Inside the curriculum of intellectually gifted children

Biomimicry, renewable energy, civil works, how cars are made and the preservation of food. These are some of the topics that grade R pupils at a school for intellectually gifted children in Joburg are learning as part of their theme for the second term titled “scientific marvels”.

As part of the work covered for the day, on the blackboard is a five-tier maths pyramid adding to 133. The base includes both addition and subtraction.

“We are the only school of its kind in the country dedicated to the needs of intellectually gifted children, says Philip Kokot, principal and cofounder of Radford House, situated in Fairland, northern Joburg.

“Our idea is to take away the limits. The only time we limit the children is when we are teaching them the skill to summarise” says Kokot. “We have a grade R who is doing fractions with the grade 3s,” adding that the school is registered as a special school with the Department of Basic Education and “cover CAPS [National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement] in a short amount of time”.

Mwewa and Moolo Kanyanga have two daughters at the school. Her 12-year-old in grade 7 moved to the school from Midrand where they live.

“She would be done with her week’s schoolwork in three hours and spend the rest of the days hiding in closets, being sent around by teachers to keep her busy. As a result, she was bullied and called names such as teachers’ pet,” says the 46-year-old mother of two. Mwewa, a pastor, says it was clear that there was nothing more the school could do to help her daughter achieve her full potential.

To qualify for enrolment at Radford, pupils must undergo an intellectual evaluation conducted by a registered educational psychologist.

“We look at an IQ [intelligence quotient] of no less than 120,” says Kokot. “The child is then invited to spend at least a week at the school to assess whether they will be able to embrace the accelerated style of learning. The child is enrolled only when the teacher, child, psychologist and parents agree that the school and its approach will be suitable in the long-term,” he adds.

Mwewa’s daughter was accepted at the school and as a precaution, she says she also enrolled her nine-year-old foreseeing similar challenges with her in the future. The girls are in their fourth year at the school.

Mwewa admits there are still a lot of challenges: “They are very advanced intellectually, but then you have to explain some simple things, like why it is important to bath and brush your teeth every day whether you are going to school or not,” she says.

David Silman, founder of the now defunct Gifted and Advanced Learning Academy of South Africa, says gifted kids don’t get the attention or advocacy they need.

“Giftedness is a form of special need. When gifted kids get to preschool, they have teachers who are not trained to identify them for further referral,” saying that gifted children often have other underlying conditions that can be debilitating.

“They are often bullied by teachers and other kids because of the way they express themselves. They are socially isolated and emotionally disconnected from peers at an early age,” he says, “if they don’t get the right attention, it can be devastating,” he says.

Kokot laments: “The gifted are the most medicated; you find a six-year-old on antidepressants.”

Silman says mainstream schools deal with gifted children through early progression. “It is almost a cruel thing to do to let them skip grades. What you are doing is isolating a child who is already feeling isolated and making them a further target of isolation”.

Kokot admits that they have accelerated children. “It is always done in the best interest of the child and after consultation with parents. There are some children, that despite our high-paced learning style and individual approach to learning they still need to be accelerated,” said Kokot who has two children aged 13 and eight at the school.  “But a nine-year-old still needs to play. You need friends.”

Radford House was founded in 1995 by Kokot’s parents Professor Shirley Kokot – a leading educational psychologist and Michael Kokot.

The primary school started operating in 1996 and high school was added in 2017 with grade 9 pupils.

“The high school uses the Independent Examinations Board system. Our first matrics in 2020 consisted of five pupils and ]last year of four,” said Kokot, “they are all studying at various tertiary institutions.”

Maths education experts Dr Lukanda Kalobo and Prof Michael Kainose Mhlolo,  last year published results of their research revealing that students enrolled in teacher-training programmes have limited knowledge of the characteristics of gifted pupils in mathematics. They were advocating for the inclusion of a module on gifted education in mathematics at the Central University of Technology in Free State.

“Educating gifted students should be a priority for teachers and the education systems in order for society to tap on such students’ potential so that they can contribute to an economical and sustainable future. This can be achieved if teachers are able to identify gifted students’ characteristics,” they said in their research.

Kokot adds that gifted education is offered as an elective course in teacher training programmes.

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