Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Trouble with Giftedness

Posted by Eve

A recent thread at Segullah got me, yet again, contemplating my reservations about giftedness.

I support the educational principle so many mothers defend on the thread, namely, that every child deserves an appropriately engaging and challenging education. That ought to be our ideal, difficult or impossible as it is in underfunded public-school classrooms with overworked and underpaid teachers and staff.

But one of my reservations about giftedness, and about the kind of advocacy the Segullah thread describes, is the social Darwinism that inevitably emerges, in which every parent fights the system for her child’s particular needs, allied with other parents only insofar as their children’s needs coincide. (Advocacy for special-needs children has precisely the same effect.) Parents of course owe their own children something they owe no others.  And those urging advocacy are correct that if parents don’t advocate for their own children, likely no one will. However, the advocacy model, and the adversarial approach to the schools it arises from and perpetuates, eviscerates educational community. If we Mormons treated our church communities in this way—with concern only for our own—they would fall apart.

As middle-class parents with the time, energy, and know-how to advocate for their children get those children’s needs met by insisting on testing and enrichment and special programs, or by pulling their children out of the schools altogether, they leave fewer and fewer resources to the children whose parents do not or cannot advocate for them. Advocacy—especially intense, prolonged advocacy to remake a classroom or a school in favor of one’s child—inevitably comes at the expense of the children who do not share that child’s needs. Commenters at Segullah repeatedly insist that they are not advocating that their child receive more than other children, or that advocating for their children actually benefits all children. But I think such comments implicitly assume an educational utopia of limitless resources, when in reality, limited resources and overwhelmed teachers too often make educational advocacy a zero-sum game. And when resources are so limited, I tend to think that gifted children with such immense parental resources at their disposal need those resources the least.

But I see other problems with giftedness. I think there are some generally unacknowledged realities that underlie the entire phenomenon, and if we’re going to think about giftedness clearly, we need to acknowledge those realities. Here, in my view, are some of them.

(1) In our culture, “gifted” is unquestionably better than “average” or “mainstream,” which in turn is better than “learning disabled.” (If you doubt me, imagine the effects of announcing that your child is gifted and announcing that your child is learning disabled. Which announcement will garner congratulations or competitive hostility, and which will garner sympathy?) When we label a child “gifted,” we are in essence telling her that she is better than other children, better because of her intellectual capacity. We shouldn’t be in the least surprised when gifted children are arrogant or superior or overidentified with the gifted label or unwilling to take educational risks that might jeopardize it. In conferring the label and all the cultural values that underlie it, these are the ways we are teaching a child to behave. It’s really unfair to the arrogant gifted child to turn around and disapprove of precisely the socially unappealing behavior that we are subtly instilling.(As is so often the case, we’re teaching children a complicated social dance. We’re teaching them to think they are better than others but not to acknowledge that they think that.)

(2) We cannot evade the uncomfortable reality of (1) in such euphemisms as “different learning styles.” We all know that some differences are better than others, and anyone who invites children to identify the “smart” [class/track/program] at their school and the “dumb,” will find that any child with a modicum of social intelligence can perform this task with unerring and pitiless brilliance.

(3) As a label for human beings, “gifted” suffers from all the same problems that “retarded” does. Parents of and advocates for children with autism or Down syndrome have tirelessly advocated for people-first language, and argued against such reductive labels. What we sometimes struggle to see is that labels we consider positive, such as gifted, are just as reductive. We can’t have it both ways. If we don’t like the label “retarded” (I myself don’t), why should we like the label “gifted”?

(4) Just as children know who’s smart and who’s dumb and which it’s better to be, children are little geniuses at decoding their parents’ values and expectations, particularly unstated expectations. So I think we have to have a certain healthy skepticism about claims that a four-year-old just really, naturally prefers memorizing the history of sociology to playing with her My Little Ponies. No one, least of all a child dependent for his very life on his parents, is such a radical individual that the desires and expectations of others have no effect on him.

(5) Giftedness, as presently constituted (1), is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Giftedness says some children are better than others, that value is proportional to scarcity, that only a few can be the brilliant, shining stars. The gospel says that we are all beloved children of a God who is no respecter of persons, and that we all have gifts. But more to the point, giftedness says that gifts belong to—in fact, constitute the value of—the gifted person, while the gospel says that gifts come from God, for the benefit of the community—not for the enhancement of the gifted person’s ego.

In short, I see no way around the conclusion that giftedness is a form of pride.

So what’s a parent who of course wants the best for her child to do? I have no idea. I think every parent has to make very hard judgment calls about the points at which a child needs to learn to conform to institutional expectations, and points at which those expectations become too much to bear. Every parent has to choose from an array of imperfect educational alternatives. I certainly wouldn’t condemn a parent simply because she put her child in a gifted program, for example. But I think we owe it to our children to question the assumptions on which gifted programs so unquestioningly rest.

We could use a lot more of the careful critical thinking—thinking of which the gifted are allegedly so capable!—about the concept of giftedness itself.

73 Responses to “The Trouble with Giftedness”

  1. 1.

    Eve,
    I don’t have time to respond in full right now, but I will respond to this, So I think we have to have a certain healthy skepticism about claims that a four-year-old just really, naturally prefers memorizing the history of sociology to playing with her My Little Ponies
    It is not a matter of wanting to play with ponies or not. My daughter loves playing with ponies. When she goes to school it does not involve playing with ponies. It involves reading and math. All I am asking is that she do it at her level.
    My children are not ahead because they spend inordinate amounts of time reading sociology or doing calculus at home. It is because they grasp the concepts so much faster than they are usually presented to them in school.

    I am also wondering where in the world you get that I have, or a categorized group of parents as having “immense parental resources at their disposal.”

    Furthermore, while claiming not to like labels for kids, you are in fact labeling kids as arrogant and superior according to your own prejudices.

  2. 2.

    Just a few questions and comments:

    the advocacy model, and the adversarial approach to the schools it arises from and perpetuates, eviscerates educational community

    Parents who advocate for their children do not have to do so at the expense of other children, or as adversaries to the educational community. Just about every Back to School night I have ever attended has at some point involved the teacher stressing how important it is that the parents be involved in their children’s education, as opposed to just handing them over to the system for whatever it has in store six hours a day. Most of our kid’s teachers have seemed appreciative of parents who want to work with them to help our kids have a productive and engaging year. We’ve never “fought” with teachers, only worked with those who were willing and respectfully waited out the one or two who were not. You admit that “if parents don’t advocate for their own children, likely no one will”. This is probably true in the direct sense, but when one advocates for an individual, they are also implicitly advocating for many others in similar circumstances but not known personally by the advocate. It’s natural that that’s how progress is often made in society, and explains why we end up with names like “Megan’s Law”. Natural because we generally can’t work to solve a problem until we are aware that it exists.

    We cannot evade the uncomfortable reality of (1) in such euphemisms as “different learning styles.” We all know that some differences are better than others

    Really? I can’t figure out which “different leaning style” is supposed to be the universally better one. Is it visual? Or auditory, or tactile, or some other style?

    We shouldn’t be in the least surprised when gifted children are arrogant or superior

    Have you really found through personal experience that gifted children tend to be arrogant and elitist? This has not been my experience – I would be more apt to pick descriptors like unsure, admiring of peers, and often vulnerable. In fact, I can’t really think of any gifted children I know personally who I would characterize as arrogant.

    You note that all have gifts given from God, but seem to suggest that to acknowledge what they are is antithetical to the gospel. That to recognize a gift is to claim that individual value is derived from it, or that its purpose could only be to serve one’s ego and pride.

    You equate identification of a gift with identity itself. Are we also telling a child that he is intrinsically better than other children if we describe him or her as a “fast runner”, or “uncommonly kind”, or “extraordinarily patient”, or “a natural bassoonist”.

    On the contrary, how can we ever use our gifts to bless others if we refuse to see them and even institutionalize restriction of their development? You claim that the existence of giftedness would imply that “some children are better than others”. If this is true, and yet God does give gifts, then how can we teach our children that their eternal value is derived from their identity as His children rather than from what He has given them? We have to be able to teach that some are better at soccer, some are better at math, but none is intrinsically better than the other.

    Society will be best served by institutions, both religious and secular, that are broad enough to facilitate development of the full range of gifts that are shared by its members. Building and maintaining such institutions requires ongoing effort from an equally broad range of advocates.

  3. 3.

    Hi, nmiles! Nice, as always, to see you here.

    When she goes to school it does not involve playing with ponies. It involves reading and math. All I am asking is that she do it at her level.

    Sounds good to me. As I said in my first (full) paragraph above, the educational ideal of each child being engaged at his level is one I fully support.

    I am also wondering where in the world you get that I have, or a categorized group of parents as having “immense parental resources at their disposal.”

    OK, let me attempt to clarify. I don’t see how there’s any way around the conclusion that parents who are able to advocate for their children in the ways the Segullah thread proposes–meeting with teachers and principals repeatedly over time, getting to know the full school staff and all the relevant laws, being aware of and orchestrating their child’s entire education–simply do have far more resources, intellectual and emotional, than parents who aren’t able to do this. Middle-class English-speaking parents who’ve been to college themselves and know the system and have a certain native confidence in challenging it have immense advantages over working-class parents, parents who don’t speak English, parents who haven’t attended college. SAHPs also have an immense advantage over parents who have no choice but to work the kinds of jobs they can’t easily get time off of to meet with teachers. These are the kinds of class advantages we don’t often consider–and personally, I think they are immense.

    Furthermore, while claiming not to like labels for kids, you are in fact labeling kids as arrogant and superior according to your own prejudices.

    No, I don’t think I am. (If you can show me where in the OP you’re getting this, I’ll certainly read with interest.) What I’m arguing is that giftedness is, itself, a concept of superiority, and when we (as a society) send a message to a child that he is superior to others, we can’t really be surprised if he becomes arrogant.

  4. 4.

    Hi, amiles. Thanks for taking the time to respond in such depth. Let me attempt to respond to just some of what you’ve said.

    We cannot evade the uncomfortable reality of (1) in such euphemisms as “different learning styles.” We all know that some differences are better than others

    Really? I can’t figure out which “different leaning style” is supposed to be the universally better one. Is it visual? Or auditory, or tactile, or some other style?

    Those aren’t the kind of differences I had in mind (although I’ll freely confess I’m quite skeptical of trendy theories of “different learning styles” in general). But here I had in mind the euphemisms under which (according to one commenter at Segullah) gifted programs sometimes operate, in which we try to claim that gifted children simply learn “differently” and that it’s not a matter of being ahead of or better than other children. I think that while this is no doubt very well-intentioned, it’s really hard to get away from the fact that in our culture, that’s precisely what giftedness is about–being better.

    We shouldn’t be in the least surprised when gifted children are arrogant or superior

    Have you really found through personal experience that gifted children tend to be arrogant and elitist? This has not been my experience – I would be more apt to pick descriptors like unsure, admiring of peers, and often vulnerable. In fact, I can’t really think of any gifted children I know personally who I would characterize as arrogant.

    Again, as I said above to nmiles above, I’m not making a blanket claim that all gifted children are arrogant and superior. (Such blanket claims are, of course, impossible to substantiate.) I would agree that certain children who are intellectually inclined are shy and vulnerable–although I don’t think that shyness and vulnerability are necessarily incompatible with arrogance. But as I said above, giftedness is itself a concept of superiority. If children so designated do in fact become arrogant, we really can’t be surprised.

    You note that all have gifts given from God, but seem to suggest that to acknowledge what they are is antithetical to the gospel. That to recognize a gift is to claim that individual value is derived from it, or that its purpose could only be to serve one’s ego and pride….You equate identification of a gift with identity itself.

    I’m not opposed to identifying and acknowledging gifts, but I think we have to be careful in doing so not to make someone’s gift her identity–and we have to be honest about the cultural baggage that often underlies such identifications. Personally, I think making a gift an identity is at the heart of what’s wrong with giftedness, and I think that’s exactly what we do to children when we label them gifted.

    Are we also telling a child that he is intrinsically better than other children if we describe him or her as a “fast runner”, or “uncommonly kind”, or “extraordinarily patient”, or “a natural bassoonist”.

    Excellent question! Thanks for posing it. Honestly, I’m entirely not sure what I think on this point. My first off-the-top-of-my-head response would be to say that we have to think about why we’re making such identifications (and again, be honest with ourselves about our own motives). If we’re trying to help our children see how they can most effectively contribute to their families and communities, well, more power to us. But far too often we make them explicitly to, for example, “build up a child’s self-esteem.” (I’ve sat through far too many church lessons in which we identify what people are good at to make them feel good about themselves.) That’s just pride.

