Who's got the smarts?

Pressure on the Education Ministry to expand its definition of child giftedness is only slowly bearing fruit.

child in class 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
child in class 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The idea of paying special attention to children of exceptional ability is probably as old as humanity itself, and attempts to provide some sort of special training to extraordinarily talented children might date back to the very beginnings of formal education. Any first-year graduate student in history, without too much effort, should be able to log on to Google and come up with at least 20 examples of such special instruction in less than an hour, in civilizations ranging from Ancient Greece to Feudal Japan. As we know it today, however, gifted children's education dates from the 1860s, when Sir Francis Galton began to think seriously about the theories of his much more famous, but probably less intelligent, cousin - Charles Darwin. Galton, a bona fide genius and polymath who could read at the age of two, started to analyze the elusive notion of intelligence. He also began devising ways to measure it, thus founding the science of psychometrics. It was he who first referred to the exceptionally intelligent individual as "gifted" and, after talking with his cousin Charles, suggested that exceptional intelligence might be hereditary. Galton went on to become a geneticist, biologist, anthropologist, geographer, tropical explorer, statistician and meteorologist - a pursuit that included inventing the weather map. Inspired by Galton, French researchers Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon produced the first IQ test in 1905. Ironically enough, however, the purpose of the test was to identify children of "inferior" intelligence, in order to separate them from "normally" functioning children for placement - or segregation - in special classes. Eleven years later, Lewis Terman - sometimes called the "father" of gifted education, modified the test and published the modification as the Stanford Binet IQ Test, which has become the standard for virtually all IQ tests that have followed. In 1922 Leta Hollingworth began what was called a "special opportunity class" for gifted students at P.S. 165 in New York City. This pilot effort would generate around 40 research articles, a landmark textbook by Hollingworth and, in 1936, a special junior high school for gifted children. These strides in gifted education gradually shortened to baby steps as World War II and post-war reconstruction diverted attention to other, more immediate priorities. Progress in gifted children's education resumed at warp speed, however, with the 1957 launch of the Soviet space satellite Sputnik. As the little "flying missile" began to orbit the earth, the West, and the US in particular, were shocked to discover how far behind the Soviets they had allowed themselves to lag in scientific research and development, and panicked into pouring enormous amounts of money into science and education. Identifying and nurturing exceptionally bright children - especially those gifted in science and math - suddenly became a national priority. It was also during the late 1950s when the first faint stirrings of gifted education began to be seen in Israel. Discussions about the feasibility of gifted education began at the Education Ministry in 1958, 10 years after the founding of the state, and the first program began in 1961. Why so late? Probably because fighting two wars, building a country, absorbing immigrants, erecting an infrastructure and starting healthcare and education systems from scratch seemed a bit more pressing. Some historians, however, attribute the lag to the socialist ideology that drove Israel in its early years, with its strong values of economic and social equality for all. The resulting equality vs. excellence debate of the first decade gave way, they say, to the realization that Israel's people were its best resource - a resource that had to be developed for the country's survival. Programs for gifted children and youth thus grew slowly throughout the 1960s, leading to the creation of the Education Ministry's Department for Gifted Children in 1973. WHATEVER ELSE one might say about the subject of gifted education, it certainly isn't dull. It also isn't easy: the closer one looks at gifted education, the more confusing it becomes. This is due largely to the fact that the very people involved with educating the gifted are unable to agree on what exactly being "gifted" means. In the classic definition, being gifted means having a high IQ. That was the approach developed by the field's pioneers, and that has been the approach of Israel's Education Ministry, which defines gifted children as having an IQ of 135 or above. The battle line thus drawn has placed the ministry on one side of the argument, and those who want to define "gifted" more broadly on the other. Those favoring a "multi-dimensional" definition of giftedness want also to consider such things as musical and artistic talent, communication skills, along with intangibles like motivation, curiosity, creativity and independence. Interestingly enough, the debate between this side and the IQ-focused "uni-dimensionalists" has been going on within the Education Ministry itself. Aware of changes in gifted education elsewhere in the world, the ministry has twice accepted the recommendations of panels urging broader definitions of "giftedness," in 1988 and 1995. For various reasons, including perhaps inertia, nothing came of the recommendations, and