Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Gifted Education in Africa

I spent last week in South Africa, mostly in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve near Krueger and the Mozambique border. I was also able to pay a short visit to the nearby J.J. Matsone Primary School. I'm going to attempt to load a photo of the 4- and 5-year-old class singing songs in English and Tsongan (the local area's language).

The school building was newly constructed, but signs of South Africa's general poverty remained. Only about half the children had shoes. The village had electricity and water, but many of the town's buildings still resembled the awful slum homes you see in the townships outside Johannesburg and Capetown.

As I wrote last year when visiting Vietnam, when education is such a limited and coveted resource in a place, it becomes an interesting question of how you find and nurture the talent of particularly talented children. How do you reach children who live in circumstances that put them mostly outside the modern economy? Many nations wrestle with this. India and China have world class universities in the cities, but children in villages still must often pay for the few years of schooling they can afford.

South Africa has come upon one interesting solution: Get on Oprah Winfrey's radar screen. The talk show host has long had an interest in gifted children (I recall reading that she skipped grades herself). She's particularly interested in gifted children who overcome tough circumstances like she herself faced growing up poor in segregated Mississippi. Yesterday's program was on amazing kids from around the world, and featured young scientists, memory champions and so forth. These past few years, Winfrey has put that interest into practice with the newly opened Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. You can read about the school here.

The school will eventually be home to 450 gifted South African girls. They will be challenged and taught by the best teachers, and hopefully taught to be leaders (something Africa, with its chronic human resources problem, desperately needs).

I think this is a great idea, one I hope is replicated in other African and developing world countries. All developing country education needs to be improved, but nurturing the talents of the brightest gives you more bang for your buck. These girls will someday improve the systems in South Africa or, even if they immigrate to Europe or the U.S., will send money and expertise home.

Starting schools is expensive. But I suppose there are lower cost ways to accomplish the same objective. I'm picturing an international program that perhaps a technology or research company could fund that would seek out particularly bright children from poor circumstances. The company would make sure the children receive additional training -- perhaps via online stations in the libraries that the Gates Foundation is putting up around the developing world -- that would allow them to be accepted at the best western universities. Of course, the company couldn't force these kids to come work for them afterwards, but many probably would!

It is a shame to squander talent in the U.S., but even more talent is squandered around the world because children happen to be born in poor countries. Finding and nurturing talented children should be a part of any smart aid program.


Quiltsrwarm said...

Sorry for the late comer on this entry, but I found the note that Oprah's school is for "gifted" South African girls. Huh? I think that is great, but in all the media hullabaloo about Oprah's school, there was absolutely NO mention of the word "gifted" in anything I read or heard. Though I admit I didn't read every article or hear every interview, at least in the headlines and previews no mention of the school being for gifted children was indicated.

Maybe I missed something, but if this statement is true, then that just makes me wonder why the US media chose to leave out that tidbit of information. How sad. :(

Laura Vanderkam said...

The school doesn't use the word "gifted" -- admission isn't based on IQ tests or standard gifted screens -- but Oprah did make a point of taking academically high-achieving girls who she saw as having the potential for being the next generation of Africa's leaders, despite the rough circumstances of their childhood. Oprah wanted girls like herself, and Oprah was certainly a gifted child who was accelerated through school.