canada),
Piotr Migdał ICFO, Castelldefels (Barcelona), Spain),



In our talk, we discussed the problem of educating exceptionally gifted children, pointed out why the formal education system is not best suited for this task and sketched some alternative solutions. In particular, we mentioned a few valuable initiatives we have been involved in (see further reading below).

Standard school system has its strengths and weaknesses. To summarize, school is:

good at… bad at…
standarization developing special talent
socialization one-one interactions
forcing to learn taking advantage of natural curiosity
avoiding failures encouraging risky, out of the box activities

Obviously, this is not the best environment for people with exceptional talents or unusual interests. If you are the smartest kid in school, or even better (in particular, smarter than your teachers), it can be very difficult to meet people on a similar skill level and same interests. Talented children require special attention and individual approach, something that is hard to come by in 30+ classrooms. Moreover, school usually employs negative selection (having to meet some minimum requirements, getting punished if you don't) rather than positive selection (excelling at one thing even at the cost of neglecting other subjects), which makes focusing on non-standard interests more troublesome.

Public discourse about education often leaves out the fact that providing proper education for gifted individuals is important (other groups requiring special attention, like minorities or people with disabilities, get much more publicity). Fostering talent is important both for students themselves (in terms of their well-being and intellectual development) as well as for society at large. The most gifted ones will shape the science, art, culture and economy of the future (there is temptation to include "politics" on this list, but well…). Moreover, an exceptionally talented kid in one discipline may be average in other fields, or in social skills. He/she may be lacking of contact with peers having similar interests, thus feeling alienated, with no possibilities to share passion or learn from others at the adequate level.

If the educational system fails at giving them opportunities to grow, we have to look outside the system. There are a couple of ways for development that work in parallel or outside school system:

  • mentoring,
  • competitions (e.g. olympiads, science contests),
  • NGOs, workshops, summer camps,
  • self-learning.

However, it is important not to overdo. In gifted education, the most important principle is the same as in medicine - "primum non nocere" (en. "first, do no harm"). Skills, curiosity and motivation are natural - one can help them grow, but there are much more ways to hurt them. For example, misinterpreting talents, too high burden (especially in domains where the student is not extraordinarily talented), too high competitiveness, neglecting his/her needs, or being too pushy with educator's own approach or philosophy.

In Poland, a great initiative in this direction is Polish Children's Fund (Krajowy Fundusz na rzecz Dzieci), an NGO which has been around for more than 30 years and aims at helping exceptionally gifted students in science and arts. PCF's help takes mainly the form of scholarships for elementary and high school students (about 500 students per year). However, there is no financial help associated to it - the scholarships enable students to participate in a variety of activities such as lectures, seminars, workshops and camps, at which they can work on their academic interests and meet other kids with similar interests (which is arguably the crucial part of the whole initiative). Classes and workshops are taught by volunteer tutors, among whom there are university students (like us) and scientists, often including renowned professors. To get a glimpse of how diverse PCF's offer is, some workshop topics from the annual interdisciplinary camp include: quantum algorithms, computer graphics, measuring fractal introduction, practical introduction to phylogenetics, physics of music, political rhetorics in 16th century Poland, "Keynes vs Hayek - a US hangover?"

Another project in a somewhat similar vein is Summer Scientific School (Polish: Wakacyjne Warsztaty Wielodyscyplinarne), an independent camp for highly gifted high school students, organized annually in Poland by undergraduates. The event takes 10 days, during which about 35 high school students participate in advanced workshop-style courses in math, physics and computer science. Apart from the academic part, there are lots of opportunities for the students to interact and activities like board games, all-night coding, Starcraft tournaments, flashtalks etc., which gives the event a unique geeky flavour. The camp has been organized completely from scratch without any institutional support and we think that there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from our experience, both in terms of teaching gifted students and, more generally, bootstrapping various initiatives outside the system. This is outlined in the essay: An independent camp for high school geeks

Further reading


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