    Society will be best served by institutions, both religious and secular, that are broad enough to facilitate development of the full range of gifts that are shared by its members. Building and maintaining such institutions requires ongoing effort from an equally broad range of advocates.

    Sounds good to me!

  5. 5.

    Just a little note. We have 1 child who qualifies as “gifted” and his older sister does not meet the definition. We could talk until we’re blue in the face, but she was still feeling as if we were saying her little brother was smarter than her.
    At a parent meeting introducing the gifted program, they handed out a paper that showed the difference btwn “gifted”, “high achievers”, and “creative thinkers”. It was discussed more as how the different children perceive and interact with the world, rather than about who was “smarter” because each category had their own talents and interests and abilities. This made it much easier to look at it as not a competition between children, but more as a way to engage each child within their unique view of the world.
    But the example that cemented it for my daughter? Once my son was whining about having to sweep the bathroom floor. “Mom, I can’t sweep because my opposable thumb is hurting and so I can’t grasp the broom!” As I explained to my daughter, she knows the purpose of an opposable thumb, that you grasp things with it, but she’s filed that away as an extraneous piece of information. When complaining about sweeping the floor, she’d just say, “My thumb hurts!” Same result, but my son likes to see and think about and verbalize every little bit of the world and how it links together and interacts, while my daughter files more of that away as unnecessary to the conversation.
    Thus, conversations with each child are much different, what they find interesting at school is much different, and what they like to read about is different; but one child is not better than the other. It is unfortunate that gifted does have the connotation of smarter; if we could talk more about different types of thinkers, that might help.

  6. 6.

    Bravo. I love this post and that thread at Segullah made me VERY uncomfortable.

    As a teacher, I know that “advocate” parents actually do result in resources being taken from one set of kids and being given another. I know those moms don’t want to hear it, but they are being pushy. Look at Special Ed: these parents are very successful advocates. And the programs used to support their kids are out of this world expensive. All the extra people, specialists, rooms, equipment, etc cost money that would have gone to arts education and field trips for the average kids in another era. Seriously, when we talk about cuts at school, what do you think accounts for smaller budgets for music teachers? OTs, PTs, Speech language pathologists, and the rest do not volunteer their time.

    Is this inappropriate? I don’t think so. I think we do need to provide that kind of (very expensive) support to families. But let’s be real, it DOES affect other students. Often, special “gifted” or accelerated programs get the cut in favor of another 12-1-1 classroom (12 kids, one teacher, one aid). I think that is a fine trade off.

    Because the gifted kids will figure it out. They will check out books “on their own level” from the library and insist their parents take them to the science museum. They are a great example in mainstreamed classes, while some of the special needs peers are more distracting and it serves everyone better when they spend part of the day down the hall. The gifted kids will come out just fine (incidentally, how important is this giftedness in real adult life? Not very; but the CP kids will never escape their label).

    I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages. Our parents (unlike SE and Gifted) are fairly poor advocates for their kids. It might be a language barrier, or cultural, or time, but they are often not present at school. We teachers do our best to be the advocates, but we do not have the same cache as the pushy parents, and out kids suffer for it. My entire department shops for our books and manipulatives out of our own pockets or use the cast-offs from classroom teachers because me have no budget. It is because our parents don’t “advocate.”

    Aside from my teacher self, I am also one of 10 kids, some of whom were gifted. And it is very hard for a 5 year old, and even many 17 and 20 year olds not to FEEL superior when they get so much academic praise. Because in school, that is the praise they know counts. Not “Suzy is a great friend” but “Suzy already knows her times tables!”

    Most importantly, I am the mother of some fabulously average kids. I couldn’t be happier.

  7. 7.

    ESO, your last paragraph says it all. If you had a child with special needs, on either end of the spectrum, I daresay you’d be singing a different tune.

  8. 8.

    Giftedness, as presently constituted (1), is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Giftedness says some children are better than others, that value is proportional to scarcity, that only a few can be the brilliant, shining stars. The gospel says that we are all beloved children of a God who is no respecter of persons, and that we all have gifts.

    The gospel doesn’t say that all our gifts are of the same magnitude. In fact, the parable of the Talents explicitly says that we’ve been given gifts of differing abilities. Your perspective would have us all try to ignore that one child has been given 10 talents, and one child 5. You wish that when the Lord returned to check his servants’ success, that all children produced the same number of talents, so as not to make the others feel bad.

    I’m sorry, but it’s hard not to feel anger at the establishment (including many teachers) who try their best to stomp out genius and enforce mediocrity. I don’t understand why we tolerate this attitude.

  9. 9.

    If you have a gifted child and they are bored in school because the teachers are teaching to the average, you would understand the need to advocate for your child. Otherwise you are teaching them to be lazy, which is often what happens. ALL children’s needs should be considered. I realize it’s impossible to meet all of the needs, but GOOD FOR PARENTS WHO ADVOCATE! (And I’m not one of them – yet) The concept that we all have to be perfectly equal is bunk. God gives us different talents and we need to magnify them, not say “oh I’m as good as Joe in X so I’ll quit trying to do better.”

  10. 10.

    Eve,
    I am not gifted. I’m pretty average. I grew up in poverty and on welfare. I haven’t finished college. My parents did not finish college.
    I have siblings who fell into the gifted camp. I am glad they had educational opportunities in school they needed. My mom was involved as she could be, which wasn’t a ton. I’m glad there were other parents who could do more so all of us were able to have a decent public education. I hope I, as an uneducated mother, can help my kids and other kids out too. I fear, from your response, that you think my resources aren’t vast enough, that I am not good enough to do that.

    I don’t feel bad that that is one of their talents, and mine are different. My parents never went around praising them for being smart, as I don’t do that to my children. We were all always treated with compassion and love as children of God.

  11. 11.

    JES and ESO, thanks for adding your perspectives and experiences.

    Kathryn, couldn’t we just as easily flip your statement around, though, and say that if you had some fabulously average children, you’d be singing a different tune? (In other words, the difficulty I see is the one ESO describes–benefits to one group of children are often costs to another. Everyone, of course, would prefer that their children are benefited. What to do? I honestly don’t know, but I think we have to start by acknowledging the difficulty.)

    RecessionCone said,

    The gospel doesn’t say that all our gifts are of the same magnitude. In fact, the parable of the Talents explicitly says that we’ve been given gifts of differing abilities.Your perspective would have us all try to ignore that one child has been given 10 talents, and one child 5.

    Certainly there are enormous differences in human capability. All the scriptural passages on spiritual gifts implicitly make this point, and furthermore, it’s easily observable. But what’s fascinating to me is the eternal significance assigned to those differences, which could not be in starker contrast to the mortal significances we assign them. Essentially, having ten talents rather than four, or working all day rather than just the eleventh hour, means nothing in the end. All that’s significant is what the servants of different abilities do with those abilities.

    You wish that when the Lord returned to check his servants’ success, that all children produced the same number of talents, so as not to make the others feel bad.

    No, I don’t think so. The OP doesn’t say anything about everyone having the same number and magnitude of talents or being equal in capacity, and (in the context of this discussion, anyway) I’m not particularly concerned with others feeling bad. What I’m concerned with here is people who feel good in a cheap way, children we’re giving the cheap thrill of feeling that because they can do something better or more easily than others, they therefore are better than others.

    I’m sorry, but it’s hard not to feel anger at the establishment (including many teachers) who try their best to stomp out genius and enforce mediocrity. I don’t understand why we tolerate this attitude.

    Hmmm. Personally I’m fairly unpersuaded by the concept of genius. Isn’t it just something of an unfortunate holdover from Romanticism?

    I think (!) I’m in greater accord with you on the problems of institutions. They are legion, no way around it, and as I said, every parent faces tough questions about the point at which damage outweighs benefits to their particular children. There certainly are poor teachers who stomp on kids, intellectually and emotionally, at every level. Teaching is power over students, and it undeniably attracts some petty sadists. The problems of educational systems in general are huge. I don’t pretend to have any answers to those.

  12. 12.

    I disagree that children’s play is parent driven or necessarily a feedback loop. You will find children with unusal predispositions and strong interests in home settings whether this is neither fostered nor valued. Nature and nuture go hand in hand. I think you putting to much to nuture.I ndividuality I think is deeply embedded in each of us, talents, etc.

    I do think many parents try to force interests in certain things a product of our “make your kids smarter” world of toys (don’t start me on baby einstein, etc) .

    Also your analogies between church insitution and school I think is poor comparison. You can read all you want at church- read the whole manual in a week if you want- and hey more power to you and more light and knwoledge– but at school, this is taboo.

  13. 13.

    I hope I, as an uneducated mother, can help my kids and other kids out too. I fear, from your response, that you think my resources aren’t vast enough, that I am not good enough to do that.

    mmiles, I believe you’re misreading Eve. She’s suggesting that if you have the time, energy, and inclination to advocate for your child, you have vast parental resources. She’s not concerned at all that you’re not educated enough to do this. If anything, she may be concerned that your parental resources are greater than those of other parents and that other parents’ kids suffer because their willingness or ability to advocate for their kids isn’t as great as yours. (Sorry to put words in your mouth, Eve–correct me if I’m wrong.)

  14. 14.

    If you have a gifted child and they are bored in school because the teachers are teaching to the average, you would understand the need to advocate for your child.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to advocacy (a term which, I should add, I think covers a large range of approaches to teachers and principals and the system, some appropriate and helpful, others less so). I think we just have to consider the costs of certain types of intense, long-term advocacy for some children at the expense of others.

    Otherwise you are teaching them to be lazy, which is often what happens.

    Indeed it does. But I think designated giftedness can, just as often as designated normality, instill laziness and fear of failure (which are often indistinguishable).

    The concept that we all have to be perfectly equal is bunk.

    Well, that depends on what we mean by “equal.” We hear all the time that men and women are perfectly equal in value to God but that equality does not imply sameness. Perhaps something along those lines is true in these cases?

    nmiles said,

    I fear, from your response, that you think my resources aren’t vast enough, that I am not good enough to do that.

    Not at all. From my very limited perspective on what you’ve said here, you seem to be doing an excellent job!

  15. 15.

    Eve, of course.

    fwiw, I’ve got kids across the spectrum, including profoundly disabled and and profoundly gifted. I wish my gifted kids could receive extra services the way my son with Down syndrome does. I will say, though, that while it’s still a very real challenge, as a general rule it’s much easier to help a gifted child at home than one with special needs. And for that matter, it’s much, MUCH easier to help an average child develop interest and ability in art and music.
    .

  16. 16.

    Thanks for this, Eve, and especially your patience and coolness under fire. I had wanted to comment on the Segullah post but it quickly became too angry and belligerent; I was afraid from the first few comments that yours would be, too, but you can handle it!

    My brothers and I learned much more quickly than others in our classrooms, to the point where the schools were skipping us ahead in grades until our parents put their joint foot down — from experience, I would never skip a child ahead a grade, no matter how boring the class is. Nor would I recommend gifted classrooms and special tutors equivalent to what is commonly provided to special needs at the other end of the spectrum — bright kids deserve to be mainstreamed, too, not ghettoized.

    I’m speaking against my own best interests as a child here, so it ought to carry some weight: Gifted kids can and will work to their own level with very little commitment of resources beyond extra time in the library or laboratory, and recommendations for what they might try next — on their own (whether that’s at home after school, or quietly in the classroom when they finish their desk work ahead of the rest of the class). That doesn’t take a lot of effort or time on the part of parents or teachers. Whatever resources can be squeezed out to devote to out-of-the-ordinary education should be devoted to those children who cannot learn on their own with minimal guidance.

  17. 17.

    Ziff, thanks for saying it more eloquently than I did.

    Leslie said,

    I disagree that children’s play is parent driven or necessarily a feedback loop. You will find children with unusal predispositions and strong interests in home settings whether this is neither fostered nor valued. Nature and nuture go hand in hand. I think you putting to much to nuture.I ndividuality I think is deeply embedded in each of us, talents, etc.

    In general I’d agree. I’m not intending to weigh in on the nature-nurture debate, simply to point out that they’re inexctricable (as you note). My comment about four-year-olds, My Little Ponies, and sociology was just to note that it’s (therefore) not possible to claim that one’s child has developed his interests in complete disregard of parental inclination unless–as does sometimes happen!–the parent has actually opposed the child’s interest.

