A Young Field Medalist's (Terence Tao) Advice to Gifted Children.


sk saptati“If you can give your son or daughter only one gift, let it be enthusiasm”- Bruce Barton

Once in every four years, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) awards a medal to two, three or four eminent mathematicians below 40 years of age. The prize is given in the honor of Canadian Mathematician John Charls Fields. The Fields Medal is often viewed as the greatest honor a Mathematician can receive. It is also called the Nobel prize in Mathematics. However unlike the actual Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal is awarded only once every four years. The 40 year rule is based of Fields’ desire that the prize is intended to be an encouragement for further achievement on the part of recipient and stimulus to renewed efforts.

The Medal was awarded to Terence Tao with three others in 2006. Terence Tao was a child prodigy. He was promoted to a full professorship at UCLA of USA at the young age of 24 and remains the youngest person to that rank in that institution. Here is Terence Tao’s advise on the education of the gifted child.

“Education is a complex, multifaceted, and painstaking process, and being gifted does not make this less so. I would caution against any single “silver bullet” to educating a gifted child, whether it be a special school, private tutoring, home schooling, grade acceleration, or anything else; these are all options with advantages and disadvantages, and need to be weighed against the various requirements and preferences (both academic and non-academic) of the child, the parents, and the school. Since this varies so much from child to child, I cannot give any specific advice on a given child’s situation. [In particular, due to many existing time commitments and high volume of requests, I am unable to personally respond to any queries regarding gifted education.

I can give a few general pieces of advice, though. Firstly, one should not focus overly much on a specific artificial benchmark, such as obtaining degree X from prestigious institution Y in only Z years, or on scoring A on test B at age C. In the long term, these feats will not be the most important or decisive moments in the child’s career; also, any short-term advantage one might gain in working excessively towards such benchmarks may be outweighed by the time and energy that such a goal takes away from other aspects of a child’s social, emotional, academic, physical, or intellectual development. Of course, one should still work hard, and participate in competitions if one wishes; but competitions and academic achievements should not be viewed as ends in themselves, but rather a way to develop one’s talents, experience, knowledge, and enjoyment of the subject.

santoshSecondly, I feel that it is important to enjoy one’s work; this is what sustains and drives a person throughout the duration of his or her career, and holds burnout at bay. It would be a tragedy if a well-meaning parent, by pushing too hard (or too little) for the development of their child’s gifts in a subject, ended up accidentally extinguishing the child’s love for that subject. The pace of the child’s education should be driven more by the eagerness of the child than the eagerness of the parent.

Thirdly, one should praise one’s children for their efforts and achievements (which they can control), and not for their innate talents (which they cannot). This article by Po Bronson describes this point excellently. See also the Scientific American article “The secret to raising smart kids” for a similar viewpoint.”

Finally, one should be flexible in one’s goals. A child may be initially gifted in field X, but decides that field Y is more enjoyable or is a better fit. This may be a better choice, even if Y is “less prestigious” than X; sometimes it is better to work in a less well known field that one feels competent and comfortable in, than in a “hot” but competitive field that one feels unsuitable for. (See also Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage.)”

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