5 Wonderings on Gifted Education

I am pleased to be contribute to the Blog Tour for the second annual Gifted Awareness Week in New Zealand.

As the co-founder of Gifted Education Awareness Week in Ireland with Dr. Catherine Riordan and Karen McCarthy, we fully appreciate the significance and impact raising awareness of giftedness.

For this blog post, I wanted to present a few ideas or questions that have been rolling around inside my head. Actually, they are more wonderings.  There may be alternative views on some of them. If so, please feel free to contribute. The summer offers an opportunity to explore these in more detail and so I fully expect my views will evolve over time.

So,

Image of brain showing areas which control different functions
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Wondering 1. Gifted children are not different because they are wired differently. I don’t mean they are wired the same as everyone. Instead, I think everyone is wired differently. To be sure, there are parts of the brain function that are common to everyone but within these regions, each individuals wiring is different.  If we say gifted children are ‘hard wired’ to be more able, then arguably we would have to demonstrate that the ‘hard wiring’ of two gifted children was alike in some way and also different to other children. I cannot see that, given individual differences, all gifted children have the same wiring. It would stand to reason that each individual gifted child has different wiring.  But no more different than the wiring between two non-gifted individuals. On the face of it, this is effectively saying gifted children’s’ wiring is different. But if we say the difference is due to the way they are wired (and therefore they need special intervention), well, so too is everyone else. Everyone is different on any number of variables. I do not think we should use the ‘hard wired’ argument to plead our cause. Rather, we should use the product of that hard wiring, i.e. the behavior (social-emotional, cognitive etc) of gifted children.

Wondering 2. Giftedness only has meaning when it is translated into performance. By ‘performance’, I mean that while an individual may be gifted, unless they demonstrate their giftedness, they can not be said to be meaningfully gifted. The best way to explain my thoughts on this is to imagine a hypothetical child who is (for the purposes here)  identified as gifted.  Every provision is made to ensure the child has the best available educational opportunity suited to his ability and every other aspect of the child’s life and experience is optimally adapted to ensuring the child has every means to achieve their

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potential. With one exception; this hypothetical child simply chooses not to create, produce, generate evidence (work) that would point to their giftedness. Can we say the child is gifted? Probably. But it would have little meaning. And certainly, we could not justify a place on a specialist programme for such child. We would have no way of showing they needed it or benefitted from it. Put perhaps even more simply, if we have no means of verifying by any test that a child is gifted, we can not conclude that they are in fact gifted.

In real life of course, gifted children may have several reasons for not performing. And in many cases, the absence of proper provision is the cause of that underperformance. A simple analogy; I know my alphabet; I have no interest in colouring in block letters to demonstrate I have learned my alphabet nor to do so as part of the alphabet-learning process; if I am asked to colour in letters as a class activity, I am unlikely to do it (unless coerced); can a teacher reasonably conclude that I have underperformed? And what if this is a regular experience of school? At what point would we regard it as reasonable for any child, much less a gifted child, to give up, get bored, depressed, angry, troublesome?

None of this is to deny the being of a gifted child. Every school should have regard for each child as they find them. But if in education we say that such and such a child is gifted and that appropriate provision must be made for them in school, this goes beyond the person of the gifted child and requires that the child demonstrate that giftedness during appropriate provision. It’s not about the child ‘justifying’ their gift; it’s more about ensuring that they deserve the resources and provision that is made that might be more usefully spent elsewhere.*

Wondering 3. I do not believe that the ‘purpose’ of gifted children is to become world leaders in their chosen field. Several authors (Syed, Gilbert) have alluded to the lack of pinnacle achievement attained by gifted children in their adult lives. It is as if gifted children must grow up to be the most brilliant and successful individuals there has ever been. And if they don’t, then the have failed to justify the resources spent on them* (there is an obvious corollary to that).

This is nonsense. Gifted education should not have as it’s goal the production of individuals who will set the world alight with their brilliance. This is ok as a by-product. The goal of gifted education should be the provision of positive, meaningful and self-actualising educational experiences for gifted children. A child’s potential goes far beyond their ability to become a top economist, mathematician, physicist, programmer. What would we say to a child in the future who had become the world’s Number 1 scientist yet lived a miserable, depressed and lonely life? That we had succeeded in ensuring they achieved their potential?

Giftedness does not have to be societally useful.  We should not rear a child who carries a heavier burden of responsibility than anyone else in making the world a better place. Gifted children do not exist to save the world and I think we do the cause a great disservice to plead this. In fact, any child can grow up to make the world a better place – it’s not the preserve of the gifted. Which brings me to point 4.

Wondering 4. Proper provision to address the needs of gifted children is a human right. End of!

Wondering 5. We need to spread awareness of gifted children and their needs. Advocacy exists for gifted children because recognition of their educational needs and the provision of appropriate education has been lacking.  Gifted childrens’ education is affected by many factors, as is the education of all children. However, gifted children have an extra layer of issues which mean that the education available to the greater mass of students is not appropriate for gifted children.

In an ideal world every teacher would be a trained specialist in every area of ability including gifted. But in the real world, standards in teacher training is varied yet most teachers have the basic skills to make a big difference in the lives of gifted children. The first step therefore has to be making teachers aware of the presence of gifted children in the classroom and offering help and support to enable them meet the needs of the children in their immediate care.

Despite starting from a very low base, Gifted Education Awareness Week in Ireland has generated a positive response among teachers. To be sure, the work is slow but then Rome was built in a day! I wish my New Zealand colleagues every best wish for Gifted Awareness Week. One more step along the road..

* there is a prima facie contradiction here but don’t feel I need to explain it as it is only prima facie!

6 Comments

  1. I wonder what kind of “production” on the part of a gifted child makes their gifts meaningful. Is it only the kind that teachers expect? Or perhaps the child funnels their production into a format that is meaningful to himself (but maybe not as meaningful to others)? I agree with you wholeheartedly that eminence/world leadership are not the measure of the worth of a gifted person. The trick is figuring out how we can encourage directed mental growth without stifling the natural intense desire to learn that these children have.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. Regarding advocacy I complete agree. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen kids relegated to what the teacher will call peer tutoring or their small group instruction will be-go read a book. The focus is often on getting the struggling kids to where they need to be, not necessarily helping those that will already pass the test.

  3. You’re so right Mona. Schools often consign students to the scrap heap simply because they can not achieve what the school wants them to achieve – “I’m sorry you’re a natural artists, here, do this algebra”! Schools need to be more open to and knowledgeable about evidence of giftedness. My point was really about someone who showed no signs of giftedness no matter how measured, within the context of the point, knowing that the child was gifted.
    It really is a pity that in the 21st century, instead of broadening of understanding of what constitutes learning, we are narrowing it down to standardised tests and performance on the PISA.

  4. Totally agree. It’s like a teacher (or to be fair, the education system) swing to a child “you have learned the required minimum, well done; now go sit quietly in that corner”.

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