Thursday, September 07, 2006

Terence Tao and nurturing gifted kids

Someone had posted a question about Terence Tao, recent winner of the Fields medal in mathematics, on another thread. While the "early ripe, early rot" cliche gets bandied about a lot, Tao's story is more of the "early bud, early bloom" variety. A child math prodigy, he grew up into an adult math sensation.

Much has been written about his schooling. One example from Miraca Gross (like Tao, an Australian) can be found at GT-Cybersource here. I've been doing some research on this topic as I'm supposed to write a column for USA Today on prodigies (once they get done with the Sept. 11 commemoration pieces).

Basically, Grace and Billy Tao realized very early that they had an exceptional son (all their children are, really!) He taught himself his letters and numbers by watching Sesame Street at age 2. He was doing high school math by age 7, and amused himself by working problems and reading books in his spare time. Keeping him in grade level classes was a non-starter. So the Taos directed his schooling, at one point having him study math only at home, not at school, so he wouldn't learn to hate it by being unchallenged. He took various other classes out of sequence as well, at one point doing humanities classes with kids in Year 8 (as the Ozzies call it), geography with kids in years 10 and 11, physics with year 12, etc.

The Taos also gave him plenty of time to become absorbed in his favorite subject but, as his father, Dr. Billy Tao, said in an email to me, never "pushed." They wanted Terence to learn to think for himself. So rather than telling him what he was doing wrong when he got frustrated by a tough problem, they asked him questions that would help him think about the problem in a different way. This was slower in the short run (and frustrating to an impatient little boy!) but in the long run helped him gain a deeper understanding of problem solving. And, as Dr. Tao pointed out, eventually there would come a time when he and his wife couldn't help anyway. So it was good to have Terence learn self-reliance from the beginning.

The results show. Only mathematicians who make major contributions to the field win the Fields prize. Talent has to be nurtured. As M.A. (Ken) Clement wrote in a biographical article of Terence Tao in Educational Studies in Mathematics in 1984, "I had to admire the efforts which his parents, Billy and Grace, had made on his behalf, despite the danger that they would be labeled 'pushy' by persons who did not understand.... In a society where hostility towards parents who regard their children as sufficiently bright to warrant extra-special educational consideration is endemic, it is refreshing to discover parents as courageous and realistic as Grace and Billy Tao."

In other words, when it comes to highly gifted kids, what many people mistake for pushy parenting is, in fact, good parenting of pushy kids.


Tony Plank said...

Thank you so much for saying this. My wife and I get a lot of strange looks from other people over our Son. Seven years old and working on High School level material is so unnatural that people do not really understand the situation. It truly is in our case of a “pushy kid”. Lord knows we have tried to get him interested in things like Superman, bicycles and “normal” childhood endeavors. If my Son bothers touching his toys, it is usually for the purpose of assembling a “game” or “machine” which in turn exists for the purpose of his explaining it to others.

Truly, I was not mentally prepared for a child that chooses to watch Physics videos over Disney or other fun stuff on nearly every occasion. Time after time we have had to adjust our expectations to meet what our Son desires.

I just thank God that he likes Tom and Jerry.

Quiltsrwarm said...

Haaa! Tom and Jerry! You're killing me... That is about the ONLY cartoon my kids will watch (with the exception of Pokemon)!!

I live in an area in which the public schools absolutely refuse to consider parental opinion in children's educational needs. They feel they are the "experts" so the parents should just listen to what they say and accept it. Very patronizing... Again, it's another reason we homeschool our three highly gifted kids.

I kind of wonder,now, if the gifted coordinator, curriculum principal, and school psychologist all thought we were being "pushy" in trying to get our kids accellerated. I never thought of it that way, but perhaps that is why they resisted our efforts. I hadn't thought of it as "good parenting of pushy kids," though --interesting!!
Lisa S.

Debbie said...

This is a very interesting topic, especially with the recent release of that book by Alissa Quart, "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child". I haven't read the book but have seen reviews and comments with a wide range of opinion.

But what do you do when you have a child who is five and a half and comes to you to spontaneously tell you "Mom, 4 quarters is one dollar and 8 quarters are two dollars. That's because 4 plus 4 is 8 and 2 times 4 is 8. And it's all the same thing, isn't it?" Yeah, I'm just trying to keep up with my child's "pushiness", not push him to learn. People ask all the time, "how did you get him to learn that already?" They just don't understand.

At least we have now successfully advocated for skipping kindergarten. But he's already bored with first grade. Hopefully the curriculum will pick up soon or we can advocate for subject acceleration! Fortunately our school staff has done a 180 and is now working with us. They anticipated subject acceleration or "curriculum modification" they called it when they agreed to first grade enrollment. The overwhelming part as a parent is wondering: does it ever stop?! And can I keep up?!