An awareness of giftedness in China began more than 2,500 years ago. Current gifted education programs in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, however, depend more on their divergent recent histories than their common cultural heritage. Nevertheless, there is growing awareness that both conceptions of giftedness and the means to identify gifted students need to take into account the Chinese cultural heritage.
In contrast to many other countries and regions around the world, gifted education in China originated more than 2,500 years ago, when its scholars were already thinking about the specific concepts of intelligence, creativity, and giftedness (Chan 2007). At that time, intelligence was understood in terms of “quickness of mouth and swiftness of mind” (Chan 2007, 38), creativity was defined in terms of the uniqueness of one’s ideas and work, and giftedness was said to be found within persons of topmost intelligence. The first intelligence test reportedly was the Chinese Wisdom Board 七巧板 devised during the Song 宋 dynasty (960–1279). Gifted education in modern China is still profoundly influenced by the thinking of both these ancient scholars and by the ideas of Confucius, particularly his ideas about the nature and purpose of learning.
Despite political differences, mainland China, the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions, and Taiwan rely on the same elements in creating effective gifted-education programs. In all these jurisdictions, the successful implementation of gifted education usually depends on the interaction of four components: (1) the presence of a national (or regional) policy, (2) the presence of advocacy groups, (3) research, curriculum development, and teacher education, and (4) school implementation (Phillipson et al. 2009). Notably and in contrast to many other countries and regions, however, studies of gifted education in China is hampered by the lack of a common terminology. In Beijing, for example, the term “supernormal” has been coined to refer to students with exceptional performance.
Although the English version of the gifted-education policy in Hong Kong uses the term gifted, it advises schools to refrain from referring to “gifted students” because there are many possible ways to translate the term “gifted”, some of which carry negative connotations. For example, a “gifted” person may have exceptional abilities bestowed from heaven (or from the devil), implying that academic achievement has an external locus of control and cannot change. The term may also reinforce elitism, thereby presenting problems for an education system espousing egalitarianism.
National and Regional Policies
At various time throughout China’s history, child prodigies have been identified through a formal examination system. This system relied on tests of reading and the memorization and understanding of important texts, such as The Analects 论语 of Confucius 孔子(551–479 bce). In the twenty-first century, however, the Ministry of Education (MOE) (China’s central regulatory body for education) does not have an explicit policy on the education of gifted students. The reason is unclear, but is likely to be related to the socialist foundation of the current government.
Despite the absence of a policy, a number of schools in mainland China have implemented gifted-education programs for supernormal children that use research conducted by scientists from the Institute of Psychology in the Chinese Academy of Sciences 中国科学院心理研究所 and the Beijing Key Laboratory for Learning and Cognition 学习与认知实验室, which is part of the Department of Psychology at Capital Normal University 首都师范大学心理系. Nevertheless, some argue that a formal policy is needed to ensure that the methods used to identify these children are broad enough to include those from diverse economic, social, and cultural backgrounds (Zhai 2009).
Article 136 of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) allows the region to formulate policies on the development and improvement of education. In accordance with the Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s constitution, the Education Bureau (EDB) has implemented a three-tiered model of gifted education in Hong Kong. The policy is not mandated, and schools are free to implement any aspect of it. The model incorporates guidelines to identify and provide for three groups of gifted students: the top 10 percent (tier 1), the top 2–4 percent (tier 2), and the top 0.1 percent of students (tier 3). The Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre 馮漢柱資優教育中心 in the EDB works with schools to provide support in identification, curriculum design, and teacher development for students in tiers 1 and 2, and in 2007 the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education 香港資優教育學院 was formed to accommodate those in tier 3. The academy provides enrichment services to students in tier 3 and offers parent services and teacher-training courses (parent support is provided directly, while courses for students and teacher training are mostly contracted out to service providers).
Hong Kong’s policy aims to meet the intellectual, social, and emotional needs of gifted students while supporting the general curriculum. This policy has its origins in the British colonial era and is based on a number of conceptions of giftedness, including intellectual ability and high performance. It has not been evaluated objectively since the British handover to Beijing in 1997, however, and its effectiveness in meeting the needs of underachieving gifted students is under increasing scrutiny.
In contrast to Hong Kong, the development of gifted education in the Macau Special Administrative Region (MSAR) is in its infancy. Article 121 of the Basic Law of MSAR authorizes the region to formulate education policy, with the responsibility for education lying with the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau 教育暨青年局 (EYAB). Initially EYAB’s special-education policy focused on students with special needs, but in 2006 it was extended to include gifted students (Lau and Yuen 2010). To ensure that all areas of special education are supported, EYAB recently contracted with the King-May Psychological Assessment Technology & Development Limited Company 京美心理測量技術開發有限公司 in Zhuhai to develop a version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV) for Macau. The Education and Youth Affairs Bureau also commissioned Hong Kong Polytechnic University 香港理工大學 to survey the distribution and needs of gifted students in Macau, and in response to results EYAB has instituted learning camps for students and gifted-education training programs for teachers (EYAB 2008).