    Also your analogies between church insitution and school I think is poor comparison.

    Actually, I’m not drawing any analogies between the institutions of church and school (instructive as those might be!). Rather, I’m inviting us to consider the whole phenomenon of giftedness in terms of the gospel.

    You can read all you want at church- read the whole manual in a week if you want- and hey more power to you and more light and knwoledge– but at school, this is taboo.

    This I agree is a problem. With certain very large and necessary exceptions such as limiting courses to those who have fulfilled prerequisites, I tend to disagree with practices that, in the name of education, restrict access to knowledge–forbidding children to read books not at their tested reading level, for instance. Kids are amazingly good at knowing themselves and pursuing their own idioscyncratic suited-to-them paths through the library. And, hey, if a second-grader who tests at a second-grade reading level but looooooves lizards picks up a lizard book at the fifth-grade level and makes his way through the tough words because he adores the subject so much–I mean, isn’t that precisely the sort of thing we as educators should want to happen?

  18. 18.

    Thanks for your comment Ardis, I agree. And Eve, this was a great post. I appreciate how reasoned, diplomatic and kind you are, qualities that I don’t have.

  19. 19.

    Ardis, thanks so much for your kind words, and for your perspective. I agree with what you say in your final paragraph and what Kathryn says in hers. When we have to make hard choices about resource allocation, the resources should go to the children who can’t make it on their own.

  20. 20.

    This I agree is a problem. With certain very large and necessary exceptions such as limiting access to courses to those who have fulfilled prerequisites, I tend to disagree with practices that, in the name of education that limit access to knowledge–forbidding children to read books not at their level, for instance.

    Although, of course forbidding kids to read something and making a big deal about it is often a great way to induce them to figure out ways to sneak behind your back and read the stuff anyway. :)

  21. 21.

    This is why I believe in systemic advocacy- if the institution is set up to handle the varied needs of children. If appropriate systems are in place there is very little need for any advocacy. There are many approaches that don’t “take resources” (grade crossing, using project based learning).

    I am for the record, in favor of grade skipping- I did it in HS and it was one of the best decisions ever made and do recommend it as do most who have done it. If you were a pushy parent skipping actually works against your child because it sort of relevels the playing field.

    I think there is a very real problem with restriction of information duirng school hours- literally from you’re not allowed to check out chapter books to you’re not allowed to do that yet to excessively negative feedback and being graded down for using higher level skills (i.e. on a free choice problem my son used six digit negative number in a write your own equation and was told to use smaller numbers?)

    And no all gifted children do not work well independently, motivation and habit are not the same as ability in fact our forcing of children to fit the system works to dimish attentiveness, focus, and creativity.

    I see this as one issue but deeply rooted in larger educational problems with the disconnect between theory and practice and being a place that encourages thought and creativity.

    Our gifts and talents can be obvious, but I think life is about learning to recognize these use them for good, to better ourselves, (as spirits and intelligences) and others. I don’t think acknowledging differences=pride? I also don’t see it so hierarchical? I think a different learning style is not necessarily better just different. Just as depth and breadth of knowledge are different- important, equal, but with different uses. I don’t see this as ego-focused and not for the good of the community.

  22. 22.

    You bring up interesting questions, Eve, and there are some excellent comments. It sounds like ‘gifted’ here means ‘learns faster than the ‘average’ child’, and the problem with that is that a gifted child will be bored. So you are looking for ways to have your gifted child go as fast as possible so they can avoid boredom — am I understanding it correctly? (because if they are bored they will hate school, may drop out, will be miserable…..)

    I agree with Ardis (and others) that often gifted children can and will go off on their own if they are given a chance; a talk with a teacher may allow this to happen in the regular classroom. (or it may not – maybe volunteering to help the teacher would make a difference) You can provide resources and time at home, helping children to follow their interests. And I’ve seen programs where the kids who caught onto a concept quickly were assigned to help the kids who struggled with it…a nice practical use of the ‘gift’ that they have.

    Schools have limited resources and when a lot of resources are absorbed to deal with one child, others lose out. In the end, in the end I think we need to be willing to help all children.

    Not much of which really address the OP which I think is: the problems with labeling kids with something like ‘gifted’ — sorry, I guess I just got up on my soap box this morning!

  23. 23.

    There are so many interesting comments here! I’ll try to organize my thoughts as best I can.

    “Gifted” kids do *not* generally “come out alright”. They get bored, frustrated, burnt out doing busywork, and just give up. The rates of depression, self-medication, and drop-outs are pretty impressive among really bright kids who are not mentored well. The systematic ignoring of the brightest is a huge detriment.

    Me–fourth grade. Eight years old. Pretty verbal and a bit precocious, but shy. My teacher really didn’t like the fact that I could breeze through his lessons with little effort. (It took me less than a month to finish the math book for the year. I did it for fun on the weekends, and just turned stuff in as it was assigned, and read during the in-class stuff to keep myself awake.) He began a process of calling me out in front of the class, all of whom were at least a year older than I was, pointing out any flaw in anything I said or did, putting my name on the board with checks behind it… and I stopped talking.

    I stopped talking entirely. I didn’t say or do anything in school that might get me noticed. I didn’t talk at home, because I was thoroughly convinced that it wouldn’t do any good. I didn’t talk at church, because I was already having trouble with the condescending attitudes of some adults.

    It took another teacher and my mom to realize that no, I wasn’t talking in any setting, and there *might* be a problem. And then my parents, who are working class and did not go to college (so, missing two of the three “able to advocate” features) went to bat for me, and got a lot of things fixed at the school, for all the kids, not just me.

    Yes, it’s easy to say, “Oh, just let them work ahead”–but few teachers are really prepared to support that. My “gifted” brother (one of them) was called out by his freshman English teacher and punished for writing song lyrics in class. They were doing a poetry unit, he’d finished early, and was enjoying a bit of lyrics time. She informed him that lyrics are *not* poetry. He pulled out the reference sheet I’d sent him of various poetic forms, pointed out he was writing rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, and she told him to play on his own time, and only do English in English class.

    Many teachers are VERY threatened by kids who can work ahead.

    And, if a child really can work on his own, then why waste seven hours of life a day, sitting there bored, and then come home for supplementation and real learning? Why not learn at home, and actually have a life?

    Also, just because a person can work independently in one area (and not all weirdly-smart kids can do this without a lot of mentoring by compassionate, tough adults!), they may not be polymaths! One subject I really had to WORK to grasp was geometry. The shaping portion was fine, but I was not a linear thinker at 12-turning-13 (freshman year), and having to work linearly for proofs was killing me. One teacher’s attitude was easily summed up as “You’re smart–just do it”–no further help offered because I was “gifted” after all.

    The other math teacher worked and worked and worked and worked with me to teach me linear thought. He never acted frustrated with me, or expressed anything other than, “You’re working really hard on this. I know it’s going to click. We’ll keep working until it does. Let’s try it this way.”

    (This blended perfectly with the attitude at home, so I had double support–thank goodness.)

    I don’t agree that pulling special needs kids out of the system, or forming privately-funded coops, etc, decreases resources for the rest. When have education budgets EVER gone down, in terms of real dollars? Slash the bureaucracy a bit, and that same amount of money translates to MORE resources on the ground, and my kids aren’t taking any of them away from those who might need them.

    My own children all learn very differently, but one thing is fairly consistent: they think differently than some of their friends. I notice it in interactions. It’s been a frustration to my oldest–who is tuned into social interactions–because she is very aware that some topics will just not be interesting or grasped by some of her friends. We talk a lot about it being okay to be different, and having confidence, and compassion, and knowing how to not be obnoxious.

    It’s just a fact: we all have different abilities. Some abilities are easier to cope with, but every one brings unique challenges. For the “Gifted” people I’ve known, the challenges have been emotional, more than physical. That doesn’t make the challenges any less important, or less deserving of help or resources.

    Some people are book-smarter. Others are compassion-smarter. Others are physically-smarter. Others are math-smarter. Others are connections-smarter. Recognizing that does not denigrate any other gifts. It’s just a observation, and a use of the powers of discernment we’ve been given by God.

    I’m fully with others who criticize praise as a means to “Self Esteem.” I’m not a big fan of self-esteem. It’s an ephemeral, wasting thing. I prefer inculcating self-respect–letting a person be involved in worthwhile things, so they can look back and say, “My life is of worth because…”

    Sometimes, though, the listings of “our gifts as others see them” can be really informative to the listener. My mother never considered herself terribly gifted, and once remarked that it was odd to get all these really smart kids. I was astonished that she did not see her own high-functioning levels in things like emotional intuition, understanding complex symbolic relationships, multiple-task organization, and pervasive compassion to be “gifts” or “intelligences.” She based her judgements of herself solely on not reading as fast as my dad (due to her poor vision, not anything else), and having had a harder time at Calculus than her math-smart sister. Hearing others talk about her own intelligences in an admiring way helped her grow to respect the gifts God has given her.

    I’d best end, and get back to my sewing, but this is just a fascinating conversation!

  24. 24.

    I’m thinking there are maybe two different–though related–issues here? One has to do with the best way to allocate limited school resources, which as several have mentioned, is not an easy question. The other, I think, has to do with the very notion of giftedness as a category. And I have to admit to some reservations about the latter. The way we talk about it seems to be as a discrete classification–there are those who are “gifted” and those who aren’t; you either are, or you’re not. But does that really reflect the messiness and range of human intellectual capabilities? The idea of “giftedness” sounds very vague to me. If you say that someone has a particular aptitude for science, or for language, or for sports, or for understanding social cues–I get what you’re talking about, and I can certainly understand the need to give children opportunities to build up those strengths (and presumably also opportunities to work on those areas where they struggle). But is there really something called “giftedness” that involves qualitatively different abilities than those possessed by the “non-gifted?” That’s where I’m a bit more skeptical. Like Eve, I also wonder about the effects of using those kinds of global categories. (I’m reminded of the studies on the so-called Pygmalion Effect in the classroom, in which students perform better when the teachers think they’re “gifted.”)

    I’d also add that my experience–which could of course be idiosyncratic–was that I actually resented it when teachers tried to give me extra projects, I’m assuming in an effort to challenge me. I was quite content to get my work done as fast as possible, and spend the rest of my time reading (and I don’t mean reading to learn; I mean reading novels.) You could make a case, I suppose, that I missed out, and would have had a richer experience had I been more intellectually challenged. But I’m actually glad I got to spend a lot of time as a kid doing something I found fun and not feeling pressured to achieve more. I do realize that every child is different, and doubtless some thrived on the very projects I avoided. But I think it’s worth at least questioning a cultural premise that even for children, it’s imperative that time be spent as productively as possible.

    (Of course, it is possible that this merely instilled in me a lifelong tendency toward being a slacker. I asked Eve last night, where are the programs for slackers? She said, you mean grad programs in the humanities? ;) )

  25. 25.

    Eve,
    You’re missing, I think, at least one practical reality of gifted education, especially in urban environments—it keeps middle class kids in public schools.

    I don’t know where you are, but I’ve recently lived in New York City and Chicago. The public schools in both cities are rumored to be abominable (although my girls are too young to be in school yet). As a result, a large portion of parents who can afford it (which probably matches up pretty will with your parents with resources to be successful advocates) send their kids to private schools, depriving public schools of a level of students and the parents with the resources to advocate and improve the schools. (And I realize that reality is decidedly more nuanced than my comment—well-off kids are not inherently more able students than poor students, and well-off parents are not inherently better advocates than poorer parents. But I can’t really do nuance in a blog comment.)

    But where there is a gifted program, there is at least some incentive for those students to be in the public school. It would take empirical analysis to see if having those students in public schools improves the school for everyone (which I believe it does) or if it pulls already-scarce resources from the other students. But, in any event, the question isn’t binary—it’s not either gifted classes or everybody together. It encompasses gifted, private schools, everybody together, and more.

  26. 26.

    There are a couple of false assumptions going on here.
    1. Only middle class kids and upper class kids fall into the gifted category.
    2. Gifted kids can work independently.

    These are based on biases and stereotypes.

    Secondly, gifted education does not involve simply giving gifted kids more work to do. No kid would like that.

  27. 27.

    Sam B–interesting point; I think it is absolutely true that that class of parent/kids are at least the most likely to want a special program because they really want their kids to be gifted. I would also guess that a fair number of their kids are actually average kids who either started early on with skills or work hard. Truly gifted poor kids can generally get funded at private schools if they have someone who steers them there.

