Photo: BIRN.

Gifted but ‘ignored’

Kosovo’s education system is built to fit the average student and is in most cases unable to support the needs of gifted children with extraordinary intelligence and talents.

The quality of the education system in Kosovo has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, especially following the disappointing results Kosovar students have achieved on standardized international tests, including PISA. 

But it is not just the students registering poor scores. In 2019, the Human Capital Index measured the quality of education offered, rather than testing students. The results were no less worrying.

According to the Human Capital Index, while Kosovar students are expected to undergo 12.8 years of education by the age of 18, when factoring in what is actually learned throughout their education, most students undergo only 7.7 years of quality learning, creating a more than five-year gap in their mandatory education. 

However, one aspect of these test results that has not been highlighted is the students who scored above average. While on a national level, Kosovo was ranked among the bottom five countries, a small proportion of Kosovar students scored among the highest levels of proficiency in all fields. 

Numerous Kosovar students have also shown tremendous successes when partaking in international competitions. In 2019 alone, Kosovar students attained one silver medal and two bronze medals in the International Math Competition (IMC 2019) and four bronze medals in the Iran Geometry Olympiad (IGO 2019). 

These students, who have shown exceptional talents in international competitions, have also been offered study opportunities and scholarships at the world’s most prestigious universities such as Princeton and Yale, where they continue to show exceptional potential and tangible results. 

But these results are often not achieved because of the support that was offered to them at schools. They are attained in spite of the lack of it.

Non-governmental bodies such as the ATOMI Institute work on identifying and supporting gifted children with extraordinary intellectual potential. So far, through the use of standardized international tests, ATOMI has identified over 300 students with extraordinary intelligence who are talented in many fields. These children benefit from a range of support on both academic and emotional/social levels. 

When talking about the special needs of students that the system needs to adapt to, the tendency is to focus on students with difficulties in learning or disabilities, while children with special needs to fulfill their extraordinary intellectual potential are mostly ignored. 

One of the underlying reasons remains the idea that offering special conditions to gifted children is perceived as elitist, leading to these students not being supported to fulfill their full intellectual potential. 

As Besmira Thaqi-Bahtiri, an Official for Students with Special Educational Needs, a part of the Division of Education with Special Needs at the MEST states, there is a need to overcome this mentality for the sake of the children’s development.

“There is the perception that they can succeed on their own and there is no need for teachers to focus additional energy in their development. However, reality shows the opposite as these students need different types of support and programs to fit their needs,” Thaqi-Bahtiri argues.

The needs of gifted students fall into two categories, academic and emotional and social. In education, these students are often not stimulated sufficiently by regular school curricula, while in terms of emotional and social aspects, they are often unable to understand the universality of their experience and issues. 

Psychologists at the ATOMI institute believe that the notion that gifted students are bright enough to succeed on their own is a myth.

“This myth is not accidental since there are gifted students who are able to succeed with very little support because of the characteristics of their personalities, circumstances in which they were raised, and the ‘luck’ factor,” Naime Hoxha, a psychologist at ATOMI argues. “However, when talking about most gifted students, in [ATOMI’s] experience, we have noticed that it is impossible to reach full potential without additional support by either education institutions, organizations, or other individuals.”

State support

The 2011 Law on Pre-University Education in the Republic of Kosovo states that special educational needs of students also include gifted children who might require modifications in the normal pattern of progress through the system of compulsory education, including the curriculum. However, like many other articles of the law, the implementation of the article on special education remains partially fulfilled. 

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has published a comprehensive strategic plan for the development of education in Kosovo for 2017 to 2020, with an increased focus on inclusivity. The principle of inclusivity aims to disparage the discrimination that students face in schools based on many factors, including intellectual potential.

The objectives of this strategic plan are implemented and overseen by the dedicated division for education with special needs, which has functioned since 2001. However, until 2019 the division’s work was solely focused on students with learning disabilities. 

After the 2011 education law recognized gifted children as a special category, this division started its implementation, expanding their work to gifted students with extraordinary intelligence and talents. 

The division has published an administrative instruction for gifted students which aims to raise awareness concerning the needs of gifted students, to aid in supporting these students in their academic advancement, and to demonstrate proper practices in their development. 

The objectives of this administrative instruction include important steps in students’ development such as the drafting and implementation of individualized plans, within class differentiation, class advancement and so on, as future plans. 

Currently, the needs of these students are partially met through class advancement and competitions organized at school, municipal, and even national level. However, without proper identification, the students benefiting from these are not necessarily gifted but rather students with high performance. 

The implementation of individualized plans and within-class differentiation remain crucial for the proper development of gifted children. In practice, many factors such as a large number of students within a class (often surpassing 30 per class) and inadequately trained teachers often prevent its success. 

Speaking to one Kosovar student, J.R., who was identified with extraordinary intelligence in 2012 and is now pursuing Ph.D. studies in Natural Sciences at one of Europe’s most prestigious universities, she makes it clear that it is methods of education rather than content that needs addressing.

“The education system did not teach me any learning methods other than learning by heart,” J.R. says. “I was not stimulated to be curious nor encouraged to ask ‘why’ on anything exceeding the regular curricula, which are crucial elements when pursuing a scientific career.” 

The inability of Kosovar teachers to implement more advanced teaching and learning methods when working with gifted students during their classes is a result of a lack of preparation in their academic pursuits. 

At the department of education at University of Prishtina, the bachelor programs offer three courses that prepare future teachers to work with and support gifted children. These three courses are partially focused on the importance of teachers recognizing multiple types of intelligence and creating individualized teaching plans based on students’ abilities. The only class offered at the Faculty of Education which focuses entirely on gifted students, Working with Talented Children, is an optional course. 

Both representatives of MEST and ATOMI Institute state that these courses are not sufficient to fully prepare future teachers to work with gifted students, demonstrating the need for further training of current teachers. 

To fill these gaps, ATOMI Institute and GIZ have organized and held training sessions to certify teachers to implement individualized plans and in-class differentiation when working with gifted children. MEST, in its development plan, has considered the further training of teachers and other professionals within the schools, including pedagogues and psychologists. 

As a part of this development plan, the Division of Education for Special Needs has planned the standardization of the toolkit for the identification and evaluation of gifted children with extraordinary intelligence, in collaboration with the department of psychology and other supporting institutions. However, so far the number of trained school professionals remains around 100, a number which is critically small when compared to the number of schools, teachers, and gifted children in Kosovo.  

The additional support offered by the government to these bodies, the MEST’s Division for Education with Special Needs, non-governmental bodies, and the Faculty of Education remain crucial in accelerating this process. Rather than working on a solution, or focusing on only one category of students, allocating resources and opportunities for all can ensure that the needs of all students are met in a parallel way. 

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Edita Pozhegu is currently working as Researcher and PR Specialist at the Kosovo Advocacy and Development Center having previously worked at ATOMI. She studied social sciences at Sciences Po Paris and RIT Kosovo.

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09 February 2020 - 09:05

Edita Pozhegu

09/02/2020 - 09:05

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.