Monday, 5 November 2012

Differentiating Between Gifted and High Achieving Students

The title of this post may seem, at least at first glance, to be somewhat of a non-issue to many (most?) people, be they parents, educators or the general public. And yet, if we take the time to do this, we might just find that we are suddenly better able to understand and meet the needs of a large number of students.

Unfortunately, our society is driven by test scores. Because of this, IQ scores are sometimes viewed as value statements rather than descriptors. More useful than the number is a look into the individual subtest scores in order to determine a student's relative strengths and weaknesses in order to better meet their educational needs. Achievement and IQ are separate aspects of an individual and only through a combination of the two are students able to achieve true educational success, that is, to continue to learn and grow as individuals throughout life.

Truly Gifted Students

Let me start with another idea that may seem contradictory: many gifted students underachieve, fail, or drop out of school. They are more vulnerable to mental illness than the general population. Their needs can be, and are often, overlooked. There is a tendency to misdiagnose associated behaviours as social defiant or ADD/ ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder with or without hyperactivity), among other things. While it is true that one can be both gifted and have another such designation, it is often the case that the diagnosis is made through misunderstanding.

It is important to clarify what we mean by "gifted" in terms of both population and needs. Some places call all students who perform above average gifted; some rely on teacher reports, and others rely on a battery of standardized tests administered by a registered clinical psychologist to determine an IQ score, or when this is not possible due to subtest variation, a series of scores. [IQ tests are made up of several sections, called "subtests" which are made up of a series of tasks that test different cognitive functions]

Even when the students are properly tested, there is a discrepancy as to what magic number or numbers will be the "cutoff" between "gifted" and "non-gifted" populations. In some areas, this score can be as low as 120, and in others it is as high as 140. When you consider that an "average" score is 100, and a score of 70 is considered developmentally delayed (aka mentally retarded), the difficulties with the difference of 20 points in determining a gifted label become readily apparent.

For the sake of argument, I will use the number of 130; while recognizing that it is an imperfect designation.
In fact, the general consensus in psychological circles seems to be that 130-140 = gifted; 140-150 = highly gifted; 150-160 = exceptionally gifted and 160+ = profoundly gifted.

Let's think about a person who is profoundly gifted. This may be quite difficult for most of us, because a person with an IQ that high is literally one in a million. They are as different from "average" as someone who is low-functioning and will require lifelong assistance is on the other side of the distribution curve. Their needs are clearly very different than someone who is of average intelligence (90-110) or even highly intelligent or gifted.

I will try and put it another way to make my point here.

One definition for determining a learning disability is a discrepancy between scores of a subtest such that a low score is three or more standard deviations lower than the other scores.[It is important to note that there is a lack of consensus among professionals regarding a specific definition of learning disabilities and also of learning disorders] By this definition, a profoundly gifted student could have a learning disability in an area and still score in the gifted range in that area. Is this a problem for them? Possibly, if it affects their ability to communicate thoughts and ideas, or to remember them effectively. 
Even a student who is highly gifted might have a learning disability that is masked by their apparent "average" ability in that area. 
Students whose discrepancies are thus missed are at risk of low self-concept, frustration, and other emotional and academic problems.

In fact, even without discrepancies in different areas, gifted students have different needs than other students, particularly in the areas of emotional and social development, study skills, and executive functioning. It is not uncommon for these students to reach the university level without ever having had to study in order to do well. Since they have never had to learn this and possibly other executive functioning skills, they have not had any experience with them and can find themselves suddenly overwhelmed. They need to be specifically taught how to study and manage their time. Gifted students are often observant and reflective, and can have anxiety over local and global issues that their peers are not likely to understand. A program that is truly designed for gifted students should incorporate meaningful ways to address these issues that are unique to this population.

In terms of academics, each student will need their own IEP (Individualized Education Plan) which addresses their strengths and weaknesses. Always strengths before weaknesses! These students know they are different and they need to find ways to celebrate those differences in a positive way. It is important that these students learn how to cope with failure, which can only come when they are challenged at an appropriate level and supported emotionally so that they learn how to take risks and work towards a goal. Letting gifted students coast through known or comfortable material does these students a grave disservice and must be discouraged in order for these students to thrive, not only in school but also in life. 

Gifted students, particularly those with the highest IQs, need opportunities to meet and work together through conferences, exchanges, ability grouping where possible, etc. Mentoring with specialists and professionals in various fields of study can form an important part of their middle and high school education.

High Achievers

We all know the stereotype--the kids with their hands up, who hand in their assignments early with double the word-count, who do their homework and reach beyond it to understand the material inside-out. They are the Hermione Grangers of the world. These are kids who are average to above average in ability but who are for one reason or another driven to achieve. These kids know how to study because it is a way of life for them. They are organized and diligent, and they understand that their achievement is linked to hard work because they have learned this through experience.
Frustrations these kids may have often come from group work with less motivated students, delays in feedback from teachers, and material that repeats itself. 
These students are often the "do-ers" and "joiners" in the school, and some may enjoy leadership within and outside of the school setting. 
Academic enrichment for these students should include just that--enrichment. Guest speakers, field trips, and cluster grouping for project work, as well as opportunities for students to share their work with others will meet these students' needs much better than the gifted programming I describe above. Peer tutoring is also an option for these students, but should be a choice and not a substitute for enrichment, or a punishment. Students should not be given the job/punishment/perk of marking other students' work. This is the teacher's job, and it is the teacher's job because all students deserve a degree confidentiality.

There are, of course, students who belong to both groups--students who are highly motivated and gifted. I would argue that those students should have access to the options I outlined in the "truly gifted" section, mainly because I believe that those are the most crucial skills and issues that need to be addressed for any gifted student. The IEP should identify and aid in further meeting their needs.

When we envision programming for gifted students, we often think of the options I have described for the high-achieving group. In this way, we set ourselves up for many of the problems that riddle gifted education, particularly regarding those related to demographics. Between sexism, racism and elitism, gifted programming has many feeling that it is somehow an unfair advantage provided for a chosen few. It is no wonder then that many educators treat is as a sort of reward for accomplishments rather than a necessary means to meet student needs.

Only when we can be honest about IQs and the "gifted" label can we progress to the point where we can distinguish between the two and break through the barriers of misunderstanding in order to better meet student needs.