Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When gifted kids get to exhale

Gifted students typically view school as easy. Much too easy.

And that's the problem.

While some kids might relish the idea of coasting though school, once classes become routine and simplistic, their school day becomes tedious, boring, and a waste of time. Complaining is pointless, and marks them as a whiner - or even worse - an overachiever. Many gifted kids give up, hold their breath, and wait until they might - eventually - find meaningful learning opportunities.

When gifted students finally experience a class that combines deeper exploration, creativity, an accelerated pace, and includes like-minded peers, they can breathe a sigh of relief.

One student's story:
Jonah* found that he could exhale once he started honors classes in 9th grade. In addition to the more intensive pace, he was finally grouped with like-minded peers, after years of placement in mixed ability classes.
"Finally, FINALLY, I can breathe again. It's like I've been asleep, waiting until I could learn, and the world opened up to me. I've been waiting so long and have been SO bored. And I've had to hold back in classes because the other kids - the kids who hate school - they would have laughed at me. So I kept quiet.
But now I'm in classes with other smart kids. And I can speak up. And we can talk back and forth with each other about interesting stuff, and no one is going to laugh at me if I say something that "sounds smart." And the teacher is amazing and lets us talk about interesting things. We don't just learn all the surface stuff - we go deep. School is finally fun again. It's like I've been holding my breath for the past few years... and I can finally exhale."

When there is neglect

Many schools have neglected the needs of gifted students by refusing to provide options such as ability grouping or acceleration. Sometimes this is based on assumptions about fairness, equity, and "what giftedness looks like," as well as misconceptions about the needs of gifted children. In contrast to these assumptions, a recent meta-analytic review from Steenbergen-Hu, Makel and Olszewski-Kubilius stresses that acceleration and ability grouping are effective educational tools for both higher and lower-achieving students.

Academic acceleration has been recommended for gifted and highly able children since publication of A Nation Deceived, and more recently in A Nation Empowered. It continues to be recognized (see NAGC) as a cost-effective tool that offers gifted students an opportunity to excel. Flexible ability grouping is even more critical, since it permits students to interact with like-minded peers, something acceleration does not always accomplish. According to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study, ability grouping improves academic scores for children at all levels. As Olszerski-Kubilius has noted:

"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time." 

When there is relief from boredom

While the start of ninth grade was a breakthrough for Jonah, that moment of relief might occur at a different point in time for others - during a particularly engaging and meaningful class, a challenging extra-curricular activity, or a camp for gifted students where they can explore their interests, unencumbered by pressure to mask their abilities. For some, though, their passion for learning is not unleashed until college or even later.

Another student's story:
Alyssa* easily coasted through high school. She took all of the advanced classes that were available at the small mid-western school she attended, along with a few additional classes online. Although valedictorian, and sporting exceptional SAT scores, she knew it was a long-shot to gain acceptance into an elite college, but her "geographic minority" status helped to boost her chances. She started college at her second choice school, and was thrilled to find that it was even more stimulating than expected.
"I never knew it could be this different. At first, I felt intimidated and worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up. But it was so incredible to be in classes with other students who were actually interested in learning - who weren't rolling their eyes or trying to get out of work. They also weren't trying to hide that they were smart and trying to fit in all the time. I was so used to doing what I had to do just to get the grade so I could get in to college, that what I was learning didn't matter. But now it does. I now get to study with amazing professors who like what they're doing and who expect us to care about what we are learning. Even though the work is hard, I am so relieved that I found a place like this."

The fallout from neglect

Neglecting gifted children by refusing to meet their educational needs - especially when there are cost-effective solutions - not only contributes to years of boredom, underachievement, and wasted potential, but can create social and emotional problems. Some gifted people develop nagging self-doubt, question their abilities, and view themselves as "impostors." Gifted children who coast through school may not acquire the resilience and perseverance that emerges after experiences with failureInman has also pointed out in "What a child doesn't learn" how children who are never challenged lack opportunities to develop a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and the capacity for sacrifice.

Gifted children should not have to wait, endure boredom, or hold their breath until they are challenged.  Just like every other child, they deserve the freedom to learn alongside like-minded peers in classrooms that will truly challenge them.

* Names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality

Friday, January 13, 2017

Making it safe to be smart

These are comments you probably will never hear:
"She is too athletic for her own good."
"Keep that beautiful singing voice to yourself - you don't want the other kids to feel jealous."
"Any child can become a talented gymnast - all it takes is practice and dedication."
"His mechanical skills are way too advanced for someone his age - he was probably overcoached by pushy parents."
But the following comments about intellectual abilities are overheard much too frequently:
"Smartypants. Absentminded professor. Book smart but lacking any street smarts. Gifted because she's a hot-housed rich kid. Too smart for his own good. And, of course, 'every child is gifted.'"