    Kathryn–I don’t actually think I would be singing a different tune. I purposely live in a school district that very appropriately (IMO) caters to all the children they serve. I live there on purpose.

  28. 28.

    mmiles,
    You are absolutely right that not only are middle- and upper-class kids gifted. But I would assert that they are more likely to be in the gifted programs at school. At least in areas where I’ve lived (and, again, based on speaking with people—my girls are still too young for school), kids have to test into gifted programs. And those tests often take place at times and in places other than school, meaning that kids’ parents have to (a) be aware of the tests and (b) have the ability to get the kids to the right place. I’m not, of course, asserting that this is a good thing. But if that’s how the admission into the gifted program is structured, middle- and upper-class parents are more likely to know and navigate the administrative procedures to secure for their kids the coveted spots in the program.

  29. 29.

    Thanks so much for your kind words as well, Alexa.

    I appreciate how reasoned, diplomatic and kind you are, qualities that I don’t have.

    Me either, as any of my siblings can attest! But blogging (sometimes) allows to me to pass myself off as if I do. ;)

    Ziff said,

    Although, of course forbidding kids to read something and making a big deal about it is often a great way to induce them to figure out ways to sneak behind your back and read the stuff anyway. :)

    Good point! I’ve often thought this about attempts to censor the books in school libraries, for example–don’t such attempts essentially draw the canny (or even half-aware) child a map of where to find the really good stuff?

    Your observation also reminded me of a book I haven’t thought about in decades that I found in my public school library in fifth or sixth grade. I don’t think I finished it–it wasn’t all that well written or developed–but the premise was intriguing. A group of “resource” kids are barred from the big books deemed too difficult for them, and one day one gets his hands on an illicit thesaurus, and they pass it around among them. There was something simply delicious in reading about these kids who’d been beaten down by the system take back the knowledge they should have had access to. (Even the Hermione Grangers of the world can find a frisson in getting access to the Restricted Section!)

  30. 30.

    Sam,
    The last school we were in was Title I (low income funding), 50% of the population were ESL learners. The teachers decided who was tested. The testing was done on school property and during school hours. You’re assumption is incorrect.
    Where we live now they usually just use state testing scores after 2 years. One of my children isn’t old enough for that , so they will do the testing at the school. That is the normal way they do things. It isn’t a secret program pushing out the lower class.

  31. 31.

    Leslie, I’m with you on the issues of access to knowledge and (in general) fluidity of placement. I have more reservations about your critique of “fitting the system” because–while some systems are undoubtedly a very poor fit for some or all children–there’s ultimately no escaping system. A gifted program, for example, is simply another system, and it too will require certain kinds of conformity (obedience, self-containment, self-discipline, impulse control, work, respect for authority and for others). But I think the attentiveness, focus, and creativity you (and I!) want for our children are not to be found in casting free of systems; in my view, these admirable qualities become possible only in forms of systemization.

    In other words, I think we can rightly critique particular systems as hostile to human flourishing–prison, for example, and schools to the extent they resemble prisons (my junior high looked exactly like one). But there’s no getting away from system itself unless we want to abandon education altogether.

    I don’t think acknowledging differences=pride? I also don’t see it so hierarchical? I think a different learning style is not necessarily better just different….I don’t see this as ego-focused and not for the good of the community.

    This is the ideal we articulate, and for which we should certainly strive, but in my experience anyway, it isn’t what we (as a culture) really believe.

  32. 32.

    mmiles,
    I made no assumption: I stated how testing was done where I lived (in New York). My friends whose little girl was going into kindergarten had to go to a school site, on the other side of the city, IIRC, on a Sunday morning to get tested. Hardly at school during school hours.

    Of course, inasmuch as I don’t know where you live, YMMV. Also, since I don’t know where you live, maybe there isn’t the same concern about private schools sucking the students with the means out of the public schools. And maybe where you live people are established enough that they’ll stay, irrespective of the schools (or, more likely, they found a place to live based at least in part on the local public schools).

    That is to say, it’s great that where you are the gifted programs are tested in school for everybody and nobody has any advantage. Trust me, though—that’s not how it is everywhere.

  33. 33.

    Secondly, gifted education does not involve simply giving gifted kids more work to do. No kid would like that.

    Fair point. When I mentioned not liking more work, I obviously wasn’t in any kind of gifted program–I was just in a situation in which my teachers noticed I was bored, and tried to cook up things to address that, like random projects or having me work through more advanced textbooks or whatever. Though I doubt I would have been any more thrilled to have different kinds of work, as opposed to more (which I’m assuming what is what happens in a gifted program?) I just wanted to jump through the hoops, whatever they happened to be, and be left alone. Which may mean nothing at all for this conversation. I don’t have a lot of opinions on educational strategies, simply because I don’t know a lot, and I’m reading people’s various comments with interest.

    But I’m still somewhat skeptical about the category of “giftedness.” I’m curious as to its history–when did we first start classifying children in that way? And here’s another question I’ve wondered about: why do we use this category to describe children, but not adults? Where are the “gifted” adults? Or would we see it as a problem to identify adults in such a way? (We might say someone is a gifted artist or mechanic or teacher, but it’s hard to imagine saying, oh, there’s Brother Ziff. He’s gifted.)

  34. 34.

    mmiles,
    For a quick discussion of the issue of gifted education in New York, see here. While the article doesn’t expressly say that the tests are given offsite, the fact that in certain schools, testing is up 109% at least implies that the tests aren’t given to everybody, and the fact that the district credits the increased number of test-takers to increased publicity backs up that assumption.

  35. 35.

    ImaL, nice to see you here! I really like your suggestions because they’re practical and because they require relatively few resources to institute.

    Liz C, thanks for dropping by, and I’m glad you’re finding the discussion so interesting!

    I’m really sorry you had such an awful experience with the teacher who ridiculed you. (I had a teacher or two like that, myself, but never with such drastic consequences.) Ridiculing a child in front of the class in inexcusable, and in an ideal world such people would never be permitted to teach. At the same time, I have to wonder to what extent the examples you give aren’t fundamentally a problem of teacher rigidity rather than one of giftedness–and such rigidity affects all children, not just those designated as gifted.

    One teacher’s attitude was easily summed up as “You’re smart–just do it”–no further help offered because I was “gifted” after all.

    I think this is exactly the sort of problem that giftedness inevitably engenders. The irony is that giftedness can end up being a profound obstacle to learning, insofar as it’s an identity that has to be sustained by continued performance.

    In some ways I like the story about your mother, and in some ways I’m uncomfortable with it. I agree that it’s very necessary and healthy to candidly evaluate our own strengths and gifts (as well as our weaknesses and failings!), to take stock of ourselves and see what kind of careers and contributions our particular talents might indicate. And I agree it’s rarely, if ever, very useful to compare ourselves to others in the way it sounds as if your mother was struggling with. At the same time, I confess to some squeamishness about the value of hearing others admire our gifts as a way of feeling more valuable. I think that plays into all the problems of giftedness as an identity (rather than, to use the scriptural term, gifts as a stewardship.)

    But in any case, I really appreciate the time you took to comment–and I do hope we can lure you back from your sewing in the future!

  36. 36.

    Lynnette, thank you for articulating something I’ve long struggled to. When it comes right down to it, I simply don’t accept the ontology of selfhood underlying the term “gifted.” (The most fundamental issue is that I don’t accept the idea of a core self, but that’s for another post, probably better written by you, our resident narrative theologian.) But when people announce that their children are gifted, I always wonder what such a statement can even mean–given the vagaries of selfhood and testing and class and and social values and confounding variables such as the Pygmalion Effect that you mention.

    I like your question about gifted adults. The way we so baldly label children in ways we would hesitate to label adults is very telling. I also wonder if the fact that one can’t really have an adult gifted identity doesn’t leave some gifted kids stranded and floundering when they cross over. There’s no special enrichment class just for the top 3% of SAHMs, for instance. So, I speculate wildly, some mothers who were gifted themselves may start to really need gifted children in the same way some former beauty queens might relive their own adolescence through their daughters’, for example.

    Sam B (25), very good point. You could well be right.

  37. 37.

    Eve and Lynette–when I was in college, I found an old (mid-century) checklist of characteristics of especially bright students. The one I remember is “bright eyes.” We laugh at that now, but I wonder how our ideas of giftedness might continue to evolve.

    I have no real problem with gifted kids, but I find that often the adults in their lives react so oddly to them that it causes problems. In reality, most kids could coexist in a classroom and never really think about their abilities in comparison to their deskmates’ but when parents and teachers tell them they are smarter, neater, more creative, faster, etc. it can play a mind-trick, making them think they are “better.” Praising natural intelligence is like praising natural beauty–both are quite ridiculous. What matters is what you DO with what you have.

  38. 38.

    This post just makes no real sense to me.

    “In short, I see no way around the conclusion that giftedness is a form of pride.”

    So my daughter can take an cognitive test and score 95 percentile. Someone at the school district defines this as “gifted.” How is it pride for her to have the mind the Lord gave her?
    Do you object to the school district making the distinction or to the children themselves for being different?

  39. 39.

    Eve:

    I’d love to join in, but I need to finish preparing for my brilliantly gifted students to arrive at my classroom door in the morning. :) Have you read Dr. Carol Dweck’s book “Self-Theories”? Take a break tonight and read the first ten pages or so on google reader:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=P0Mccblm6eUC&dq=Carol+S+Dweck&printsec=frontcover&source=an&hl=en&ei=IoulSoeoJ5me8QaNrOzQDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    Much of my recent masters research focused on how students perceive their own intellectual capacity (fixed vs. fluid/malleable) and how that altered their work ethic, risk-taking, task persistence, and sense of efficacy. In (very) brief, students who believe that intelligence is fluid tend to outperform those who believe intelligence is fixed (i.e. “I am born smart or stupid and I can’t change it”). Early high-achievers who believe intelligence is fixed are more likely to become risk averse — their identity is so closely tied to external validation of their intelligence that failure is a threat to identity. Better to take an easy class and get an A than a hard one and get a C. Early low-achievers who believe intelligence is fixed tend to have weak task-persistence when work becomes increasingly challenging.

    Interestingly, multiple published studies have found that giving kids a few sessions of instruction on intelligence — how the brain is a muscle that can grown with attention, hard work, etc — had a statistically significant effect on their standardized test scores six months later.

    So my discomfort with the term “gifted” isn’t because I’m some eutopian educator who has her students chant songs about how everyone is special. I engage in a great deal of differentiation based on the skills with which my students enter in September. I’ve fed Richard Feynman articles to a seventh grader and discussed Faulkner’s use of geometric language with a tenth grader. And I like having parents share their thoughts and concerns about homework load, pushing their child further, etc.

    But you won’t hear me telling parents or students about how “brilliant” an individual is. I won’t say, “You child is gifted [point blank].” in a conference. I’ll talk about creative thinking, intellectual curiosity, work ethic, sticking with a difficult task, taking a risk on a (potentially unworkable) essay idea, building on the ideas of others, collaborative problem solving. It’s a dangerous game to apply a label to young scholars who cannot possible navigate what that word means in terms of their theory of self . . . . the labeling adults’ theories of success and achievement.

  40. 40.

    The last sentence should read:

    “It’s a dangerous game to apply a label to young scholars who cannot possible navigate what that word means in terms of their theory of self . . . . much less navigate the adult worlds’ theories of success and achievement.”

  41. 41.

    My daughter is starting her second year in a gifted program (6th grade). She actually was doing well in a regular classroom. There was enough to keep her engaged, I think. Her teacher really thought we should allow testing so we did. My daughter really wanted to switch.
    She didn’t have a good teacher in the gifted program last year. However, the best thing about it is that she gets to be with other kids. Kids who appreciate stumping each other with riddles or who think Rubik’s cubes are cool. I think it is wonderful that she might get to go to school where she doesn’t have to hide her “A” papers like I did. I don’t get why as an American society we let high school and middle school kids think being smart in school is a character flaw.

  42. 42.

    “However, the best thing about it is that she gets to be with other kids. Kids who appreciate stumping each other with riddles or who think Rubik’s cubes are cool.”

    Yes — I think that can be the greatest benefit of such a class — you can’t put a price on a peer culture that values learning and creative problem solving.

    “I don’t get why as an American society we let high school and middle school kids think being smart in school is a character flaw.”