the ministry has continued to define giftedness solely by IQ. That may be about to change, though, according to Shlomit Rachmel, head of the Department for Gifted Children. "We are now on the verge of a big change. We have developed new screening tools that will include above-average motivation and creativity. Since 2005, we have been developing a new definition that defines the gifted student as one who has cognitive skills, motivation and creativity at the highest percentile." Those changes, according to Rachmel, are set to be implemented in about three years. In the meantime, the ministry's definition of giftedness remains solely IQ-based. EVERY CHILD in Israel is given the opportunity to be tested for giftedness through a selection process conducted by the Henrietta Szold Institute, under the ministry's direction. There are two stages to the process. The initial stage is a general screening exam given to all children, in their own elementary schools, usually in the second grade. Generally the test, which lasts an hour, consists of multiple choice questions in arithmetic and reading comprehension. Those who score in the top 15 percent are contacted to take a second battery of tests, which is the second stage of the process. Children, or more accurately parents of children, who do not make the initial cut have the right of appeal. The second round of tests are administered in small groups by the Szold Institute at several locations around the country. It is this round of assessments - again, tests to measure IQ - that are designed to separate the "gifted" from the merely "outstanding." When the smoke clears, we are left with 1- 1.5% of the children designated as gifted, with IQs of 135 and up, and an elite class within the gifted, called "super gifted," with IQ scores above 155. According to the ministry, there are no more than 10 such students in the entire country within each testing group. How many "gifted" students are there in Israel at the moment? Rachmel says, "In our programs, there are around 15,000 gifted children. That doesn't mean that's all there are in Israel, because we don't have programs everywhere for all the range of ages. Which means that if a child didn't attend a pull-out program during elementary school, in many places we don't have another framework when he's in junior and senior high." Must a child pass the second grade screening tests to attend gifted programs later on? Rachmel answers, "No, a student can take a psychometric test and try his chances whenever he wants. We test all over the country once, when the children are second graders. This is at our expense. But when a child is a teenager and wants to attend a special program, he can apply to us, we refer him to the test, and according to the results we recommend, or not, for him to attend the special program. But it's always by the test. He can't go without the test." THE EDUCATION Ministry offers three overall frameworks for the care and feeding of gifted young minds. The first and most basic is the Afternoon Enrichment Program, which the gifted child attends one afternoon a week, at school or a local community center, or even at a local college or university. According to the ministry, these one-afternoon-a-week programs operate in 30 municipalities throughout Israel. The second and far more popular framework is what is known as the Pull-out Enrichment Program, so-called because the child is figuratively "pulled out" of his or her regular school to attend a one-full-day-a-week program where he or she is exposed to subjects outside the normal curriculum, as well as to experimental styles of teaching not encountered in regular classrooms. These weekly, full day enrichment classes are conducted at special "gifted centers" in 52 municipalities around the country. The third major framework offered by the ministry consists of full-time special classes for the gifted, which these children attend every day. These segregated classes - the ministry refers to them as "self-contained" - are embedded into 24 regular elementary and secondary schools in nine large municipalities, according to ministry figures. Who decides what will be offered where? Rachmel explains, "All over the country, we have the same screening process, the same definition of gifted and the same frameworks. But there are localities that have their own preferences. But it's always a dialogue with us. Some localities prefer the pull-out program - the one-day-a-week enrichment program. Other localities prefer the full program - the self-contained classes. Pull-out programs are most popular at the elementary levels, and self-contained classes are most popular for junior and senior high levels." According to Rachmel, the ministry takes an equally laissez faire attitude toward what exactly goes on in a gifted class. "We have general principles and guidelines, but the subjects taught are from decisions by the schools. A school may want to enrich in mathematics, or this kind of creativity or that kind of creativity... it's fine with us. The final decision is according to the individual school's own judgment. But we do supervise the program." The ministry also lets local schools decide who gets to become teachers of gifted children, but takes a more directive role in training the teachers once they are selected. Says Rachmel, "For the self-contained classes, the school principal chooses the best from his staff. We then have special in-service training, one afternoon a week over two years, totaling 240 hours. They get special training at one of our five training centers, at Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, the