Thursday, 17 May 2012

Giftedness and Achievement: Attitudes, Misconceptions and Recommendations

What Does "Gifted" Actually Mean?

Part of the issue with identifying gifted students is that the criteria vary widely from place to place. Add to this the idea that permeates our society that gifted programs are somehow educationally superior to "regular" education, and a sense of elitism develops. In my opinion, groups such as Mensa do not help with this problem. Because of this, such programs are in high demand from parents who understandably want the best for their children. Different states and provinces face the need to look to a standardized test score criteria at which they can point to justify their programming decisions. Since different jurisdictions have varying levels of funding, student populations, resources, etc., the numbers are based on the perceived number of students they are able to serve. For example, many US states have a cutoff of a WISC IV score (one of the more common IQ tests) of 120; British Columbia has a cutoff in the low 130's. Other areas have different criteria again. Moving from one place to another doesn't change a learner's needs, but it may alter the services that are available.  When the learner is generally in the 120's range, the programs available in the US may well meet their needs. Placing a student with scores in the 160's in that same group will mean that either the teacher must be talented when it comes to providing differentiated instruction, or the needs of one or both extremes will not be well met.

Further complicating matters is the issue of potential cultural and linguistic bias in current measurement tools. While the tools are generally deemed statistically reliable, they are norm referenced on an "average" population which may differ substantially from the background of a student who comes from a different area and/or has a different first language or culture.

Another issue that often goes unaddressed is that of achievement vs. potential. For various reasons, many gifted students do not perform to their potential. When teachers are not trained to look for signs of giftedness, these students may be overlooked.

Gifted students may well be the stereotypical ones with their hand up to answer questions, their work completed perfectly and handed in on time, and who achieve straight A's on their report cards. It is just as likely though that the students who accomplish these things are high-achieving bright students who are not, in fact, gifted. The kid who spends hours on the bench by the principal's office, or the one who hides in the back of the classroom may be gifted. The little girl who comes to the breakfast program wearing hand-me-down pants with holes in the knees may be gifted too. So might the child who speaks no English and recently arrived to the school without any transcripts or files.

Overachieving is commendable, provided the child is happy and well-rounded, but it is not the same thing as being gifted. Overachievers who are grouped with gifted learners may suffer because their needs are much different.

I am going to say this once: not all children are gifted. All children have their own unique strengths and talents, and all children are valuable, but this is not the same thing as being gifted.

Being gifted is not a value statement. A person's worth is not measured purely by academic potential. Individual learners have the right to progress at their own pace, to learn in their own unique way, and to be challenged at a level that matches their own needs.

Gifted students face challenges that are not often understood by others.

Since learning often (but not always) comes easier for these students, it is not unusual to find students who have reached the post-secondary level who have never had to study for a midterm, have minimal note taking skills and suffer from an inability to properly organize and manage their time. Up until then, simply listening in class and occasionally flipping through the textbook may have been enough. Writing an assignment the night before it was due may have worked for them while in high school.
Since these skills were not essential, they were not learned and need to be learned if the student is to progress in higher education.

Now I'm going to backtrack a little. There are gifted students whose abilities are not necessarily in the academic realm. They may be gifted in the arts, leadership or sports. These students also have unique needs which must be addressed.

Because gifted students are more likely to understand complex social issues at a young age, they may have worries and nightmares that are difficult to manage. How do you explain away the famine in East Africa to a four year old in the wee hours of the night? You can try and shield him or her from the news, but it just takes a simple trip to the grocery store or library and the child has read the headlines (or full articles) and demands to know more. Gifted children tend to be keen observers; one way or another they are going to learn about these things, and probably at an earlier age than we would like.

It is important to understand that gifted 6 (8, 11, etc.) year-olds are still 6 year-olds. They may understand complex issues, but they are physically and emotionally still 6 years old. When an adult reads about these things and feels powerless, it is one thing, but when a young child reads it, that sense of powerlessness is magnified. These children may not understand why their friends do not share their concerns. This puts a strain on social relationships from an early age. People react differently to children who are exceptional, and gifted children feel this too. Responses may range from defensiveness to amazement and everything in between. No one likes to be a circus act or be told "Well, if you're so smart...", but the sad reality is that this is often a part of the package for gifted children.

Gifted children usually understand that they are different from most others from an early age. Depending on their personalities and experiences, they may react in different ways. They may retreat and pretend to be "normal", they may develop a fear of success (if I succeed, I or others will expect much more from me), a fear of failure (if I fail, then I wasn't really so smart after all), perfectionism, and / or depression. Less often, they may gloat and gain a superiority complex over their peers. Some try and hide their abilities, and some rebel. Psychological testing can help identify students who have built up their defenses and allow them to gain access to professionals and programs that can help them learn necessary coping skills in order to lead a fulfilling life. It can also help identify (or dispel incorrect diagnoses of) other issues, such as learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, etc.

It is a myth that all gifted students move on to higher education and fantastic careers. The attitude that "the cream will rise to the top" doesn't work for many; sometimes the cream sours, and sometimes the homogenized nature of society and especially our education system grinds them down, and many fail to live to their potential. I want to clarify here that by "potential" I mean the potential for a happy, fulfilling life, not the number of letters after the name or the dollar figure in their bank accounts. In fact, many gifted students fail to complete high school, and many suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or other related illnesses.

A well-designed gifted education isn't just something extra fun and exciting, with lots of academic prestige and opportunities for a special elite population. It can be a lifeline for some students.

Ideally, gifted programming should include coping mechanisms for dealing with these issues with peers and adults. It should teach students to understand how their brain functions and how they are both "the same" and "different" from others, why this is, and how this works for people with a variety of exceptionalities. Along with basic study skills and time management, it should include academic enhancement, enrichment and acceleration according to the individual needs of each learner. It should provide opportunities to work in the larger community both within the school and outside on various academic and community service projects. It should allow space and support for student-led inquiry. Like all education, it should help to develop the whole person, academically, socially, spiritually and emotionally.

The needs of the gifted are unique and in order to serve such students, we need teachers and administrators who understand these needs and have the necessary skills and training to serve this population.