    The research I’m interested in focuses on expanding students understanding of *who can be* smart. By third grade, children have a fairly solid self-theory that includes “how smart am in in comparison with my peers.” In middle school, the brain expands rapidly . . . many many more of our students could be testing into “gifted” levels if the teaching *and their own sense of possibility* would allow it. Persistence and perseverance really do matter. But many students don’t believe that. Michael Phelps wasn’t born a world-record holder and Bill Gates wasn’t born brilliant at computers. They put in THOUSANDS of hours (in his book “Outliers,” Gladwell makes this point rather dramatically in his chapter about how expert knowledge is the result of 10,000 hours of *work*). We could do better at teaching that, concretely and intentionally.

  43. 43.

    Hi, JKS. Thanks for stopping by.

    How is it pride for her to have the mind the Lord gave her?Do you object to the school district making the distinction or to the children themselves for being different?

    I think I answered your first question, and explained that I reject the second alternative in your second question, in my responses 4 and 11 above. But to consider your first alternative more directly: I’m skeptical of the processes by which schools make such distinctions, the immense cultural baggage that attends them, and the unfortunate consequences that result from them. (I’m inclusive that way.).

    As Lynnette points out above, it’s not as if children come pre-labeled in two categories, “gifted” and “non-gifted.” It’s not as if giftedness is even an a priori condition that exists before our designation of it, as, for instance, handedness and eye color do.

    Differences among children are of course legion. My question here is why we (as a culture) insist on attaching so much meaning to some of those differences.

    Ah, Deborah, it’s so delightful to see you here. I’ve really missed you during my absences from the Bloggernacle. And thank you so much for sharing your considerable expertise on the subject (the reading at the link you provide is fascinating, and couldn’t be more relevant–I’d definitely urge anyone who’s still here to follow it!). Clearly I should just have hired you to write the OP!

    I hesitate to add anything to what you’ve said so well, particularly since I know nothing about educational theory–but then, clearly ignorance has yet to prevent me from running off my mouth. ;)

    So, plunging on, what I’m intrigued by in the research you point to is the significance of failure for self-image. For a child with a gifted identity–or, in the terms Dweck uses, a child focused on performing and looking smart–failure is risky. This is a problem, because failure is a necessary part of learning. Clearly, in order to learn, we have to be willing to fail, and one of the problems with a gifted identity is that it can make failure too costly and actually prevent learning. (Am I getting this at all right?) It also suggests that as teachers one of our most important tasks might be to make it OK to make a mistake, to take a risk, to fail, to make sure that the consequences aren’t so devastating that kids won’t want to take risks anymore.

  44. 44.

    ESO, I love your example of bright eyes. And I completely agree that in the same way such a criterion looks ludicrous to us now, I’m sure much of what we currently inflict on children will look just as ludicrous in fifty years!

  45. 45.

    Interesting discussion. (I didn’t see the Segullah thread and don’t have strong opinions on this subject.)

    When I was in grade school, I didn’t self-identify as particularly smart. I got straight As, but I just assumed everyone else did as well.

    In Junior High there apparently was some fledgling attempt at gifted education. (I don’t know but I’m guessing the idea was sort of still in its infancy.) I was one of a group of about 25 kids who were sent to a special weeklong camp (tremendous fun!). In 8th grade we were all put into an algebra class, when normally kids didn’t study algebra until freshman year. That was about it. (And when my kids came up, the normal age for starting algebra had been moved up to 8th grade anyway; the gifted kids started in 7th).

    I have to admit, I did kind of get full of myself a little bit during those three middle school years (hard to avoid when I was such a teacher’s pet. My 7th grade science teacher took me to other schools to give presentations on astronomy, that sort of stuff). But it was quickly socialized out of me in high school, when I figured out that being perceived as unusually smart was definitely *not* a good thing.

    I don’t know whether I was really gifted or not, and if I was, the accomodations made for us were pretty minimal. But I have a good friend whose two sons are profoundly gifted, with IQs off the charts. The oldest was having all sorts of problems, and they took him to various doctors for every test under the son. The allergist they took him to just happened to have a gifted child, and she recommended they have him tested for that. It was that child’s salvation. He was beyond anything that could be done in a normal public school; they enrolled him in a special school for the gifted, and he blossomed. He’s a senior this year, and will be heading to the University of Chicago next year.

  46. 46.

    I was in “dumb” group up until 5th grad, and got switched to “smart” group until the end of my freshman year in high school, when my math dyslexia got the better of me, and I decided to go to “normal” classes. I was much more arrogant for being the smartest kid in my normal English classes than I was for being the dumbest kid in my smart math classes.

  47. 47.

    Brillant Eve. I also used to teach in special education, and I can attest that much of what you said is true. Parents don’t want to hear it, and teachers don’t want to say it, but in most districts, when parents demand extra resources/faculty/materials what have you, it does end up getting deducted from other areas in the school/district budgets, which in turn affects the other children. I’m not saying those parents are wrong to do that, I believe I would do the same if it were my child, but I would do so with a twinge of guilt knowing full well what it meant for others whose parents didn’t oversee the going on’s of their IEPs. This isn’t the way it should be, but unfortunately it’s the reality of it.

  48. 48.

    I’m lured back from my sewing. :)

    I guess in all of this, I wonder what the solution might be? I know the solution we’ve found–we learn at home, and I don’t track grades, just mastery and progress. I can easily allow a child to work at a faster or slower pace, based on their needs at the time, without any concern for “giftedness” or lack thereof. This works for me and for my kids, but I don’t answer to state or federal bureaucrats.

    Being able to meet the emotional needs of inherently bright kids is a major factor in their success or failure, but the same concepts of “intelligence as a fluid thing, the brain as a muscle” are valuable to any person, at any age.

    I don’t see an easy way around teachers who are intimidated by children who are perhaps “smarter” than they are. I’ve had more than one experience with belligerent teachers, and don’t think it’s necessarily a one-off with my 4th grade teacher. :) I have siblings who have had challenges with mediocre and poor teachers, and friends and nephews have actually been told “No, Child cannot read X book yet… it’s too far above grade level.”

    Perhaps all of these problems are tied into the current age-cohort grouping in schools, though. I have one nephew who attends a fairly unique K-8 public school, where children attend classes suited to their ability, regardless of what “grade” they’re in. So, a child may go to the Math 2 class, and English 8, and Science 4. A child might change classes mid-year, or even mid-month, if appropriate. It’s a very small school, with flexible, high-quality teachers, so I don’t know that the concept could really be exported to larger schools.

    Anyhow, more random thoughts while I listen to my weird kids singing “The Eye of the Tiger” and playing with Legos after I’ve sent them to bed. Library trip in the morning, and a week of interesting things to know about.

  49. 49.

    Marvelous post. I agree with every word of it.

    From first grade on I was in a full-time ELP program. At 7th grade I entered a an ELP program at an International Baccalaureate high school. And while there are a few success stories–a handful of kids who went on to get Harvard law degrees and such–the entire thing was a hot bed of arrogance, pride, and self-destruction.

    Even in elementary school, everyone knew that the ELP kids were “smart” and the regular kids were “dumb”. We didn’t even like to talk to each other at recess–it was like they were second-class citizens.

    And in high school, when you are in seventh grade and taking classes with juniors and seniors you’re bound to get a bit of an ego. While I have no stats, only personal experience, it definitely seemed to me like we had an enormous amount of ELP kids who screwed up their lives due to feelings of superiority and invincibility.

    My daughter is now in the second grade and is doing great. My mother, who shuttled me through the ELP program, keeps trying to get me to get my daughter admitted to one. But I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. My daughter enjoys school. She’s better than most kids in her class at reading, and so she helps the others. I wouldn’t trade that kind of experience for any type of advanced curriculum.

  50. 50.

    I think that many parents of the gifted are NOT insisting on tons of money being spent on their kids. I let my child go to a gifted program, yes, but I’ve never asked for anything.
    Another of my children has had an IEP. A principal once told me I was the “most prepared parent he’d ever met” after a meeting. Yet the only thing I ever insisted on was that they not perform another cognitive test on him at age 6 since I did not think it necessary. They finally, reluctantly agree. Then when he was exited out of extra services I didn’t necessarily agree but I did not fight it, and they have since refused to retest and I did not put up a fight even though I was sure there was something to test (a subsequent private eval shows a learning disability).
    I am a VERY strong advocate for my children but the idea that most parents of exceptional children (or even average children) are insisting on things all the time is ridiculous.

  51. 51.

    “So I think we have to have a certain healthy skepticism about claims that a four-year-old just really, naturally prefers memorizing the history of sociology to playing with her My Little Ponies.”

    This is so funny to me. I was just telling my sister that my oldest really never played pretend. Like she had no imagination. Now I realize that pretend play is so important for cognitive development (remember I have a child with delays so I am familiar with this stuff) but she just didn’t play pretend with stuff. She really, truly loved doing the USA puzzle at age two and learning all the names of the states.
    I was talking to my best friend once. I told her we had a garage sale and my six year old counted all the people who came. Her daughter would have created stories about them. You know, some people just really love numbers and math, even as children. Better than making up stories.
    That’s not to say pretend play means you aren’t gifted (the experts say it does). My other daughter loves pretend play and will probably test just as well in an IQ test as my daughter with no imaginition.
    I’m unsure why I am “arguing” since my children have all done well in regular education. I just don’t like how some people are painting “gifted” children or their parents.
    My son is truly gifted at building legos. But no one is forcing him to build only simple legos.
    As an educated middle class parent I have managed to supplement my bottom 5% child (in his LD areas) and my top 5% children at home with my resources (both financial and my background education and experience). I feel for those kids who do not have a parent like me so I am glad school districts attempt to EQUALIZE education by offering services to exceptional children so it isn’t left to parents who are unable to do so.

  52. 52.

    I think we just have to consider the costs of certain types of intense, long-term advocacy for some children at the expense of others.

    I think that an important thing to do would be to realize that maybe where differentiated programs work well, they in fact may not be at the expense of other children, but could in fact help everyone.

    I have seen that even if there isn’t a special program for children at either end of this spectrum, the distinctions and separation often still exists within the classroom. Often, those who are labeled ‘gifted’ tend to be more vocal and more involved in class, and can dominate the dynamics in some cases. Those who struggle struggle within that scenario as well, and they can sap energy from the kids in the middle. Either the teacher has to ignore the kids at the extremes, or they end up sort of dominating the dynamics and resources of the classroom anyway, imo.

    So why not let children with special needs at either end of the spectrum have an environment that responds to their styles and lets the majority of the teachers focus more on teaching to the middle? In my view, that gives more momentum and more energy to those students!

    Also, if it’s done right, such programs are spread out over thousands of students, so the percentage of cost and effort that goes into them are not disproportionate to the needs of the majority of students.

    BTW, I TOTALLY agree that we need to be careful about not labeling, about not making one’s learning experiences/abilities/styles the sole source of identity. I think how parents respond to these needs is important, too. It *can* bring out prideful attitudes, but it doesn’t mean it always does. I don’t appreciate being lumped together as prideful because I have taken advantage of and talked about a program that I believe is beneficial at many levels. We talk at home often about the source of all gifts (God) and how if they have a talent, it should be used for good, not for prideful reasons.

    This shouldn’t feel like a competition, and I know it does. It’s hard to figure out how to talk about this in ways that don’t feel divisive or hierarchichal. But just because that is a hurdle to cross to me is not reason alone to label the notion of gifted programs, etc. as nothing but prideful and wrong, to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    And while I dont think that we can expect a school environment to somehow map to absolute gospel truth, I think there is actually some reflection of truth in recognizing some clusters of individual learning styles and trying to respond to them (these are dynamics that are studied and have some merit to them). That needs to be done with genuine recognition of individual worth of ALL students, and that’s not always easy in a world based on merits and measures and points and grades. But, imo, that problem goes much deeper in our system than just with the issue of gifted programs, etc. That’s just life, really. (anyone who has been looked over for a scholarship or a job or a promotion knows that all too well.)

    One last note. I also think about how at church we have more basic gospel principles classes for those who are new to the church, or perhaps struggling in their faith…not because they are less valuable or worthy, but just to be able to respond to and communicate in ways that can speak to where they are better.

    That’s what I see these differentiated programs doing. Are they perfect and w/o downsides? Of course not. But I do think they have benefits that are worth noting, and that can even benefit the majority in the process.

  53. 53.

    Eve, Since you say this about giftedness, would you say the same about special education?

  54. 54.

    I agree with Eve that the use of word “gifted” is problematic. However, this is not a children’s problem; it is an adult problem. People need terms to describe characteristics. “Gifted” may not be the best term, but in absence of a better one, it helps us identify a group of children who need help.

