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.



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