Thursday, January 07, 2010

Our Little Genius

Over the past few years here at Gifted Exchange, we've written a few times about "child prodigy" shows, when TV hosts like Ellen or Oprah bring on kids who do what are billed as amazing things. These often involve memorizing a high volume of information, like which US president did what, or lists of famous quotes.

I'm not sure how it's become a broadly held notion that intelligence in children is defined by the ability to memorize things and do quick recall, but I guess this is what makes for good television. All of these kids are, of course, bright, but children in general like to memorize things like the names of all the Thomas the Tank Engine characters or the names of dinosaurs. It helps them make sense of the world and given that they don't have to stuff their brains with other questions (like "did I remember to pay the mortgage?"), many can do it quite well. If you've got parents who want to promote the kid, then you've got a TV segment, though it may not be showing quite what everyone thinks it does.

It was particularly eerie in one of the Oprah episodes I watched, in which a young girl who could recite famous quotes was asked about her favorite quote from Oprah. She gave the quote, then said at the end "Oprah Winfrey." Since she was speaking to Oprah, this made very little sense to give the name of the speaker. But this is how she had memorized everything (quote, then name of person who said the quote), so she stayed true to form, rather than changing to take account of the current situation (which is probably a better measure of intelligence).

Anyway, this television tendency will now get a new breath of life with the new Fox show, premiering next week, called "Our Little Genius." In it, children pulled from gifted programs will answer increasingly difficult trivia questions to win money. Their parents have the option to have them stop at any given point if they decide that's enough winnings. The show's creator, Mark Burnett, told the New York Times that “I love that we’re shining a light on these academic geniuses... So much light is shined on gymnasts, football players, singers and actors. It’s not often that you get a light shined on academics.”

This is definitely true. However, I wish we would recognize that this is a certain kind of academics. For game shows to work, there has to be a right answer. So you get questions like "Who was the Roman god of war?" for which you can study and cough up the right answer. You don't get more interesting questions like "why might a culture have a god of war?" or "how might it change a culture to move from a pantheon of gods to one god?" which actually test a person's ability to draw on different bits of information and reach a new conclusion. If you had a show in which a 7-year-old discussed those questions, I'd definitely watch it. But since there's no right answer, it would be hard to dole out $500,000 in front of a studio audience. And the ratings would probably stink.


Christina said...

I like that the show's creator wants to shine a light on academically talented kids, but I think this will turn into more of a sideshow... treating bright kids like freaks. I think my gifted daughter (who has to work very hard to memorize facts but can give very insightful answers to philosophical questions) would positively hate this show.

newteacher said...

I agree that a game show that really shows a child's gifted ability would not get good ratings. Like you said, game shows have to have a correct answer and they have to be exciting. I am a little confused about the rules the parents are the ones who have the say so in how much money their child is able to win? Does the money go towards a scholarship fund for the child? I do not mean to sound harsh or negative but there are some parents who would put their child on the show just for the money. I wish there was really a tv show to show the world just how academically gifted some of our students really are.

Anonymous said...

Children who can recite large amounts of information are often nowhere near gifted. Instead what you are often seeing is a savant skill. My gifted son actually had this type of skill early on and it was one of the things that allowed us to understand that he actually was autistic. Later he also turned out the be gifted, but the two were not related in any manner. Warning. If you have a kid who is reciting all of the Thomas the Tank Engine, don't walk, to your pediatrician. Thomas is the banner of all things autism. In fact, the skills of memorizing useless facts, like presidents, is pretty common with children on the autistic spectrum. My kid memorized freeways. It was actually helpful.

Anonymous said...

Thomas is the banner of all things autism???

I think your sample size is too small.

Jen said...

Last I heard, the first few episodes were pulled, and hopefully the entire show will be canned. It's a sad piece of work, and certainly not indicative of the kind of gifted kid I have at home.
And Thomas is often connected with the autism community, for good or for bad, because a lot of kids with autism relate to the show. Large, open faces with simple to read expressions, easy to remember names, and sweet plots. I have no connection with autism, but it's what I've gathered from friends who have kids with autism. FWIW, there ya go.

Anonymous said...

I actually wrote Oprah last year asking her to do a show on the grossly underserved gifted population. Instead of continuing at our lovely neighborhood school (which is the heart of our community and a short walk from home) my son goes clear across town to a school for highly gifted learners. It was a very emotional decision to have to make. As we are lucky to have that option, spending 1.5 hours on the freeway each day goes against the lifestyle we (and Oprah) embrace - local, community oriented, etc. I thought it might be an interesting angle for discussion and a way to shine a light on the connection between school and community. I got no response. Mark Burnett could do something great with gifted children, but I'm not sure there's an audience for it.

Evan Adams said...

And yet, lots of competition shows are based on less objective criteria than a cut-and-dried right answer, and I don't know that it would be impossible to do that here. Use a panel of judges, rather than just a host.