    I admit I haven’t read every response in this thread, but I will respond to a couple of things.

    First, ESO wrote: Because the gifted kids will figure it out.
    Actually, some will, and some won’t. But what all children need, and what children identified as gifted often do not get is training in how to work hard for the knowledge they get. For example, I advocated long and hard for some accommodations, really anything, for my children in elementary school. They were completing their homework at school, they rarely had to do any work at all, and yet, I knew the time would come when they would have to work in order to learn. I also knew that if they didn’t develop those habits young, that it would be much harder for them to develop those habits when they were older, and when they really needed them. While my children had some teachers who pushed them in elementary school and in middle school, by and large they didn’t learn that acquiring knowledge comes at a cost.

    Now they are in high school, and my son, in particular, is in some very difficult classes where he doesn’t have the study skills to do as well as he could. My daughter, on the other hand, has realized that she prefers the easy way, and is avoiding some, although not all, of the honors level classes she probably should be taking. My point here is that all students need training at their level, and an excellent school system allows for individual needs to be met. As someone that has studied education in general and gifted and talented education, I have learned that teaching to meet the needs of a variety of learners can be done, and it needs to be done in every classroom. Really, all students need to have instruction tailored to their needs.

    The best teachers are able to do it–and I have seen some amazing teachers do this. In fact, my daughter had a teacher in 5th grade, who incidentally does not believe in gifted education. However, this teacher exemplified the best differentiated learning environment that I have ever seen–before or since. Every child in her classroom learned at his or her own level. No child was ever waiting for another to complete a task before he or she could move on. Every student made gains that year, and, more impressively, every student in that classroom loved being in school.

    Personally, I wouldn’t care if every teacher and every administrator didn’t believe in gifted education if they all had the mindset and skillset that this teacher had. She still doesn’t believe in gifted education, but she makes sure that every child gets what he or she needs. To me, that is what education should be about. It is possible. I have seen it happen. If it was happening more often, we really wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    We are having this discussion because too many children are waiting for their peers to gain the knowledge they have or too many children are working past their frustrational level on assignments they just aren’t ready for. It is great to be a child who falls in the middle of the spectrum because his or her needs are usually met. The reason advocacy groups have formed for the kids on the other ends of the spectrum is because their parents and others have realized that all children need to be educated from where they are.

    Second, Eve states that a concept of giftedness is incompatible with the gospel. I disagree. Being proud about one’s intellectual, physical, or any other talent is certainly incompatible. But just having a propensity for gaining knowledge quickly and using it in unusual ways is not inherently prideful. Others have commented on this post, andI will add, that having a gift doesn’t make one proud. It is how one treats and acknowledges the gift.

    My understanding of the gospel is that we start from where we are and we add to our knowledge and ability to use it from there. We don’t have to wait for everyone else that is our age to catch up to us in order to progress. We move at our own pace. (This thought is related to Liz C’s, that maybe our school problem is more because we force all kids the same age to move together in lockstep.) Sometimes you are ahead of me in gaining spiritual skills; sometimes I’m ahead of you, and sometimes I fall back and need some spiritual remediation. Yet, none of us are forced to feel badly that we aren’t even. We just keep moving along. In fact, we are warned against standing still–plateauing.

    Yet, when it comes to being in secular school, it seems that many people argue that this is what children should do. If they already know something, well that’s great, but we don’t have the resources to help you move to the next level. You’ll just need to work on your own, we say, as if we would stop providing Primary teachers for kids that already understood the concept of faith. We need to be careful that we do not subtly deny any child the opportunity to progress just because we don’t understand her or his needs.

    Bottomline: It is not inconsistent with the gospel to give people what they need. And it is not prideful to ask for help for your child–whatever that child’s needs may be.

  55. 55.

    Interesting discussion. I think that you make a number of good points, Eve. There are downsides to being called gifted — it can certainly lead to an entitled or arrogant attitude.

    At the same time, I find myself agreeing with much of what Liz says:

    “Gifted” kids do *not* generally “come out alright”. They get bored, frustrated, burnt out doing busywork, and just give up. The rates of depression, self-medication, and drop-outs are pretty impressive among really bright kids who are not mentored well. The systematic ignoring of the brightest is a huge detriment.
    Me–fourth grade. Eight years old. Pretty verbal and a bit precocious, but shy. My teacher really didn’t like the fact that I could breeze through his lessons with little effort. (It took me less than a month to finish the math book for the year. I did it for fun on the weekends, and just turned stuff in as it was assigned, and read during the in-class stuff to keep myself awake.) He began a process of calling me out in front of the class, all of whom were at least a year older than I was, pointing out any flaw in anything I said or did, putting my name on the board with checks behind it… and I stopped talking. . . .
    Yes, it’s easy to say, “Oh, just let them work ahead”–but few teachers are really prepared to support that. My “gifted” brother (one of them) was called out by his freshman English teacher and punished for writing song lyrics in class. They were doing a poetry unit, he’d finished early, and was enjoying a bit of lyrics time. She informed him that lyrics are *not* poetry. He pulled out the reference sheet I’d sent him of various poetic forms, pointed out he was writing rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, and she told him to play on his own time, and only do English in English class.
    Many teachers are VERY threatened by kids who can work ahead.

    That’s been my experience as well. I was bored out of my mind for much of elementary school — staring out the window and daydreaming, as the class went over their times tables for the 37th time. This was not well received by some teachers. I did not respond well to busy work. I was not challenged by the work. And the fact that I caught things more quickly was one factor that sometimes made me feel like an outsider in class. A number of very bright kids in school worked to hide their intelligence, not wanting to be singled out as the smart one.

    It led to some bratty behavior. High school is where kids are already bratty. I clashed repeatedly with my Algebra II teacher. We finally settled on a routine — I would put my head down in class and ostentatiously sleep through the class, until called on. When called on, I would lift up my head, glance at the board, give the correct answer, and then go back to sleep. It was acting up, absolutely, but it was a hell of a lot better than going through sine and cosine for the fifth time.

    Sullivan had the same problem. He learned his ABCs when he was three. Then he went to preschool, and had to learn them again. He managed to tolerate that. Then he went to kindergarten, and the whole class was spending months learning the ABCs. At that point, he refused to participate, and began starting crayon-throwing wars on a daily basis, got called into the office repeatedly. Eventually, we worked out a plan with the teacher where he could do other things during that time.

    It rings true for me that mainstream classrooms are not equipped to deal with bored gifted kids. And really, why not push the kids to do more?

    A good gifted program will push the kids to do better by putting them with peers who will push harder. They won’t learn to just coast on intelligence; they’ll develop effective study habits. There are *many* gifted kids who become slackers (ahem) because they were able to coast on intelligence during school, and never had to learn to study.

    We break up sports into JV and varsity. We break up grades themselves; there’s no one-room classrooms anymore. I think it makes sense, where appropriate, to break out gifted kids, both to spare them boredom, to spare their teachers and classmates from disruption, and to put them into an environment where they will learn and develop their full skill set.

    (But we should do it in a way that does not encourage arrogance or obnoxiousness.)

  56. 56.

    I have a visceral negative reaction to terms like “gifted,” because I spent so much of my young life convinced if I wasn’t scintillatingly brilliant I may as well be dead. The sort of pressure parents can (sometimes inadvertantly) put their children under to perform is horrifying.

    At the same time, I think we should accept the reality that at least some (many?) of our public schools are abominations. Not only are they largely boring as hell, some of the teachers seem to have migrated unnoticed from that location: as in, they’re in the employ of Satan. The whole system needs to be redone. I’m not sure how, though.

  57. 57.

    I’d like to second everything Kaimi said. I also have stories of smart children bullied by teachers who didn’t like them and of students entering college without developing solid study skills because they’d breezed through high school without having to study. One-size-fits all education doesn’t fit many children on the skinny ends of whatever distribution.

  58. 58.

    Kaimi, I agree 100% on the gifted/slacker connection. That’s one huge downside to “mainstreaming” high-functioning kids. They learn to coast, they learn to protect their “smart” status by never risking failure, and they learn that mediocre effort is just fine and dandy, so long as they never mention it wasn’t that hard.

    I remember being very frustrated when the National Honor Society chapter approached me to do a project for them, sophomore year. I had been denied entrance to NHS freshman and sophomore years, due to lack of attendance. But, they wanted me to the do the design project, because none of the NHS students had taken a particularly challenging course needed to gain the skills for the project, and I had.

    NHS also rejected me junior year, for lack of attendance. When they attempted to induct me without my application senior year, my mother tried to explain why that was a really poor idea, and then she refused to keep it a secret. I didn’t attend the induction.

    “Gifted” need not mean arrogant, but without additional mentoring from really unique people, it often means “lost.”

  59. 59.

    Kevin, thanks for your always thoughtful perspective.

    I find your example of the child who was saved by gifted identification and placement particularly useful to think about in the context of a giftedness critique. One lesson I draw from it is that as a parent I know I’ll often have to throw away a pet theory and do what works. If identification as gifted, or as learning disabled, were the only thing that could save my daughter and allow her to flourish, that’s of course what I’d do. I hope I’d never fault a parent for taking whatever strategy works for her child. At the end of the day, that’s what we all have to do.

    And when my kids came up, the normal age for starting algebra had been moved up to 8th grade anyway; the gifted kids started in 7th

    I find this particularly interesting in light of Deborah’s observations above that many more children could be designated as gifted in junior if we would allow them to be. It also suggests to me that if the normals catch up–that is, if the “giftedness” brand is debased by excessive access–gatekeepers have to restrict and redefine in order to restore value.

    Matt W., sounds as if you’ve had a broader range of experiences than most of us. I wonder if, in general, it’s better for children to be at the top of their classes or at the bottom. I guess it probably depends on the child.

    Jen G., thanks for adding your perspective from the other side of the desk, so to speak.

    Liz C, so glad we could lure you back! For what it’s worth, your approach to teaching sounds eminently sensible. I see what you do as the huge advantage of homeschooling–you can completely abandon concepts like grade levels and being behind and ahead of same-age peers and just meet the child precisely where he is, in every subject, and give him precisely the amount of practice he needs in that subject. (Your nephew’s school sounds as if it’s attempting a similar ideal.)

    I agree that some teachers seem threatened by students who go too fast or exhibit too much creativity or initiative. That’s one point at which the price of being in an institution can be steep, in some cases too steep to continue paying. At the practical level, so much comes back to the individual teacher. Again speculating wildly, perhaps a really excellent teacher could obviate much of the need for elaborate pull-out services? Of course in this ideal scenario our excellent teacher would have a small class and lots of administrative and parental support in tailoring her instruction to each child. Perhaps resources would be better invested in reducing class size and improving teacher quality–which would also be fairer because it would benefit all children (?)

    I wonder too if part of the problem with rigid teachers is a (sometimes temperamental?) inability to distinguish the sacred curriculum from the process of learning and to realize how much, much vaster the latter is than the former. An alarming number of teachers seem to see school as about checking all the boxes, following the curriculum, filling out all the worksheets, The End. This mentality parallels one I encountered in my years as a YW president. I had one mother who was quite determined that her daughter earn her YW medallion, and she was also quite determined that I make her daughter earn it. My view was that the medallion was a means to an end, a curriculum, if you will, of spiritual development, but certainly not the only curriculum. If her daughter was praying and studying the scriptures and developing a meaningful spiritual life and engaged in other meaningful activities, she didn’t need to check a bunch of boxes to get a medallion. But my perspective on this was, and is, very much a minority one.

    Anyway, thanks again for such thoughtful reflections. Don’t be a stranger!

  60. 60.

    Eve,
    Another thing to realize is that school districts often want a gifted program because if they don’t provide it, parents will pull their kids out of the school and they won’t get state money for those children. Our school district provides a homeschooling center, one co-op choice K-8 school, one multi-age classroom choice school, one gifted program. These programs may cost a little more money (just in busing I think mostly) but they keep kids in the district whose parents might choose private or homeschooling.
    I’m not sure what kind of money you think is being spent on gifted programs but it doesn’t seem like it is a lot, at least in my district.

  61. 61.

    Just to be clear, we are not in an exclusive high income district.

  62. 62.

    That’s not far off from what was on the menu in my school district: one Peanut Gallery, staffed by volunteers; one garden-variety curriculum for the comatose; one covert operations center, location and purpose unknown; and one multi-level choose-your-own-adventure classroom school.

    This thread has been most enlightening, truly. I’m collecting information for my forthcoming book, Giftedness for Dummies.

  63. 63.