University of Haifa, and two colleges, Oranim and Gordon in the North. There are two ways in which teachers of the more activity-based pull-out enrichment programs are trained, depending on who they are. Rachmel explains, "There are two kinds of pull-out program teachers. One third to one half are teachers from the regular framework - teachers of art, computers, math and so on. They also go to our training program. The other half or more, we call them 'specialists' and 'artists.' This might be an architect, a medical student, a philosophy student, a lawyer. They are from all kinds of disciplines and areas. They are not professional teachers and don't intend to be. They do it as a hobby or a part-time job. Each principal or gifted center director is in charge of helping the specialist learn how to teach. Usually, they are gifted by themselves and do a very nice job in spite of their not being teachers by profession." Aside from teaching how to teach, an important component of teacher training involves instilling awareness and sensitivity about the special problems of gifted children. Those problems can be intense. As Rachmel relates, "Some of these children have emotional issues that we do not find in regular students. And it comes because of their intellectual ability, and fields of interest that their regular colleagues are not interested in. It's simply because they are different from the majority of their peers. Sometimes the adults in their lives just don't know how to relate to them. They expect them to be very, very mature because they are so smart. But they are children. So sometimes the problems come because the adults create pressures that you don't find with regular students." Do parents exert undue pressure on these children to excel? "Yes, sometimes the parents are very disappointed if the child doesn't get a test score of 100%, but 95 percent. It's not enough for them." WHAT DO the gifted children themselves think of the efforts being exerted on their behalf? Of the roughly 15,000 such children living and learning within this complex system, perhaps no one child is "typical," but 16-year-old Rachel Schechter of Ra'anana might be seen as representative. After being duly tested and identified as "gifted," Schechter began attending a one-day-a-week pull-out program in the fourth grade. She continued with it through the ninth grade. "We had three classes during the day. Each one was an hour and a half. We had different subjects, like math, art, photography and international relations," she recalls. Unlike the traditional "top down" style in which teachers lecture students, Schechter's pull-put program featured a more "experiential" style of teaching, in which children learn from guided activities. Recalling how her group was taught international relations, for example, Schechter recalls, "We did things like play Diplomacy and Risk, and then we would analyze what happened during the game." Activities were varied, running the gamut from math enrichment activities to juggling. Schechter's mother, Ava, admits to having been dubious about the value of juggling before learning about its proven success in developing things like hand-eye coordination, concentration and multi-tasking skills. Schechter's overall assessment of the program? "I loved it." It was a natural progression for Schechter and her group-mates to proceed to a special, "self-contained" gifted class at a local Ra'anana high school. The teaching style there, says Schechter, is more like that found in regular classrooms, but faster and more intense. "We learn the same things as all the other classes, for the matriculation exams, but in our class things are explained once, maybe twice, and there's no 'half the class got it and half the class didn't.' There's no having to hear the same stuff over and over." Teachers also bring in more material and teach in different ways, involving less lecturing and more student group projects. After-school activities are more varied as well, involving options like creative writing, philosophy and criminology. Schechter has been studying Chinese. About to begin the twelfth grade, Schechter sees herself specializing in advanced physics and math after the army, involving an even heavier scholastic workload than that which she has been carrying through high school. "I enjoy the challenge," she says. DESPITE SUCH obvious success stories, not everyone is happy with the three major frameworks that get the Education Ministry's seal of approval. Like every system, this one has its critics, and they are often quite vocal. Perhaps the major bone of contention, as previously noted, has been the ministry's insistence upon defining giftedness exclusively on the basis of IQ. Other criticisms are variously social, economic, political and cultural. The process of identifying and selecting gifted children has been attacked for the relatively high percentage of girls and low percentage of Arabs and "peripheral" groups, like Ethiopians. Other critics claim that while gifted education programs may be scattered around the country, two-thirds of them are concentrated in Tel Aviv and the country's center. Gifted education has also been disparaged as education for the rich, with critics identifying a variety of programs in affluent North Tel Aviv, while finding none in the city's impoverished south. A different, but equally compelling criticism of the way gifted children are taught comes from those who bemoan their narrow horizons. A recent University of Haifa study found that high intelligence is too often defined as excellence in