Gifted children in Africa’s urban slums are a precious and untapped resource

We all know that it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. You can still be gifted. Opportunity is the key. Through opportunity you can overcome difficulty and reach your full potential. But is this true in the developing world?

Over a number of years a team at Newcastle University has been searching for the most appropriate ways to identify children in poor areas of sub-Saharan Africa’s cities who, given the “opportunity” and additional support, could become catalysts of social change through influencing their peers and communities. If children from very poor areas are to be given a chance to contribute to their societies, and thus to economic development and growth, then identifying these possible “life changers” could be key.

Economic growth is necessary for development. But growth is very reliant on the cognitive skills of the population. This is why human capital is key to a nation’s success. For Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, the modern era is the “age of human capital”. For Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessman,

school policy can, if effective in raising cognitive skills, be an important force in economic development.

For countries to benefit from exceptional human capital the current state of education worldwide needs to be improved. But the focus needs to be on “quality”, not “quantity”. This is because “quality” schooling is what encourages knowledge and cognitive skills that stimulate economic growth.

Why identifying giftedness is important

It is generally agreed that the identification of giftedness should be led by multiple methods, informants and criteria. But with different ideas about what the term means and its measurement, how does one go about identifying children in places such as poor areas of Africa’s cities who could contribute to their nation’s development if given the opportunity?

The research from Newcastle University used a combination of ideas from some of the main exponents in gifted education and multiple intelligences. These included Renzulli’s “three ring concept”, Sternberg’s “triarchic theory of intelligence” and Gardner’s “multiple intelligences”.

The research project took place in 17 government school in a very poor area of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Teachers and parents were interviewed. More than 1,800 children sat tests (including mathematics, Kiswahili, reading and a non-verbal matrix reasoning test) and children and teachers nominated three gifted children in their class. The teachers provided reasons why they’d made their choices.

Children identified as gifted – gaining a very high score and nominated by at least one other method – had their creativity, motivation and commitment investigated. The results indicate that some of the cleverest, most creative and committed children you are ever likely to meet live in these slum areas.

It may seem obvious. Yet some believe that children who are first-generation learners with illiterate parents are simply not capable of greatness. This became evident at the beginning of the research. When the team explained what the research was about, teachers as well as district education officers said:

Why the slums of Dar es Salaam? You won’t find any gifted children there.

When told his daughter had performed really well in all the tasks one parent shook his head in disbelief and said:

She can’t be gifted. We are poor. Only the rich are gifted.

An untapped resource

Too few development experts believe that part of the solution to poverty can come from the poor themselves. Yet in the slums of Dar es Salaam children of high ability wait to be discovered, their contribution to economic growth and development wasted because no-one believes they are there. Children don’t know what they can achieve.

Here lies an untapped resource. Sadly, most of the head teachers reported that the primary school children under their care would not attend government secondary schools. In general, they believed the children would become market sellers and petty traders, just like their parents.

International aid has been flowing into Africa for the past 50 years. Donors from around the world give government schools – including those in Tanzania – desks, chairs, books and other resources. The belief is that all children will benefit. So let that continue.

But how about a small amount of funding heading the way of those children who can be identified as life changers with the tenacity, determination and ability to make a difference for their own countries.

An overview of our research can be seen in the TEDx Newcastle video “Slum Super Stars – African talented children alleviating poverty”. ‪‬‬‬

Taken from

Written by Mathematics Education Primary and Secondary PGCE, Newcastle University

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