    After reading the OP, all of the comments, and then rereading the OP and many of the comments, I must admit that I’m still unclear about what the fundamental concern is.

    Is the problem giftedness, as in the manifest reality that some children sincerely do excel at particular pursuits (intellectual, musical, or otherwise). Or is the problem ‘giftedness’, as in the label applied to–and unwisely shared with–children who purportedly (and perhaps do) excel at particular pursuits (intellectual, musical, or otherwise)? Or is the problem “giftedness”, as in the smug feeling of superiority felt by some children who are gifted or ‘gifted’?

    It seems that the OP and some of the comments are talking past each other by muddying the distinctions between giftedness, ‘giftedness’, and “giftedness”.

    By itself, giftedness is the underlying and undeniable reality–free of value judgment–that some children (or adults, for that matter) are better at task x or thing y. Naturally, just as there are an endless supply of tasks x and things y, there are a myriad of ways that children (and adults) can be gifted. There is certainly room for debate about which tasks or things matter or should be measured, but in an academic context a few quickly become more salient, such as literacy, numeracy, and the speed at which new concepts are learned.

    ‘Giftedness’ is the label often applied to children who have these academically salient gifts. Obviously, if the possession of the ‘giftedness’ label (either by an individual or by one’s children) is socially imbued with value unto itself, the status of ‘giftedness’ will likely be pursued in a way that subverts the metrics used to measure giftedness, distorts the efficient allocation of educational resources (and parental attention), and betrays the (often egoistic) underlying motivations of the pursuers. About all this I agree wholeheartedly. An important consequence of this dynamic is readily observed: that many ‘gifted’ children may actually not be gifted.

    “Giftedness”, finally, is the erroneous conflation of being better at something (than someone) and being better than someone. This is of course false.

    As the OP alludes to in its conclusion, we humans are ever so easily mired in pride. However, our God-given gifts are not at the root of this problem. It is how we as individuals and societies respond to these gifts and our attitudes toward others that can transform giftedness into “giftedness” and lure others into seeking ‘giftedness’ for the sake of “giftedness”.

    While we must guard against “giftedness”, this should in no way imply that we should deny or fail to support giftedness. Ultimately, the perils of “giftedness” are spiritual in nature, and are best dealt with in a spiritual context at home and at church. In a secular classroom, we have an obligation to encourage giftedness, even if it entails the attendant imperfections of ‘giftedness’.

  64. 64.

    Rob.W, thanks, especially for this observation,

    She’s better than most kids in her class at reading, and so she helps the others. I wouldn’t trade that kind of experience for any type of advanced curriculum.

    I think the price of being ghettoized, as Ardis so eloquently put it, is the loss of such experiences–which, especially for the gifted, are arguably more important than the formal education at which they’re so capable. Ordinary, non-gifted people populate the world in which the gifted child will someday live. He needs to be prepared for that world.

    the idea that most parents of exceptional children (or even average children) are insisting on things all the time is ridiculous.

    JKS, where do you see this kind of claim being made? If you can point me to a source on this thread, I’ll certainly read with interest.

    The context for the advocacy discussion here is the Segullah thread, where several comments urged a kind of advocacy I’m arguing (in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the OP) we need to reconsider. The question here is philosophical: how ought we to advocate? What are the costs and benefits of various forms of advocacy? Claims about the ways in which various classes of parents actually do or do not advocate are verifiable only empirically, so until we see some systematic data on the subject, I don’t think there’s any way to know what parents actually do.

    I’m unsure why I am “arguing” since my children have all done well in regular education. I just don’t like how some people are painting “gifted” children or their parents.

    Can you be more specific? What, precisely, has someone said about gifted children and their parents that you disagree with, and why do you disagree? How, in your view, are the gifted being misrepresented?

    Hey, m&m! It’s nice to see that ZD’s commenters from the olden days still drop by now and again.

    Thanks for adding your experiences and perspectives. On practical issues such as how classrooms and tracks should be organized and whether various groups of children should be pulled out or mainstreamed, I’m actually quite ambivalent, and I’ve been interested to read arguments for various arrangements.

    BTW, I TOTALLY agree that we need to be careful about not labeling, about not making one’s learning experiences/abilities/styles the sole source of identity. I think how parents respond to these needs is important, too. It *can* bring out prideful attitudes, but it doesn’t mean it always does….This shouldn’t feel like a competition, and I know it does. It’s hard to figure out how to talk about this in ways that don’t feel divisive or hierarchichal.

    I agree.

    I don’t appreciate being lumped together as prideful because I have taken advantage of and talked about a program that I believe is beneficial at many levels.

    Oh, m&m, you know I would never lump you together with anyone. You’re one of a kind. ;)

    (But more seriously, can you show me where I’ve accused anyone of pride simply because they enroll their child in a gifted program? I specifically said in the next-to-last paragraph of the OP that I don’t condemn such a choice, and I’ve repeated that at least once on the thread.)

    And while I dont think that we can expect a school environment to somehow map to absolute gospel truth, I think there is actually some reflection of truth in recognizing some clusters of individual learning styles and trying to respond to them (these are dynamics that are studied and have some merit to them). That needs to be done with genuine recognition of individual worth of ALL students, and that’s not always easy in a world based on merits and measures and points and grades. But, imo, that problem goes much deeper in our system than just with the issue of gifted programs, etc. That’s just life, really. (anyone who has been looked over for a scholarship or a job or a promotion knows that all too well.)

    As I’ve said before…sounds good to me!

  65. 65.

    Matt W (53), what a good question. It’s one of those worthy of its own post, not to mention its own book, but to give you another quick off-the-top-of-my-head answer, I’d say that while many of the same problems unquestionably apply to special ed, the big difference between special ed and giftedness is one of status, and the status of giftedness gives it some problems that are unique.

    (Screaming daughter, boring meeting to attend. Must run. I’ll be back later.)

  66. 66.

    Eve,

    I obviously read a bit too much into this statement:

    In short, I see no way around the conclusion that giftedness is a form of pride.

    So I guess I need to go back to trying to figure out exactly where the pride comes in in your mind.

    Sorry for jumping the gun.

    (So, I’m a one-of-a-kind old timer. That makes me smile, I think. :) )

  67. 67.

    I love this post and this discussion, and I have many (sometimes conflicting) opinions on it. I’ll try to make them (somewhat) coherent.

    First, I think parent involvement and advocacy can be essential to a child’s education. However, I think how we advocate and what we advocate for can be either good or bad. It’s true that the more we demand for our children, the more is (generally) left for other children.

    I feel not a smidgen of guilt advocating for more for my autistic son, though perhaps I should. I think this is mostly because school is supposed to teach basic skills, and if he doesn’t have additional resources, he won’t learn those basic skills. For example, even with an hour of one-on-one speech therapy every week for the last year, he only rarely can speak in sentences, and the longest of those are about 5 words. We’re actually quite thrilled with this, as it’s major progress, but he’s four and a half, and ought to be able to speak _way_ more than that. If he does not get speech therapy, he won’t be able to communicate, which is one of those basic and essential skills that kids need. The school last year originally wanted him to get only half an hour a week of speech therapy, I personally thought he needed a lot more than that. We compromised with one hour a week, and I don’t feel at all bad about the education dollars going to pay that speech therapist rather than doing something else.

    I think I will feel a little more guilt if I advocate for special services for my second son (who, while not in school yet, is certainly going to be way above his peers in many academic pursuits). I think in general I will try to keep my advocating to a minimum, but I will certainly try to keep in close contact with his teachers so we can make sure school is working for him.

    As you say, one problem with advocating for gifted children is that it pulls resources away from other areas. I think I’m happy with (and will try to practice) advocating that does as little of this as possible. For instance, when I was in elementary school I participated in what they called a “high potential program”. The only in-school component of it that I can recall is working on a report of our own choosing every year. It was a great way to challenge and teach those who might otherwise be bored, but required a minimum of additional resources. I think there was one meeting at the beginning of the year where they went over how do research, how to cite sources, etc. After that, all that happened was that during certain times during the school day (like when other children were struggling through math concepts we had already mastered, or whatever) we would go down to the library. We were minimally supervised by the librarians, who were there anyway, so it required no additional staff. We used the books that were already in the library, so it required no additional materials (other than the papers about how to write the reports). We each got to choose our own subject, so it kept us interested and engaged. (Really, we could choose anything — the two reports I specifically remember writing were one about koalas and one about Brigham Young — and this was in the midwest, not UT.) It also taught us some valuable skills about researching, citing sources, etc. Of course, someone had to initially think up and implement this creative solution, and I’m sure they had to argue and advocate for it to be put in place.

    I also took part in a number of after school and/or Saturday gifted programs. I loved them, and if the school systems my children are in have such things available, I will certainly let them participate if they want to. I don’t think I will ever ask that something of the sort be set up, though, as that’s something I think is beyond what the school system is really there for. (But as a gifted child, I certainly enjoyed and benefited from the programs, so I have a hard time saying they shouldn’t be there.)

    Also, as a gifted child I don’t think I suffered from many ill-effects of being mostly in mainstream classes. I didn’t have any teachers who criticized me for being smart, I didn’t suffer from depression, I did suffer from some boredom, but managed to entertain myself sufficiently, and really, I don’t think it’s much of a problem for gifted kids to be in a regular classroom as long as the teachers are willing to work with them a little bit. In my opinion, the teachers are not required to find additional books and resources for my children to learn from, etc. The teachers have a particular curriculum for the grade level, and that is what they are required to make sure my children learn. However, if my children have already learned those things, they need to be willing to let my children teach themselves other things or engage themselves in another way while they continue to teach what my child has already learned. This is what my parents advocated for with my youngest brother (the only one of my siblings who I think my parents ever advocated for). He has ADD, and was disruptive to class a lot, mostly because he was bored. They got permission from his teachers for him to keep a book that he wanted to read in his desk, and when he completed what he was supposed to be working on for class he could pull out the book and quietly read rather than disrupting other students who were still working. (This is what I did in high school, too, though there were never any formal discussions of it. I just read through all of my classes without asking permission. Any teachers who didn’t like it at first would call on me while I was reading, and I would look up from my book, answer their questions, and go back to reading. They realized that I knew what was going on even while reading and didn’t really need to pay more attention, so they just ignored it. It worked all around.)

    In my opinion, an important component of advocating for your child is to come up with a reasonable solution, rather than trying to make the school come up with a solution for you. For instance, being able to read to yourself when your schoolwork is completed is, in my opinion, a very reasonable thing that in no way detracts from any other student’s education. I would advocate for it, and if a teacher was not open to it, I would advocate for a different teacher. (This applies to other areas as well — for instance, my son has food allergies, and I need a minimum support from his teacher to make sure he isn’t harmed from those. I advocate for an agreement that they will not let him use supplies I deem unsafe (i.e. playdough), and that they know how to use an epi-pen in emergencies (I am willing to do the training, and it takes very little of their time). If they cannot or will not agree to these, I advocate for my son getting a different teacher.)

    One last thought on “advocating” for different educational resources for our children’s needs — one of the best ways to make sure our children get what they need is to research school districts and self-select one that will meet our children’s needs with programs that are already in place. For instance, while we didn’t live in a great school district when my oldest sister and I were in high school, my parents didn’t worry about it too much because they knew we would learn on our own. They were more worried about my brothers not being challenged because they didn’t think my brothers would bother to learn if they weren’t required to do so, so when they moved they researched and found a district with a magnet math and science school (that one brother attended) and an IB program at the regular high school (that both my younger sister and the other brother participated in). When my husband and I recently moved i researched all of the school districts in the area, and we only looked at houses in the one that I thought had the best program set up for my autistic son. Of course, this comes with some drawbacks as well, since the good private preschools (that I think my second son would greatly benefit from and love) are on the other side of the city and he now can’t attend them. But I think there are a lot more opportunities for him to learn in general, and (unfortunately) some of his educational needs will probably always take a backseat to his brother’s more important educational needs. (To clarify, I don’t think the older one is more important; I do think it’s more important that the 4yo learns to speak than that the 3yo learns to read.)

    Sorry for the novel, but thanks for the discussion!

  68. 68.

    Angie C, thanks for your perspective. I’m particularly interested in–and troubled by–the examples you give of your children failing to learn to work because they weren’t adequately challenged. That, I agree, is a real problem–and undoubtedly in some cases that particular cost outweighs the benefits of mainstreaming. Again, that’s one of those difficult judgment calls among imperfect alternatives that every parent must make for his own children.

