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Discovering Mathematical Talent
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E482
Author: Richard C. Miller
Sara, who is 5 years old, listens as her 32-year-old father comments that today is her grandmother's 64th birthday. "Grandma's age is just twice my age," he observes.
Although outwardly Sara does not seem to react to this information, her mind is whirling. A few moments pass, and then the young girl excitedly replies, "You know Dad, you will only be 54 when your age is twice mine!"
Sara has been intrigued by numbers and numerical relationships since she was very small. At first this could be seen in the way she liked to count things and organize groups of objects. She showed a fascination for calendars, telephone numbers, dates, ages, measurements, and almost anything else dealing with numbers. Sara learned and remembered this information quickly and easily, but what was even more amazing was the way she played with and manipulated the information she was learning. She would carefully examine each idea and eagerly search to discover new, interesting, and unusual relationships and patterns. Although Sara has had little formal instruction in mathematics, at the age of 5 she has acquired an incredible amount of mathematical knowledge and is amazingly sophisticated in using this knowledge to discover new ideas and solve problems.
Sara is an example of a young child who is highly talented in the area of mathematics. Like most individuals with this unusual talent, Sara exhibits characteristics and behaviors that are clues to her ability. Some mathematically talented people radiate many or obvious clues, others offer only a few, or subtle ones. Recognizing these clues is often an important first step in discovering an individual's high ability in mathematics. It is difficult to believe, but many people with a high degree of mathematical talent have their talent underestimated or even unrecognized. Their clues have gone unnoticed or ignored, and the true nature of their ability remains unexplored. If Sara's talent in mathematics is to be discovered and appropriately nurtured, it is important that her parents and teachers recognize the clues.
What Should Parents and Teachers Know to Help Them Better Recognize Mathematical Talent?
Mathematical talent refers to an unusually high ability to understand mathematical ideas and to reason mathematically, rather than just a high ability to do arithmetic computations or get top grades in mathematics. When considering mathematical talent, many people place too much emphasis on computational skill or high ability in replicating taught mathematical procedures. Unless mathematical talent is correctly perceived, however, important clues can be overlooked and less important clues can be given too much significance.
Some characteristics and behaviors that may yield important clues in discovering high mathematical talent are the following:
Not all students who achieve the highest test scores or receive the highest grades in mathematics class are necessarily highly talented in mathematics. Many of the mathematics programs in our schools are heavily devoted to the development of computational skills and provide little opportunity for students to demonstrate the complex types of reasoning skills that are characteristic of truly talented students. The tests used and the grades given in such programs usually reflect that structure. Computational accuracy and conformity to taught procedures may be overemphasized, and the reasoning abilities associated with high ability in mathematics may be underemphasized. In this type of environment, test scores and grades of less able students who are good in computation, attentive in class, willing to help, and conscientious about completing all assignments carefully in the prescribed manner will often be as high as the test scores and grades of students who are genuinely talented in mathematics. While high achievement in school certainly can be a clue to high ability in mathematics, additional information is needed. If care is not taken, students who are simply high achievers in mathematics can be mistakenly identified as mathematically talented. It is just as important to avoid such incorrect identification as it is to identify students who are truly mathematically talented.
Some mathematically talented students do not demonstrate outstanding academic achievement, display enthusiasm toward school mathematics programs, or get top grades in mathematics class. It is important to know that there are students like this, for their ability in mathematics is easily overlooked, even though they may exhibit other clues suggesting high ability in mathematics. There are many possible reasons why these students do not do well, but often it is at least in part because of a mismatch between the student and the mathematics program. Many of them refuse, or are unable, to conform to the expectations of programs that they see as uninteresting and inappropriate. For their part, educators may not recognize the true ability of these students or see a need for adjusting the existing mathematics program.
How Can Standardized Test Results Help in Recognizing Mathematical Talent?
Mathematics Achievement Tests
Mathematics Aptitude Tests
Out-of-Grade-Level Mathematics Aptitude Tests
The out-of-grade-level testing procedure has been used successfully in several mathematics talent searches and school mathematics programs with junior and senior high school students over the past 15 years. More recently, there have been programs that have successfully used the procedure in the elementary grades.
What Systematic Process Can Be Used to Identify Mathematically Talented Students?
