Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Tool-Using Orangs: Implications for the Gifted Child?

From the April 2006 Scientific American:

Scientific American: Why Are Some Animals So Smart? [ INTELLIGENCE AND EVOLUTION ]
The unusual behavior of orangutans in a Sumatran swamp suggests a surprising answer

In this article, author Carel Van Shaik, director of the Anthropological Institute and Museum at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, proposes a new, culture-based theory on the development of intelligence. His observation of wild, tool-using orangutans in Sumatra suggests that "even though infants learn virtually all their skills from their mothers, a population will be able to perpetuate particular innovations only if tolerant role models other than the mother are around; if mom is not particularly skillful, knowledgeable experts will be close at hand, and a youngster will still be able to learn the fancy techniques that apparently do not come automatically." Sounds like school, huh? Also apprenticeships, mentor relationships, etc.

Van Shaik goes on to apply his theory to the so-called "enculturated apes," those great ape infants raised as human children, who display the ability to imitate and understand complex behaviors like language, art and practical jokes. He asserts these cases reveal "the astonishing potential that lies dormant in great apes", suggesting "an ape growing up like a human can be bootstrapped to cognitive peaks higher than any of its wild counterparts."

The theory also seems to resolve the question of why apes in captivity readily use and make tools where wild animals of the same species do not. "The conundrum is resolved if we realize that thwo individuals of the same species can differ dramatically in their intellectual performance, depending on the social environment in which they grew up."

This sounds suspiciously like "all children are gifted, some are just more fortunate than others." If Van Shaik's theory becomes the accepted model of the development of intelligence (as could be likely since I found this in a mainstream, rather than a scholarly, journal), it might have serious repercussions in the way intelligence in human children is viewed and researched. Gifted children generally have gifted parents, who create an intellectually rich environment for their kids, but is nurture the only explanation for differences in measured intelligence?

I say no, for a number of reasons, but the basic one is this: some children learn things quicker than other. A gifted child may need 1-3 repetitions of a concept to master it. A high achieving non-gifted child needs 6-8 repetitions for mastery.* An average child needs even more repetitions.

No matter how rich the environment is, different children are going to need different amounts of time to experience all it has to offer. Teach each of the three learners above the same completely-new concept and the gifted child is bored already by the time the high-achiever "gets it." To my mind, that is the fundamental difference and the fundamental reason why gifted children are different and why they do need accomodations in the classroom.

*From Understanding Our Gifted, Spring 2003

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