    At the same time, I have to note that the example of your daughter’s teacher who taught so beautifully to every child’s level, who helped every child to learn and to love school, suggests that concepts of giftedness and segregated gifted education may not really be necessary to challenge every student.

    Being proud about one’s intellectual, physical, or any other talent is certainly incompatible. But just having a propensity for gaining knowledge quickly and using it in unusual ways is not inherently prideful. Others have commented on this post, andI will add, that having a gift doesn’t make one proud. It is how one treats and acknowledges the gift.

    I agree, and I don’t think I’ve said otherwise (see the OP, point 5 and comments 4 and 11, if you really want to check up on me).

    Ah, Kaimi! Always a pleasure. Knowing you to be the boring, straitlaced, downright stuffy person you are, I simply can’t imagine that you or your son would give a teacher the least bit of trouble. ;)

    You, Liz C, and Katya all give sobering data points about the costs of failure to challenge. Definitely food for thought. I particularly liked Liz’s

    Kaimi, I agree 100% on the gifted/slacker connection. That’s one huge downside to “mainstreaming” high-functioning kids. They learn to coast, they learn to protect their “smart” status by never risking failure, and they learn that mediocre effort is just fine and dandy, so long as they never mention it wasn’t that hard.

    I wonder if part of the issue (an observation with which I credit my mother) is the question of what purpose schools actually serve in our society. At first blush it seems obvious that they’re educational, and of course they are (at least somewhat ;) ). But they’re also social and socializing institutions, and they’re our kids’ job, what they get up in the morning and go to, what they do. (In most societies and most eras kids worked instead.) In at least some cases the latter functions end up interfering with the former. For example, from any of approximately one gazillion high school nostalgia movies and teen soaps we learn in approximately two minutes that high school is not most fundamentally about calculus, chemistry, and French; it’s about group identity and social status and lunch-table hierarchy and prom. Any school reform with teeth is going to have to somehow take account of such issues. (Don’t ask me how. I haven’t a clue.)

    Gifted with a Mouth, may I be the first on this thread to observe that perhaps your mouth is a little too gifted for its own good? ;)

    The problem of teachers in the employ of Satan seems to be a recurring theme here (quite understandably). Personally I’d love to see the whole profession overhauled, its status and pay increased to the level of doctors’ and lawyers’. I’d love to see class sizes cut in half and schools, all schools, be flush with resources, even in areas where parents have little or nothing. I’d love to see the brightest, most passionate, most intellectually alive college students compete fiercely to get into schools of education. There are some wonderful, brilliant, life-changing teachers out there. I hope we all keep a few in our hearts (I’m thinking now of Margaret’s post over at BCC about her midwives, of the fabulous job I know Deborah and our own Seraphine do with their students–what I wouldn’t give to send my daughter into their capable hands!) but there are also some sadists, and a lot of teachers, sad to say, who don’t really know their fields well, and who don’t really get learning, who are dry and rigid and lockstep and humorless and wedded to their dusty curricula and downright mean.

    JKS said,

    I’m not sure what kind of money you think is being spent on gifted programs but it doesn’t seem like it is a lot, at least in my district.

    You and Sam B above both make the point about gifted programs as a necessary incentive to parents who would otherwise go elsewhere. I’m sure you’re right, and I’m sure it’s an increasing problem for school districts in an era of multiplying school options.

    I don’t have any idea what’s being spent on gifted programs in my area or anywhere else, and I don’t really have an opinion on how much should be spent. (Just by temperament I tend to be much more interested in abstract philosophical issues which my practical, hands-on husband likes to describe on his more polite days as “pie-in-the-sky.”) So while I’m happy to host such discussions on this thread, if participants are so inclined, I’m not at all equipped to weigh in on them.

  69. 69.

    ‘Phile, thanks for weighing in.

    After reading the OP, all of the comments, and then rereading the OP and many of the comments, I must admit that I’m still unclear about what the fundamental concern is.

    Oh, believe me, you’re not alone. By this point in the discussion–in any discussion–I’m at the same point myself.

    I think you’re probably right that at least some confusion on the thread arises from category crossover, but I’m less sure I entirely grasp your categories. Might I venture the following paraphrase?

    Giftedness = the ability itself.
    ‘Giftedness’ = the label we apply to the ability.
    “Giftedness” = the pride that can ensue (from the label we apply to the ability).

    I agree with much of what you say. Some points of hesitation follow.

    An important consequence of this dynamic is readily observed: that many ‘gifted’ children may actually not be gifted.

    Here, after enthusiastically following you to the end of your paragraph, I pause because I’m skeptical that we can ever access a pure giftedness (in your first sense), or that such giftedness even exists prior to our designation of it. (I’m thinking again of the Pygmalion effect, and of my general skepticism regarding the core self.) I don’t see how designation can ever be purely an act of discovery and not at least partly–maybe largely–an act of creation. This is one reason I think designating some, and not all, children as gifted is ethically problematic; we are, in effect, also creating some children as gifted, and simultaneously creating others as not gifted. We’re not just finding and building potential; we’re simultaneously losing and destroying it. Maybe some destruction is inevitable, but we ought to minimize it.

    In other words, I don’t know that there is a giftedness apart from ‘giftedness.’

    Ultimately, the perils of “giftedness” are spiritual in nature, and are best dealt with in a spiritual context at home and at church. In a secular classroom, we have an obligation to encourage giftedness, even if it entails the attendant imperfections of ‘giftedness’.

    As a practical matter I’m sure you’re right. In theory, though (where I myself prefer to live), I wonder if we can morally separate the spheres so entirely, and relegate our ethics to one. It’s parallel to the problem of pursuing one ethic of murderously cutthroat competition in the workplace, and then coming home to a completely different ethic of love and mutual obligation.

    Also, I suspect encouraging giftedness in our current terms of ‘giftedness’ inevitably results in “giftedness.” For that reason I’m interested in finding ways to encourage giftedness that don’t require so much ‘giftedness’–or, if you will, I’m interested in revising ‘giftedness’ in ways that distance it from “giftedness.”

    But thanks for parsing the issues so carefully.

  70. 70.

    re 66, my flip answer would be that the pride comes from our fallen natures, but I know that’s not what you’re saying.

    My sense in making that statement was, and still is, that the concept of giftedness is one form pride takes in our culture. But that doesn’t mean that children or adults who are intellectually inclined are necessarily proud, nor even that children in gifted programs or their parents are necessarily proud.

    Maybe a parallel would be helpful. I think that beauty pageants are also a form of pride (see, I don’t just have it in for the gifted; I hate the beautiful too ;) ). But to say that isn’t to say anything at all about beautiful people. They may be proud, or they may not be. It isn’t even to say anything at all about beauty-pageant participants, who may have perfectly legitimate reasons for participating. Maybe pageants are the only way some girls can get scholarships, or maybe they’re the only outlet for small-town girls to develop musical talents. Or maybe the girls’ parents just force them to be pageant queens. But a critique of the institution and its cultural meanings isn’t a critique of any given individual who may find that flawed institution the best alternative available to him or her.

    Does that help?

    P.S. Although we’ve disagreed vigorously in the past and I’m sure we will again in the future, I’ve become really fond of you, m&m. I mean, it’s not just anyone who can go thirty rounds on patriarchy, and after all the dust has died down I often somehow feel bonded to my combatants by the very fray we have inflicted on one another. (I’ll disagree with Geoff J about the trump card of personal revelation until the end of time but I admire the guy to no end because he never quits and it’s just so painfully, exasperatingly fun.)

    In short, I’m a fanatic, and I love my fellow fanatics, wherever on the ideological spectrum they may find themselves.

    Vada, thanks to you as well for weighing in and especially for adding your experiences. You like Kathryn are dealing with both ends of the spectrum simultaneously, which I think gives you a particularly valuable perspective.

    Now I think I’m done with giftedness for a very, very long time (which isn’t to say you all have to be–carry on, by all means, anyone who’s still around and wants to.)

    (But now that I’ve started toppling sacred cows, I don’t know that I can stop. Please watch this space for an entire series of posts designed to induce parental rage. For my next trick I’ll explain why breastfeeding is an infernal practice that will ruin you, your marriage, and your child forever.)

  71. 71.

    I have a hard time with this post and the comments because so much of it seems based on the assumption that gifted kids will turn out all right no matter what. I know a few people have challenged that, but I just wanted to add. I come from a small town where there was a half-day, once a week pull out gifted program in 3-5 grades. In high school, there were AP classes, but there were a variety of students in those classes – definitely not solely the population targeted by traditional gifted programs. That was it for gifted kids – everything else was up to the whims of teachers, as well as parental intervention. I was lucky in that I had parents who could provide extra learning opportunities and intervened to allow me to skip ahead a grade in math.

    But, like many of my peers, I didn’t learn how to study and I didn’t learn that it was okay to be challenged. In a test for program that my parents were trying to get me admitted to (a statewide math program, but I ended up not being able to go since I was from a rural area and it would have required a 6-hr round trip drive 2-3 times per week), I remember stopping on a problem and thinking, and then doing a double-take as I thought “oh no, I can’t cheat.” I immediately realized that just thinking is not in fact cheating, but this was my initial reaction to seeing a challenging problem in a school-like setting. I was bored constantly in school, and by middle school, I learned to play dumb and not talk too much in class so as not to get teased. Especially as a girl, I learned that being smart was not cool, so I would act ditzy in labs and try hard to look as if I knew less than I did. As someone mentioned above, I did learn to be scared of ever getting anything wrong – but I don’t think that’s because of the label gifted. I was very driven to do well because I knew that I could handle any problem that was given to me. I developed a great deal of anxiety because getting a problem wrong would mean I wasn’t smart, and I did deal with depression, which I partially expressed by writing a number of short stories about girls feeling out of place and different, often due to intellectual ability (okay, so I wasn’t the best at writing things far from my experience :) ).

    I think this is quite problematic, but I don’t think it had anything to do with gifted education programs or gifted labels. Rather, I think that training teachers the importance of all children in their class *learning* (not just sitting there) and providing the resources to make that happen is key. Many of the kids I would have identified as the most gifted in high school struggled in college due to the lack of study skills and 13 years of being trained that slacking is fine and laudable. In addition to training teachers, however, I think it’s important that parents and communities become aware that gifted kids don’t just succeed without help. Not giving them resources is damaging just as trying to teach any child significantly above or below the level at which they can learn is damaging. Too often, gifted kids are used as an additional teacher in the classroom, someone whose whole role in school is to help others. I agree with the people above who said that learning this role is important, but it shouldn’t be the only thing kids are doing in school.

    Anyway, that was a long comment – just wanted to share my experiences and also to urge people to read the research out there on gifted education and gifted populations. Beyond the anecdotes we’ve all been sharing, people have looked at how these kids do and the benefits and drawbacks of different education systems for all populations. Current gifted programs leave a lot to be desired (and do cater disproportionately to children with higher SES and to white and Asian/Asian-American children), but I don’t think that means that gifted kids don’t need and deserve appropriate resources and learning opportunities.

  72. 72.

    Thanks for weighing in on the discussion, epi. I agree that both teachers and parents need to be aware of students needs and try to meet them. From all the comments we’ve gotten I guess my experience with gifted students is very different from the norm, though. I say that many gifted kids do fine on their own in normal educational settings because that’s my experience. I did fine, my siblings did fine, my friends did fine. All did fine in school, all did or are doing fine in college, those who have graduated have gone on to (from what I know) live pretty much happy and productive lives. I think school did instill a little bit of laziness in me, but other than having to overcome that, there are no lasting effects from me learning pretty much nothing in most of my classes. I hope my son will have the same experience, but reading about the other possibilities, I will be sure to try and keep lines of communication open with him, so he can tell me if he doesn’t.

  73. 73.

    Thanks Vada – and I do agree that some kids do totally fine, and often teachers want to help (don’t want to paint my teachers as uncaring – there were some great ones and they helped a lot!) and can make the classroom a welcoming learning place for all kinds of kids. I’m sure that keeping the lines of communication open with your son will provide you with the feedback you need to make sure he’s doing well. So much of it comes down to how things are outside school as well as inside that it’s impossible to say either “kids will fail if x doesn’t happen” or “kids will succeed if x happens.” It’s hard to talk about what we need in schools given differences in communities – I’m sure many of my friends would have had an easier time in college if not for other factors, such as growing up in poverty in a small rural town and not having a lot of experience with people trying the types of careers they were interested in (science, engineering), but I think that support early on in learning study skills and being challenged would have helped mitigate those issues.

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