Educators grapple with gifted youngsters
By Wu Jiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-10-19 06:04
Ning Bo enrolled at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC),
one of China's top 10 universities, when he was just 13 years old.
By the age of 19, he had become a teacher at the university, the youngest
lecturer in China.
A child prodigy, Ning's life seemed almost perfect, he looked to be
fulfilling the potential he had shown so young and his achievements were met
with universal praise.
But then, this summer, at the age of 38, Ning walked out on his job to become
a monk, ending his secular life. His actions immediately sparked a nation-wide
debate about the education of gifted children.
Along with 16 other children under 15, Ning Bo was recruited into a special
department established by the Hefei-based USTC in 1978 to teach children with
outstanding academic talent.
"They were the talk of the country because they possessed remarkable talent
at such an early age," says Wang Huidi, then teacher of the "young genius
According to Wang, because the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) greatly
damaged China's academic development, it was necessary to promote interest in
academic study by setting examples for people to aspire to.
The job of teaching the children in her department required much more than
just giving lecturers.
"In addition to supervising their academic study, I also attended to their
daily life. I even had to prepare milk for them every morning before class,"
"They could not manage their own lives, let alone deal with all the people
Like Wang, many experts have noticed the problems in educating gifted
In a recent lecture, Lin Fenglan, an expert in youth study, suggested that
children entering university at an early age are more likely to experience
severe problems with interpersonal relationships.
"Although they may be very intelligent, their psychological perception is
still at the level of a normal child. It is hard for those children to manage
relationships and life in a university which is designed for mature people,"
The story of Wei Yongkang serves as a perfect illustration.
Wei's parents accompanied him for four years while he studied at the Xiangtan
University in Central China's Hunan Province, until he was 14. When Wei enrolled
at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) as a doctorate candidate
in 2000, his mother went home, leaving him to live on his own in the dormitory.
Three years later, Wang was sent home by university authorities because he
could not cope with university life.
"He went sightseeing at the Summer Palace in winter wearing only a T-shirt,"
Wei's mother Zeng Xuemei explained with a sad smile in a recent TV interview.
"If no one told him what to wear, he had little idea of what clothes he
should put on."
But Wei Yongkang blames his lack of awareness about life on his mother's
"All she cared about was that I did well in my studies. She did everything
else for me, including washing and cleaning which I was able to do by myself. I
envied other children who lived normal lives with their parents," says Wei.
However, not everyone who enters university at an early age has such
Zhang Yaqin, former classmate of Ning Bo, is now Microsoft's global
In Zhang's eyes, the great difference between him and Ning Bo is that he knew
how to manage his personal life and stay out of the public eye.
"I was four years older than Ning Bo when we entered university, an age when
I could arrange my life reasonably and study well, " Zhang explains.
While the public may pick problems with the young prodigies, USTC believes
people should not single out this particular group of students.
Chen Yi, vice-president of USTC, says students are expelled from every
department in every university, and the "young genius department" is no
"Like other departments, we have students who can keep up, and students who
cannot," he explains.
According to Chen, statistics from USTC show 85 per cent of children enrolled
at the university continue their studies after getting their bachelor's degrees.
A third go on to obtain doctorate degrees, a higher proportion than from any
other department in any university in China.
Every year, the media report dozens of cases of children entering university.
While labelled by society as child prodigies, and put on a pedestal, how the
children actually feel about themselves is a serious concern.
Zhang Xinyang is the latest "child genius" to catch the public's imagination.
The 10-year-old boy was recently admitted to the Tianjin Univeristy of
Technology and Education after spending only two years in primary school and
three years in middle school, seven years less than the usual.
When asked whether he considered himself a genius, the boy replied, "The
reason I learn faster is because I concentrate on my study so much. If everybody
paid as much attention to their studies as I do, most of them could learn
better. I don't think there are any child prodigies."
Despite Zhang's denial of the existence of genius, Shi Jiannong, an expert in
juvenile education studies at the Institute of Psychology Study under the CAS,
told reporters that research has estimated that 1-3 per cent of children are
especially clever in academic fields while 15 per cent are gifted in various
"There are around 3 million such children in China and we need to build an
education system to cater to their needs," said Shi.
A number of universities and middle schools in China have already set up
special courses for precocious talents. Some of them even arrange for
psychologists to work with the children, and design special courses in
accordance with students' interests and talents.
"Schools are taking great risks in admitting young geniuses. But when we meet
these brilliant children, we try our best to bring them up as well as we
possibly can," says Zhao Daheng, a teacher responsible for the genius class at
the No 8 Middle School in Beijing.
(China Daily 10/19/2005 page5)