Category Archives: Research

Pat and the Professor versus Genes and the Gifted

Lada vs LamborghiniLast week’s science slot on Pat Kenny’s radio show on Newstalk featured a discussion between Pat and his regular guest Professor Luke O’Neill from Trinity College’s Biomedical Sciences Institute. The topic was genetic research into human intelligence, an interesting and potentially controversial subject. We had several problems with this slot which we intend to highlight over the next while, but in this post, we take issue with some of Pat Kenny’s comments about why bright children shouldn’t be given the same support as other children. This is one of the most pervasive myths about gifted children and one which we continue to try to dispel.

In the course of the discussion, Pat said: “So if kids with high intelligence are growing up in what you might call underprivileged surroundings, their brain power will probably pull them out of their difficulties or else turn them into master criminals but they’ll use their brains somehow. But those who don’t have that kind of brainpower will end up consorting with other people of not so much brain power and their lot will not get better.”

Professor O’Neill responded by saying “Well that’s the sad truth and this is a horrible truth, nobody likes to think of intelligence just being genetic you see, because that can give rise to all kinds of problems later, and there’s eugenics and things but that does seem to be the evidence.” He explains this by using the analogy of different car engines using the same petrol, engines representing the genetics and the petrol the environment – the performance of the cars will be different, the more efficient the engine the better the performance even if they all get the same petrol.

Pat goes on to suggest that “so…. you could let the smart fellas, if you like, look after themselves. All your resources should go into the less smart people to give them the opportunities in life that they can enjoy?”, a point agreed to by the Professor who later goes on to say that with the right funding in education “you can tailor the education to specific kids needs and that benefits that kid hugely”. Well that sounds like a great idea, tailoring education to meet each child’s needs. But wait, they mean to exclude gifted children, because their “engines” are already powerful enough, and we need to hold them back until the less powerful “engines” catch up?

The casual disregard for gifted learners or those with “high IQ” is feeding into a stereotype which we work hard to dismiss. We listened in astonishment as they seemed to say that the ideal education system is one in which individualised learning is available for all except the really clever ones who will be able to “look after themselves”. They appeared to be claiming that as the research now shows that “genes (for intelligence) will emerge”, we can justify exclusion of equal provision for these children within the education system in order to redress the balance in favour of less “brainy” children.  What a discriminatory suggestion! It is as preposterous as suggesting that children who struggle in an academic environment should be sidelined while those with more “brainpower” as Pat calls it, would be supported to reach their potential. I doubt many educators in Ireland would agree with either system, but Pat and the Professor really thought they were on to something based on incorrect interpretation of brain research and a large dose of wild extrapolation.

It is hugely disappointing that two well-regarded professionals, both from a scientific tradition, would peddle this populist nonsense and feed the stereotype that giftedness is enough of an advantage that these children should be almost artificially held back by withholding educational resources until other children have “caught up”. In fact, gifted children are at risk if their abilities are not recognised and supported like any other child’s. Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly in need of support for several reasons, among them issues such as  family and social problems, lack of expectation, lack of educational support or tradition in the home, or lack of financial resources to support extra activities such as CTYI. Research from the Centre for Academic Achievement in Dublin City University shows that putting a robust support system in place is of enormous benefit not just to the individual students, but for their families, schools and fellow pupils. Supporting highly able children from disadvantaged backgrounds opens up possibilities and potential that they are unlikely to find if left to “look after themselves” as Pat and Luke suggest. It is simply wrong of them to advocate such a thing based on a very shallow understanding of the research referenced on the show and no regard at all for pedagogy.

Every child, every single one, should be able to expect the support that they need to succeed. Gifted children need as much support as any other child to reach their potential, they will not simply make it on their own, and have even less chance if their needs are wilfully ignored. Dr. Colm O’Reilly, director of CTYI and Ireland’s leading expert in gifted education and research said in a RTE documentary in 2010: “We tend to have the attitude of ‘well, sure it’ll all work out in the end’. For a lot of them, it doesn’t work out in the end and they end up underachieving greatly, and what do we say then? ‘Well, they weren’t that smart to begin with’. I can’t agree with that. The reason they underachieve is because we never did anything for them in the first place, to allow them to fulfill their potential”.

As the Professor says, tailoring an education to an individual child is indeed of great benefit to that child. Would that we had the resources to do that in our schools, but they are stretched to almost breaking point by cutbacks these days. To suggest however, that some children should be effectively ignored in favour of others, is against all educational principles and is discriminatory and misguided. Pat and the Professor should research their topics before launching a broadside at gifted children and their futures.



Views of Gifted Irish Teenagers Needed

Gifted Teenager SurveyIn a rare opportunity for gifted young people to share their experience of growing up gifted in Ireland, we are looking for gifted second level students to participate in a study of the supports available to them in school, particularly with regard to guidance counselling provision. This involves the completion of an anonymous questionnaire which should take only 15 to 20 minutes. By gifted, we mean either formally or informally identified. This may be, for example, by an educational psychologist, acceptance for the CTYI/CAT programmes or identification by a teacher.

This survey is being carried out by Tracy Gibson, a second level teacher and guidance counsellor, who is currently studying for a Master’s in Guidance Counselling with the Department of Educational and Professional studies at the University of Limerick. As part of her studies, she must complete a research dissertation on a topic of interest to her and related to guidance counselling. We are thrilled that she has chosen to study The Role of the Guidance Counsellor in Supporting Gifted Students in Post-Primary Schools in Ireland.

Tracy has already completed a study of this issue from the point of view of  the guidance counsellor and, having read her thesis and met with her as she prepared for this second piece of research, we are very impressed with the quality of her work and her depth of understanding and interest in this area. It is very exciting and encouraging to see research being done into giftedness in an Irish setting. It will help us, as advocates, to make a stronger case for recognition and support of our gifted students if our argument is backed up by current research done here. So, we are asking for you help to make this study as big and useful as possible.

In order to satisfy the requirements of the UL ethics committee, signed parental and student consent must be given. Therefore, the survey must be completed in hardcopy form. If you would like to participate, or would like further details or clarification, please contact Tracy at survey[at] or by using the form below.  Responses needed by Friday 14th March, so please allow time for posting back and forth! Please leave your postal address in your message.

If you are a relative, teacher or friend of a gifted post-primary student, please let them know about this study and encourage them to participate.

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Teachers Needed for Study of Gifted Education in Ireland


The Irish Centre for Talented Youth (CTYI) at Dublin City University has commissioned the Centre for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary to conduct some research around the area of teaching gifted students in Ireland. This will be the first research of its kind and we hope it will lead to the development of better provision both for gifted students and  for their teachers.

The Irish education system currently makes no specific provision for gifted students. Indeed, the term “gifted” is one often avoided, with “exceptionally able” being preferred by the NCCA when drawing up its draft guidelines in 2008. The fact that gifted education is a distinct area of education and psychology elsewhere in the world is often not appreciated here and, apart from Dr Colm O’Reilly of CTYI, we have no resident experts in the field.

Despite a lack of training, recognition or support, many individual teachers recognise that gifted students often need extra or different support in order to do well in school and are doing their best to provide this within an already hectic system.

We know teachers are busy, but we would really appreciate it if you could help by completing one of the surveys linked to below, one for Principals and one for Teachers. There are no difficult or trick questions, but we believe you’ll find it interesting and thought-provoking. It should take about 20 minutes to complete and the password requested at the start is wm.  It is hoped to have completed surveys back by Friday December 4th.

This survey will be distributed to all schools directly from CTYI shortly. They have asked us to raise awareness of it in the meantime.
Please spread the word among your colleagues.
Thank you!