Gifted education in Taiwan had its beginnings in 1963, with the development of an enrichment program for gifted students in two schools in Taipei. The twenty years of experimentation that followed ended with the passing of the Special Education Law (Phillipson et al. 2009; Wu, Cho, and Munandar 2000). The law includes provisions for students to access specialized programs and options for acceleration (Phillipson et al. 2009). Currently, the Ministry of Education regulates gifted education in Taiwan as part of its overall special-education policy, which recognizes three classes of “gifted and talented” students: those with general abilities, those with scholastic abilities, and those with special talents. Students with general and scholastic abilities are “. . . admitted to superior intelligence classes” (MOE 2006).
Despite a common cultural heritage among Chinese, gifted-education policies vary considerably across the country, reflecting differences in the recent histories of mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Although both Hong Kong and Macau are developing closer cultural ties with the Chinese mainland, the policies in the two SARs are likely to continue their independent trajectories due to the economic and social needs of these regions.
Advocacy groups play an important role in getting gifted education onto the political agenda. In broad terms, advocacy groups include parent groups, teachers, researchers, and other professional organization and business groups. Their influence helps to shape policy and research programs, and the implementation of gifted education in schools. (Phillipson et al. 2009)
Very little information is available about the formation and influence of advocacy groups within mainland China. In his capacity as director of the Institute of Psychology in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, psychologist and researcher Jiannong Shi is a prominent advocate for gifted education in Beijing and more broadly in China. His support for gifted education is based on his research showing that supernormal children are unique in cognitive characteristics, such as the speed of information processing (SIP), and neuropsychological markers, such as event-rated potentials (measured brain responses that are the direct result of thoughts or perceptions). Based on his research findings, Shi argues that the government should increase funding for gifted-education research and programming (Phillipson et al. 2009; Shi and Zha 2000).
The Hong Kong Association for Parents of Gifted Education 香港資優兒童家長會 (HKAPGE) is the main advocacy group for gifted education in Hong Kong. Established in 1992 as a not-for-profit organization, its primary role is to support parents of gifted students and to provide enrichment opportunities for their children. The association also has representatives who advocate for parents on a number of government committees. In 1999 the association implemented a major enrichment project for students in grades four through six using a grant from the Hong Kong government’s Quality Education Fund 優質教育基金. Another advocacy group is the Gifted Education Council 天才教育協會. Established before HKAPGE, its primary function is to advise the G. T. College (Primary Section) and the G. T. College (Secondary Section), two nongovernment schools with a curriculum based on the principles of gifted education.
In Macau, advocacy does not appear to be well organized. Although gifted education was added to the education policy in 2006, the impetus behind its addition is not clear (Lau and Yuen 2010). Macau’s strengthening cultural and economic ties with Hong Kong as well as its physical proximity to it may have been at least part of the reason, but these factors also raise the question as to why gifted education wasn’t added earlier. Prior to 1999 Macau was under Portuguese administrative control, so the omission may have reflected a difference in education philosophy from that time. The future may see Hong Kong increasing its support for Macau, thereby accelerating gifted education programs in the former Portuguese enclave.
A number of advocacy groups have been set up in Taiwan to promote public awareness of gifted education and to provide resource materials for parents and teachers. The groups include the Taipei Resource Center for the Gifted and Talented, the Chinese Association of Gifted Education, and the National Institute of Educational Resources and Research. The impact of these groups on the development of gifted education is yet to be established.
Research, Curriculum, and Teacher Education
Published research in mainland China focuses on two broad areas: the intellectual characteristics of gifted students, and the development of tools to identify gifted students. Looking at the intellectual characteristics of gifted students includes measuring their SIP, and much of the current research studies the relationship between SIP and accelerated educational programs (Duan, Shi, and Zhou 2010; Phillipson et al. 2009). Meanwhile, identification studies are beginning to conclude that high IQ does not always translate into high academic performance (Guo and Hua 2008; Jiang and Zhang 2008; Li 2009).
Research in Macau is limited to commissioned projects, including the development of the Macau version of WISC-IV and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University survey on the distribution and needs of gifted students mentioned previously. The results of these two projects have not been distributed widely.
In contrast, research focusing on the needs of gifted Hong Kong students is readily available. A number of research themes have emerged from research that spans twenty-five years, including the social and emotional development of gifted students and the cultural basis for concepts of giftedness and creativity (Chan, Chan, and Zhao 2009; Phillipson 2008a). For some studies, however, research findings have limited application because participants did not represent the full range of gifted students. There is also a paucity of research on curriculum development and implementation for gifted students in Hong Kong. Furthermore, there is growing concern that using high academic performance as the main criteria for identifying gifted students may result in students with a potential for high performance being overlooked. Some recent studies have shown that a large proportion of students with high levels of measured intelligence are underachieving in mathematics (Phillipson 2008b).