specific subjects, invariably math and prestigious exact sciences. However multi-talented or multi-gifted a child might be when he enters the system, he tends to be focused on a very narrow range of technical fields when he comes out the other end. In the words of Elisheva Ben-Simon, the mother of two gifted children in Hod Hasharon, "I've never heard of anyone going in the direction of the arts or humanities, and what disappoints me more is that I haven't heard of anyone saying, 'I can do great things in this world' and then wanting to develop leadership skills." Hezki Arieli not only criticizes gifted education but dislikes even using the word "gifted." CEO of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education, Arieli says, "We deal more with 'excellence' than with 'giftedness.' We are talking about excelling students that are bright, motivated and highly-abled. We are not measuring it by IQ. For us it is much more about proven ability as well as high motivation and curiosity." Since 1990, the Center for Excellence has operated the Israel Arts and Science Academy outside Jerusalem, created, according to school's Web site, "for highly talented and motivated students who have got what it takes in fields such as music, mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, computer science, sculpture and the visual arts. An emphasis is placed on providing the students with advanced learning tools, knowledge and extensive practical experience in the students' field of specialty." The academy prides itself on catering to the "full mosaic" of Israeli society, with "religious and secular Jews; Israeli-Arabs (Druse, Christian, Beduin and Muslim); new immigrants and native-born Israelis" numbering among its 218 resident students. Although a staunch critic of the Education Ministry, the center works with it as well, providing outreach enrichment programs to some 10,000 "excelling" students in more than 200 elementary and junior high schools throughout Israel. What do they offer that regular classes do not? "In our classes you will not find teachers giving answers to questions," Arieli says. "The answers should be coming from the child himself. The teacher's role is to provide the student with the tools to understand and eventually reach the answer himself. For example, we don't teach math. We teach mathematical thinking. The content becomes the platform for teaching the child how to become a mathematical researcher, thinker and analyzer." Ra'anan Avital, Israel Center for Youth Leadership CEO, has also removed the word "gifted" from his vocabulary. "The Education Ministry's definition of 'gifted' is an IQ of 135 and above. What we're looking for are things like motivation, ability, leadership potential and other things that someone with a very high IQ wouldn't necessarily have." At the center's soon-to-open Havruta High School for Leadership and Culture, the focus will be on what Avital calls "multiple intelligences," and will thus not only differ from ministry programs but from schools that develop expertise in specific fields. "We're not trying to give our students 'laser minds' - minds that can bore deeply into a very narrow area or subject, like music or one of the sciences. This involves a high level of specialization with the capacity to go very deeply into it. We want to help create 'floodlight minds,' which is what you need from people in leadership situations. This is the ability to see the larger picture, to integrate knowledge, the ability to connect engineers, designers, marketing people and customers; to understand the needs of different people, to have empathy and communication skills." What kind of kid has the Havruta school been recruiting? Avital gives one example. "There was one girl who when she came for her interview said that her parents were against her going to the school and wouldn't allow her to try. But she decided that she wanted to go to the school, that she was going to be accepted, and would persuade her parents later. We accepted her at that moment. From our point of view, she's an ideal student." To round out the picture, we might mention the various acceleration programs in math and computer science offered by such universities as Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv. These programs test and select children as young as 12, invite them to attend regular university classes once or twice a week, and then allow them to merge with regular university students toward an early bachelor's degree. These programs, for math at Bar-Ilan and math and Computers at TAU, are long running, prestigious and world-famous. The Education Ministry is involved in a similar program, according to Department for Gifted Children head Rachmel. "We refer and subsidize students to study in what we call 'concurrent programs.' You are a student in high school and parallel to that you study at a university. This could be at Open University or at another university. We give scholarships to these students - not according to their socioeconomic status, but by merit." The final conclusion that emerges from all this is that Israel offers an enormously wide spectrum of courses and programs for children of unusual intelligence, character and ability. Despite the confusing and sometimes contesting variety of frameworks, programs, schools and educational philosophies, if your kid has the "right stuff," there is probably something here for him or her. One thing is certain, though. If you grew up in a country where you were told "you're too damned smart for your own good," you have come to the right country to raise your smart children.