Parents should not force gifted children to skip grades or focus too much on academic achievement as it could hinder their social, emotional or intellectual development, according to the latest winner of the prestigious Crafoord Prize for mathematics.
Terence Tao, a child of Hong Kong immigrants to Australia and currently a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, was awarded what is sometimes called the Nobel prize for mathematics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Crafoord Prize is intended to promote research in mathematics as well as other academic fields such as astronomy and biosciences and is presented personally by Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf.
Tao, labelled by some of his peers as the Mozart of Maths for his creativity, won the prize along with a Belgian scholar, Professor Jean Bourgain of Princeton.
Being passionate about one’s own work and having freedom to choose were both keys to success, according to comments Tao made about educating prodigies on his blog.
“Obtaining degree X from prestigious institution Y in only Z years, or scoring A on test B at age C,” would not help long-term development, he said.
In 2006, Tao became the second ethnic Chinese to receive another coveted maths award, the Fields Medal, after renowned mathematician Yau Shing-tung won in 1982.
Tao admitted a big reason for his success was the freedom his parents, Billy and Grace Tao, gave him from an early age and his own passion to learn.
“They were happy to let me do what I liked and I’m very grateful for that. They didn’t push me into something,” he said in an interview with the Australian Mathematical Society.
Born in 1975 in Adelaide, Tao was a prodigy. According to his paediatrician father, he started high school at the age of eight by skipping five grades in primary school and soon afterwards started part-time classes at university. He obtained his master’s degree in Australia when he was 17 years old, followed by a PhD from Princeton University at 21.
Tao and Bourgain were described by Crafoord adjudicators as having “solved an impressive number of important problems in mathematics”.
Tao said in his blog that one should not only evaluate the achievements of a gifted child by measuring artificial benchmarks such as how many grades had been skipped. He said one key thing to learn as a parent of a prodigy was to encourage the child to find the work enjoyable.
The 36-year-old said the urge to learn and understand the world as well as using critical thinking, rather than taking things “at face value”, were other keys.
“If I don’t understand something properly, every single component, it really bugs me. I don’t like accepting things at face value,” he said in an interview with a UCLA news unit.
A request for an interview with Tao was refused by his public relations representatives, who said he would rather concentrate on his academic work.
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