In Taiwan, most research has focused on evaluating the effectiveness of educational practices such as acceleration (Wu, Cho, and Munandar 2000). Recent research has expanded the area of focus to include alternative approaches to identifying gifted children, ranging from intelligence-based methods to multifaceted approaches that include parent checklists and student portfolios (Kuo, Maker, Su, and Hu 2010).
Research on gifted education in China is beginning to be published in international journals—such as High Ability Studies, Gifted Child Quarterly, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, and the Roeper Review—although most of this research originates from Hong Kong. Research articles also are being published in Chinese journals, including the Chinese Journal of Special Education 中国特殊教育, and research is being presented at international, regional, and national conferences, including conferences of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, the Asia-Pacific Federation of the World Council, and the National Specialty Committee of Chinese Talents Society. Meanwhile, the First Biennial Conference of International Research Association for Talent Development and Excellence (IRATDE) was held in Xi’an in October 2009.
Jimmy Chan (2007) has suggested that aspects of China’s culture both contribute to and detract from expressions of giftedness, intelligence, and creativity. For example, Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education and that with the appropriate effort all persons can be gifted. On the other hand, collectivism (jítǐ 集体) emphasizes the importance of togetherness, including in the process of decision making. Chan argues, however, that when decisions need to be supported by the group, opportunities for independent thought are reduced.
In general, there is an international consensus that teacher education is important in ensuring the success of programs for gifted students. Accordingly, many Western countries require training in gifted education at the undergraduate level. In contrast, China’s teachers receive instruction in gifted education either after they’ve completed their basic education or as part of their professional development. Teachers in Hong Kong, for example, are trained in gifted education as part of professional development conducted through the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education and EDB. The Hong Kong Institute of Education also has recently offered the first master of education degree program with a specialty in gifted education; enrollees include students from mainland China.
A number of universities in Taiwan offer postgraduate programs in gifted education, including Taipei Municipal University 臺北市立教育大學, National Changhua University of Education 國立彰化師範大學, and National Taiwan Normal University 國立台灣師範大學. Doctoral programs in the broad field of gifted education are also offered throughout China, including at the University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Institute of Education, National Taiwan Normal University, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Psychology in Beijing.
The term supernormal is the word used by Beijing researchers to describe gifted children, based on the idea that only a small proportion of children can be exceptional as modeled by a normal distribution. In identifying supernormal children, researchers use a multipronged approach that reflects a clearly delineated set of principles and criteria and focuses on the cognitive abilities, creativity, learning characteristics, special talents, and personality traits of the child (Shi and Zha 2000). This approach formed the basis of accelerated-learning education programs that were incorporated into a number of (now discontinued) experimental classes in elementary and secondary schools from the 1970s to the mid-1990s (Phillipson et al. 2009; Shi and Zha 2000). Judging by the number of presentations made by teachers at local and regional conferences, however, schools have been implementing gifted-education programs for quite some time. These presentations focus on the development, implementation, and evaluation of programs for gifted students, but the schools do not appear to be part of a coordinated effort.
In Hong Kong, schools are encouraged to implement gifted education using the guidelines for tiers 1 and 2 of the gifted-education policy. At this stage, only a small fraction of the region’s primary and secondary schools are known to have implemented the policy, although the actual number may be higher (Phillipson et al. 2009). In accordance with the policy, schools offer enrichment programs using a whole-school approach (one that engages all key learning areas and many aspects of school life). When acceleration is provided by the school it is usually in the form of grade skipping.
Hong Kong’s Education Bureau believes that using the term “gifted” may lead to harmful effects, such as putting undue pressure on students, and these harmful effects are compounded when the term is translated into Cantonese. Accordingly, EDB advocates using a cautious approach with school-based gifted-education programs, and schools are encouraged to use alternative terms for both the programs and the students benefiting from them.
Enrichment programs for tier 3 (the top 0.1 percent of students) are coordinated by the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education. The enrichment programs include mentorships, advanced placement in selected university courses, and participation in competitions (such as the International Mathematical Olympiad).
Gifted education is an important component of many educational systems around the world, including China. Along with providing for the needs of students with outstanding academic abilities at a national or regional level, gifted education is also a global movement that facilitates the exchange of information about exceptional learners. This movement provides a forum through which scholars from China increasingly share common interests and concerns regarding students with the potential for very high achievement.
A number of issues are currently being debated in China that are likely to dominate both future research and programming for gifted education, and two are at the forefront. The first is related to the many gifted students who are underachieving despite the value modern Chinese society places on academic performance. In the future, research efforts are likely to focus on identifying these students using tools other than intelligence tests (Kuo, Maker, Su, and Hu 2010; Siu 2010; Wu 2009) and on evaluating new curriculum models. The second issue is related to identification. Chinese society is becoming more aware of the need to conceptualize giftedness from the perspective of the Chinese culture. At the same time, China will continue to strive toward creating an inclusive approach to the education of students with diverse educational needs—particularly those that arise from differences in culture, and social and economic disadvantage. These concepts of giftedness will help in the design of the instruments used to identify gifted students.
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