Correctly identifying mathematically talented students is not a simple task, and there is more than one way to go about it. Some common features of successful identification processes are combined in the following model. This model is intended to be implemented with a degree of flexibility in order to give mathematically talented students every opportunity to have their talent discovered. This may be especially important when looking for mathematical talent in minority or disadvantaged populations.
Phase One: Screening
Step One. An identification checklist (Figure 1) should be set up to record the names of students thought to have high ability in mathematics along with the clues that suggest their talent. Students scoring above the 95th percentile on a mathematics aptitude test are entered first. Next, those scoring above the 95th percentile on mathematics achievement tests who are not already on the list are added. If a student's name is already on the list, the test score is simply added to that student's record. In a like manner, students who are mentally gifted; students who are creative and have high interest in mathematics; and students nominated by parents, teachers, self, or peers can be added.
Step Two. The checklist information for each student should be reviewed. If the information collected for a particular student suggests that out-of-grade-level testing is not advisable, that student's name should be removed, because phase two testing may damage the egos of students who do not really excel in mathematics. However, caution should be exercised not to eliminate talented students in this process. Parent involvement in these decisions is recommended.
Phase Two: Out-of-Grade-Level Mathematics Abilities
Step One. Students who are scheduled to take the out-of-grade-level test, along with their parents, should be informed about the nature of this test and the reason it is being given. The out-of-grade-level test would then be administered with student and parent consent. Figure 2 provides a sample schedule for such testing.
Step Two. The results of each student's out-of-grade-level test should be evaluated in conjunction with the results of phase one screening. Generally, the student's out-of-grade-level score will be an indication of degree of mathematical talent. Scores above the 74th percentile represent a degree of mathematical talent similar to that of students identified in regional talent searches such as the one conducted by Johns Hopkins University. This level of talent places the student in the upper 1% of the population in mathematics ability. Scores above the 64th percentile denote a level of talent that most likely places the student in the upper 3% of the population. Students in these two groups would be identified as mathematically talented.
What Instructional Approaches Benefit Mathematically Talented Students?
Students identified as mathematically talented vary greatly in degree of talent and motivation. No single approach is best for all of these students. The design of each student's instructional program in mathematics should be based on an analysis of individual abilities and needs. For example, students with extremely high ability and motivation may profit more from a program that promotes rapid and relatively independent movement through instructional content. Students with less ability or lower motivation may do better in a program that is not paced so quickly and is more deliberate in developing the mathematical concepts being taught. There are some common features, however, that seem to be important ingredients in the mathematics programs of mathematically talented students.
The program should bring mathematically talented students together to work with one another in the area of mathematics. Students will benefit greatly, both academically and emotionally, from this type of experience. They will learn from each other, reinforce each other, and help each other over difficulties.
The program should stress mathematical reasoning and develop independent exploratory behavior. This type of program is exemplified by discovery learning, looking for underlying principles, engaging in special projects in mathematics, problem solving, discovering formulas, looking for patterns, and organizing data to find relationships.
The mathematics program should de-emphasize repetitious computational drill work and cyclical review. This type of work in mathematics should be minimal for all mathematically talented students. As ability in mathematics increases, the benefits to be gained from this type of activity decrease.
The scope of the mathematics curriculum should be extensive so that it will provide an adequate foundation for students who may become mathematicians in the future. In many programs the mathematics curriculum will have to be greatly expanded to meet this need.
The mathematics program should be flexibly paced. Flexibly paced means that students are placed at an appropriate instructional level on the basis of an assessment of their knowledge and skill. Each student is then allowed to progress at a pace limited only by his or her ability and motivation. Flexible pacing can be achieved in the following ways:
The fate of Sara and other mathematically talented students will be determined largely by the ability of their parents and educators to discover and nurture their special ability. The notion that these students will achieve their potential anyway is constantly refuted. For too many students like Sara, lack of appropriate mathematical nourishment seems to be the rule rather than the exception. At risk are the benefits that these children might gain from early advancement and the attitudes that these children will have toward mathematics, school, learning in general, and themselves. By discovering the mathematical talent of these students and using that knowledge to provide appropriate academic nurture, we have the greatest chance to help these individuals reach their gifted potential.
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