What is it about having intellectual smarts that is so threatening? Why is it so open to criticism? What contributes to this hostility and makes it unsafe, at times, to be gifted?

1. Unrealistic expectations

Most of us can get by without a great singing voice or gymnastic skills. But we want to be smart. And it can be hard to accept that some people are just more intellectually gifted than others. This might account for the popularity of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, misinterpreted by many to believe that with enough practice, we can achieve just about anything. In fact, while dedicated practice is essential to mastering any skill, talent and ability are necessary components as well. Few of us will become outstanding mathematicians, musicians, athletes, dancers, writers, or artists. We are fooling ourselves... and misleading our children to expect otherwise.

2. Misguided assumptions about fairness

It is difficult to accept our limitations. As a result, some people attempt to "normalize" the exceptionality of others. "I can't believe that gifted children are really that much smarter than the other kids. After all, every child deserves a chance, and maybe the other kids will catch up if they all get the same instruction."  Whether these arguments stem from bitterness and envy, or from a heartfelt desire for equity and fairness, they are misguided and potentially harmful. They often lead to policies that not only neglect the needs of gifted children, but create unreasonable expectations for those children who lack the same intellectual abilities as their gifted peers. Cost-effective strategies, such as academic acceleration or ability grouping, are ignored in favor of attempts at differentiated instruction.

3. Anti-intellectualism

Intellectuals have been fair game during brutal regimes throughout history (with Pol Pot and Mao Tsu Tung as just two examples), and some present-day extremist groups perpetuate censorship of anything that is counter to politicized religious doctrine. Although nothing occurring in the U.S. can even compare to the enormity of these scourges, recent commentary has highlighted current trends toward anti-intellectualism and anti-knowledge(Readers: please forgive any political undertone in the aforementioned links - they are still worth reading.) When the pursuit of knowledge, higher education, and intellectual curiosity are viewed with suspicion - even in a country that values free speech - children learn to hide their interests to fit in with an anti-intellectual culture. And although adults may be able to withstand others' contempt, children who openly pursue their academic interests and are bullied by peers suffer deep emotional wounds.

4. Portrayals in film

Media and film depictions of the gifted are often negative, providing support for anti-intellectual views. The Big Bang Theory, for example, portrays the male characters as socially inept and effeminate; the women as desperate or unappealing. The only "normal" female character is seen as street smart, but not especially intelligent. Other examples of highly intelligent characters, such as Sherlock, imply mental illness, Asperger's syndrome, or arroganceIn the media, in film, and in some segments of the population, intelligence, and the pursuit of knowledge are cause for humor, debate, or derision.

Making it safe to be smart

Ideally, "the adults in charge" will eventually accept that all of us are imperfect, that knowledge enhances rather than detracts, and that our differences are to be applauded rather than denied, envied or disparaged. Ultimately, we might hold more appreciation toward the unique talents we all possess. And gifted children and adults might no longer weather the projections of others' bitterness and insecurity.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Gifted advocacy: A call to action

Gifted advocacy is often under the same scrutiny that gifted children and gifted education endure - sometimes viewed as a non-essential and frivolous venture for hot-housed rich kids.

Those who understand and know giftedness recognize the fallacy (and absurdity) of these claims. Nevertheless, gifted advocacy can be perceived as a lightweight endeavor - championing rights for those who are innately more privileged. As a result, gifted advocates are required to repeatedly inform the public about the needs of gifted children, and also educate them about the legitimacy of their advocacy work. In fact, gifted advocates face the same roadblocks that other activists endure: misunderstanding, trivialization, lack of funding, taunts of elitism, isolation, and sometimes outright hostility.

And who among us hasn't sometimes questioned whether our energies should be directed instead toward something more important (world peace, hunger, the environment, politics, even other aspects of education). Not that we can't focus on more than one cause... But even gifted advocates can become lulled into believing that giftedness is not a particularly worthwhile endeavor.

Just like it is possible to overlook the well-fed child whose depression remains hidden, the verbally abused child without physical signs of bruising, the child whose dyslexia goes unrecognized because of passing grades, the athlete who "shakes off" a nagging injury until it becomes permanent, it is easy to ignore gifted children, who coast through school and don't seem to need as much as at-risk, struggling students. Balancing limited time and energy, even the most well-meaning teachers direct their attention toward those who struggle the most. And gifted children's "hidden" needs are overlooked.

So, as parents, teachers, counselors and researchers, let's put aside any ambivalence, guilt, distractions, and internal conflicts that might interfere, and continue advocating for gifted children this year. There are lots of important issues facing the world in 2017, and we can devote our energies to those causes that mean the most to us. But gifted children deserve our energy as much as anything else.

For advice on advocacy, start with NAGC, view articles on Hoagiesgifted, and check with your state gifted education organization.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year!