The good news, according to Professor Deborah Eyre, the director of Nord Anglia Education and an expert in high-performance learning, is that our children could well be Nobel Prize winners in the making. The bad news is that it's pretty much up to us, their parents, whether or not they succeed.
"We call it 'nurturing giftedness'," says the former teacher and academic who specialises in advanced cognitive performance and whose research has helped shape educational policy in the UK and internationally. "The traditional methodology that is being used is to identify the children who are thought to be gifted and then giving them different work to do," she explains. "What is central to my work is that I think more people could achieve those things than the ones who are conventionally defined as gifted."
In fact, Eyre has been working extensively with schools in the Middle East and the results bear this out. "Where we change the educational conditions," she says, "not only do those children who are conventionally thought of as gifted perform very well, but so does everybody else." The same programme is now being rolled out in all the Nord Anglia schools, of which the British International School Abu Dhabi is one.
And this is where we, the parents, come in. "In order to get to the level of success we're talking about," says Eyre, "there is a formula that you need: children need the right opportunities, they have to have the right kind of support and they have to be motivated themselves. In all three of those areas, parents play a really important role."
Giving them opportunities, she explains, does not mean simply signing children up for as many extra-curricular activities as possible. "It's not just formal things but informal," she says, "how you play with them, read to them, talk to them." In terms of support, parents should encourage their child to take on new things and then stick with them. And then they need to try to instil a sense of motivation.
"Some children are naturally more enthusiastic than others," says Eyre, "but as parents you can do quite a lot to encourage them to be more motivated."
Easier said than done, you may say. "It's not always straightforward," she says. "The strategies may not work every time, but if you do them consistently, they make a massive difference."
In an increasingly competitive world where the definition of success is changing, standing out from the crowd is more important than ever. "Just having subject knowledge is not enough anymore," she says. "You've got to be able to use it because you've got to be able to solve problems, and ones that you didn't know were going to exist."
These changes, she adds, are resulting in significant educational reforms on a worldwide scale. "In almost all countries in the world it's the major change that's happening, from transmitting strong subject knowledge to providing children with the ability to use it. Any school or system that isn't doing that is not preparing its students well enough."
So, what about that Nobel Prize? Don't lose hope if your child isn't acing their exams just yet. "Children develop at different rates and in different ways," says Eyre. "If you were trying to predict a Nobel Prize winner while they were in primary school, you would have no chance at all because they usually did not demonstrate anything significant at that stage, and even in secondary school, for the most part."
The one thing they did all have, however, was support from a parent or significant adult. "A child will not fulfil their potential if they don't have support from home," she says. "Parents have to say phrases such as: 'You can do it.' It's not good enough to say: 'You're no good at maths, I was no good either' because then you can be sure they won't be." Equally, she adds, it is crucial to teach children that success doesn't always come easily. "If they don't get it right the first time, the feedback needs to be: 'I know it didn't work out the first time, but you can do this,' because if parents transfer that belief to their children, then they will believe it too, and they've got so much more chance of actually achieving."
Eight tips for nurturing young minds:
• If you are keen for your child to do extra-curricular activities, find the things that seem to chime with them and encourage them to really make a go of it.
• For young children, imagination is a really important part of how they learn to understand the world so try to play plenty of "let's pretend" games.
• Don't be afraid of using technical language just because a child is small.
• Encouraging curiosity is absolutely fundamental. If they exhibit curiosity, respond to it and build on it by prompting them.
• Find a space in your family life to talk, even if it's in the car on the way to school. That's special time, when you can talk about important things.
• Giving children a choice, even if it's an engineered one, helps them to feel autonomous and, in turn, motivated.
• Children like purpose, so taking the time to explain why they're going to do something is really important and helps to motivate them.
• Help your child to learn to develop and express their ideas by asking them: "What do you think?"
Professor Deborah Eyre will be discussing How to Help Your Child Perform Highly at School tonight at the Park Rotana Hotel, Abu Dhabi, at 7pm. Admission is free. Call 02 510 0102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.