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What happens in the brain of a gifted learner?

Who is a gifted learner?

A gifted learner displays exceptional abilities to reason and learn, coupled with high competence in one or more domains, including mathematics, languages, dance, arts and so on, and high levels of motivation and perseverance. All of these result in a much higher pace of learning as compared to other children of the same age group.

Giftedness is identified with the help of objective-type assessments such as the ASSET Talent Search (ATS), the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing exam (ACT); and performance-based assessments such as open-ended responses and work portfolios—both of which may be supplemented by interviews, questionnaires and rating scales.

What are some observable characteristics of a gifted learner?

A gifted learner displays all or some of the following characteristics that sets her apart from her peers:

A gifted learner processes information more quickly and accurately than her peers. For example, in a conversation on a new topic, she will be extremely attentive and grasp nuances, the flow and the context in a way that may be surprising for her age. She will also make very quick connections with previous conversations, books or even movies that others may not think of.

A gifted learner may master reading or maths, or perhaps an art or a musical instrument, much quicker than her peers. She also has an insatiable appetite for learning – she wants to learn, is fascinated by books and by new information, asks many questions, and for the same reason, loves carrying out experiments. This is true especially for younger gifted learners.

A gifted learner can pick on details much more acutely than other children of the same age – whether she is reading a book or watching a movie, she will notice details others might miss. She also loves breaking down complex issues and finding innovative solutions to them. This, along with her very strong sense of justice, gives her the potential to become a leader and contributor to society.

A gifted learner is usually not okay with seeing just a part of the picture – she prefers to see the bigger picture to make sense of the smaller parts and understand how it all fits together. Following is a fantastic example of how this plays out in everyday academics: In discussing the octet rule of atomic configuration with students at UAE’s Young Scholars Programme organised by EI in December 2019, students refused to simply accept that atoms stabilise with eight electrons in their outermost shells, instead pushing for an explanation of why that happens.

A gifted learner does not shy away from attempting new and challenging tasks. She displays grit and motivation at a much greater degree than her peers, persevering through difficulties when others around her may give up. Gifted students participating in the forensic science course at the ASSET Summer Programme organised by EI in May 2019 spent several painstaking hours trying to lift and preserve a perfect fingerprint, refusing to move on to the next topic till they had mastered this skill.

A gifted learner is acutely sensitive of others’ needs and feelings and is able to show much deeper compassion to others than her peers. However, this sensitivity also works against her when she encounters a problem she can’t solve or when faced with criticism. This, in some cases, also extends to sensitivity to changes in the environment like loud noises, flickering lights and the overall look and feel of surroundings.

How does the brain process information?

The question that arises then is, what is happening in the brain of a gifted learner that leads to her interacting differently with her environment? To understand this, it is important to first understand how the brain – any brain – processes information. Let’s take a look:

Cognitive psychologists have theorised that the brain has three memory registers – sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory.

Sensory Memory

Our sensory memory is made up of our five senses. Our senses are registering information from the environment all the time. At this very moment of reading, your ears may be hearing the traffic outside, or the chirping of birds, or the sound of the fan; your skin can feel the texture of your clothes; your eyes can see slight movements around you – at any given point, there is a lot of information that our senses encounter. However, our sensory memory is fleeting, retaining information for a few milliseconds and immediately discarding it. This means that information about the sound of the fan (or the texture of your clothes) is being discarded, which is why you aren’t constantly aware of it.

However, if you pay attention to this information, it will get passed on to the next memory register. Let’s try this out: This is the word BAT. Below is a picture of two bats.

By emphasising on the bat, I’ve ensured that you’ve paid attention to it, and now this information has passed on from your sensory memory to your working memory.

Working Memory

Before we dive into the workings of our working memory, here are three points to keep in mind: one, that working memory is active it is constantly working on the information that you’re paying attention to; two, that it can hold information for only a few seconds; and three, that it has limited capacity – it cannot hold too much information at a time, so it either has to lose it or it needs something to hold it with itself.

Now, let’s go back to the bat – take 15-20 seconds to think about bats and everything you know about them.

Long-term Memory

As soon as we start thinking about bats, all the information we have about bats starts getting activated in our next memory register, our long-term memory. Information is stored in our long-term memory in the form of interconnected webs. Here is an example:

Once information gets activated, our working memory starts pulling in this information from long-term memory – as it is our working memory register that is active; it is where we actively think about information. (It is also limited, so while you read this, you may have already stopped thinking about echo location or dolphins.)

How does the brain of a gifted learner process information?

Working memory capacity, while limited in terms of how long it can hold information and how much information it can hold, is extremely important – it is here that all information is brought into consciousness and is actively worked upon. A gifted learner has higher working memory capacity – she is able to hold more information and more ideas in her working memory at a time. When learning a new topic, for example, she is able to hold many new, disparate ideas in her working memory for long enough to then draw out relevant information from her long-term memory, make new connections and come to new understandings.

A gifted learner is also able to make many more connections in her long-term memory. Let’s take a look at the bat example once more – a gifted learner may make the following connections that others may not:

At the same time, these connections in a gifted learner’s long-term memory are smoother and stronger, and so they’re made very quickly. (Think of these connections as a path through a forest – at first, it is narrow and barely visible, but as you use it more and more, the well-trodden path becomes wider, more visible and easier to follow. This is the case with connections in our long-term memory as well.)

The characteristics that a gifted learner displays are a result of a more efficient working memory and long-term memory. For example, she desires top-down perspectives as she has already made a lot of connections in her long-term memory, and without the bigger picture, these connections are incomplete. At the same time, as she is able to process so much information, she also ends up processing changes in her environment and in others’ behaviour, which plays out as higher sensitivity as well as compassion.

Conclusion

A gifted learner needs instruction at a pace, level and depth that is much greater than that needed by her peers. Furthermore, the social and emotional needs of a gifted learner are very different from that of her peers, due to her increased sensitivity, awareness and intensity.

At the same time, a gifted learner has the potential to lead the next generation in the arts, sciences, politics and research, and the education she receives from a young age plays an important role in nurturing her abilities.

EI’s gifted programmes offer gifted learners a wide variety of choices in courses across academic and life skills. These courses are intensive and dive deep into concepts that are not covered by school curricula. Most importantly, these are planned as well as led by instructors who are not only experts in their respective fields but are also highly trained in working with gifted children, with specific sensitivity to their academic and emotional needs in the classroom.

The ASSET Talent Search (ATS) exam is the gateway to gifted programmes conducted by EI. Students who have shown academic excellence in either English, Mathematics or Science are invited to participate in the ATS exam, which is two levels higher than the actual grade level of the student. The ATS requires students to apply their conceptual understanding as opposed to memorising facts, and this helps identify exceptional levels of academic competence, which forms a crucial aspect of giftedness.

This article referred specifically to research by cognitive psychologist Robert E. Slavin and cognitive neuroscientist John G. Geake.