Thursday, March 22, 2018

No, it's not time to ditch the gifted label

There is still controversy about the gifted label. Yes, some believe that if gifted students know that they are gifted, they will become harmed, or lose interest in school, or develop a fixed mindset, or that an array of disastrous outcomes will befall them.

Gifted labeling is once again under fire.

Recent anecdotal accounts of students who claim that gifted labeling harmed their sense of self and/or thwarted their ambition have been circulated by math education professor Jo Boaler, who advocates for eliminating such labels. Boaler uses her platform as a Stanford professor to promote an emotionally appealing video with a compelling argument against labeling students as smart or gifted. While these students' personal appeals are heartfelt, these few individuals are not necessarily representative of most gifted students, nor should their claims dictate policy.

In the video, Boaler interviews young adults, who believe that awareness of their giftedness affected their motivation or self-esteem. She also interviews children, who point out how it's not fair that some kids are smart, or that it is upsetting when some kids are told they are gifted and others are not. Music swells in the background as these interviews are filmed, aimed to tug at your emotions. Who wouldn't feel for a tormented young adult, burdened by high expectations? Who wouldn't want to reassure a nine-year-old that everyone has the potential to grow and learn?

Unfortunately, this heart-rending video overlooks research about gifted children and gifted education. It perpetuates stereotypes about gifted people, the gifted label, and the myth that everyone shares an equal amount of ability and potential. And although some gifted children may receive conflicting and distressing messages about their giftedness from parents, teachers, and peers, this should not indict the label itself.

Let's consider the following:

1. Boaler uses her status as a Stanford math education professor to add authority to an opinion piece about the emotional well-being of gifted students, presumably a topic outside of her area of expertise.
 I don't doubt the sincerity of her concerns or her compassion for these students. But she is not in a position to diagnose the cause of their psychological distress; she only can speculate. In fact, other than assigning blame to their gifted designation, no other possible explanation for their unhappiness is considered. Did these students feel pressure from parents or teachers? Were they bullied or isolated from peers? Do they suffer from anxiety or perfectionism? Did they struggle with existential depression and feelings of alienation? Did they have a trauma history? The possibilities are endless.

2. Boaler's "sample size" of gifted students is quite small. There is no comparison group of well-adjusted young adults, commentary about findings from the literature, or alternative hypotheses about these students' distress. In other words, there is nothing consistent with commonly accepted scholarly or research practice. This is an opinion-based video that any marketing company could produce - yet it gains credibility because of her academic position.

3. If most of the young adults in the video are, in fact, Stanford students, they reflect a fairly unique and limited subgroup of gifted students. Stanford is one of the most highly selective colleges in terms of admissions standards, so these students are likely exceptionally gifted and/or extremely high achieving. Exceptionally gifted individuals stand out from their peers, regardless of their label, and may have heightened sensitivities, social/emotional struggles as a result of social differences, and a difficult experience in traditional schools. High achieving students tend to be driven, focused, and sometimes perfectionistic, and may dread the possibility of failure. Taking what these (possibly) troubled young adults claim as the root cause of their struggles (being labeled as smart or gifted) ignores other possible underlying factors that may have contributed to their distress.

4. Boaler's premise ignores the fact that these highly intelligent individuals would have been labeled as smart or gifted even if they were never formally tested. Their curiosity, creativity, complexity, and accelerated pace of learning most likely set them apart from peers. They were (and are) different. Their differences may have fueled their distress - blaming the label, and assuming their lives would have been fine without it - is simplistic and unrealistic.

5. These young adults (again, presumably Stanford students) would be considered successful by most standards. Students who gain admission to Stanford typically demonstrate enormous drive and exceptional achievement throughout high school - hardly the picture of those who have been hobbled and disabled by an awareness of their talents. To assume otherwise is disingenuous. This does negate the very real underlying internal struggles they may experience, such as self-doubt, ambivalence, perfectionism, insecurity or anxiety. But in spite of any possible distress, they have demonstrated resilience and the ability to achieve recognized markers of success.

6. The claim that these students received "special" treatment in their early school years because of the gifted label may have been valid for some; however, we know that this is not true for most gifted students. When their intelligence is denied, gifted children will suffer. Many gifted students, especially those from minority and impoverished backgrounds, are underidentified, and most gifted students fail to receive anything close to the education they need.

Nothing new

Boaler's criticism of gifted labeling is nothing new.  Critiques of gifted labeling, gifted education and the negative media portrayal of high achieving students appear with some regularity. While some have used Boaler's claims to support arguments against identifying giftedness, others, such as this writer, this writer, and this writer have challenged her views. And if awareness of giftedness were so detrimental to career and happiness, then how can we account for findings from the longitudinal study of mathematically precocious youth who achieved professional success as adults? Clearly, awareness of their talents and innate abilities at a young age did not seem to limit their career trajectory or self-reports of personal satisfaction.

The NAGC STEM working group recently responded to questions circulated by Boaler's video challenging the importance of gifted identification:

" is necessary to provide these students with 'differentiated instruction in an engaging mathematical learning environment that ignites and enhances their mathematical passions and challenges them to make continuing progress throughout their K-16 schooling and beyond.' Research has shown that this is not only important for students with mathematical promise but for all students with exceptional promise."

The STEM working group summarizes their statement with the following:

"Refraining from offering suitable curricular challenges to students who are ready for them, whether called gifted, talented, exceptionally promising, advanced, or something else because other students are not ready for or do not have an interest in them is not ethically justifiable."

Gifted children know they are different; offering them a clear, age-appropriate explanation that helps them understand giftedness is essential and validates what they know to be true. Problems arise when parents/teachers/society place demands or an inappropriate personal response (e.g.,"I'm so thrilled that you're gifted"), or unreasonable expectations on these children. Problems develop when schools fail to challenge them. Problems occur when they are not permitted to learn alongside like-minded peers and feel like outliers and misfits.

Labels should never imply limits on personal and academic growth, nor any assumption that someone is better than another. It is up to the grown-ups in charge to ensure that children know this. But denying reality in the service of equity is false, serves no one, and as noted above, "is not ethically justifiable." Let's stop pretending every child is the same, and instead, focus on understanding and providing educational and social/emotional support tailored to each child's specific needs.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

What your gifted child won't learn from academics

What does your gifted child need to learn?

Certainly, gifted students benefit from a challenging education - the basics offered in most classrooms, but tailored to their unique intellectual needs. Engaging extra-curriculars that ignite passion and creativity are an added bonus, along with the self-regulation skills frequently overlooked in gifted children's education.

But what about "non-cognitive skills," sometimes referred to as "character" traits?

In "Why character can't be taught like the Pythagorean Theorem," author Paul Tough describes how teachers' attempts to instill "non-cognitive" skills, such as curiosity, "grit," self-control, and conscientiousness through traditional means often fail.

"...the teaching paradigm might be the wrong one to use when it comes to helping young people develop noncognitive strengths. Maybe you can't teach character the way you teach math.
Rather than consider noncognitive capacities as skills to be taught, I came to conclude, it's more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child's environment."

Gifted children benefit from the same social-emotional, and non-cognitive skills as every other child. However, their heightened sensitivities, asynchrony, frequent outlier social status, and tendency to question everything complicate this task. They will scoff at rules or values that do not make sense, hide their insecurities, and may be hampered by their own tendencies toward overthinking, rigidity or existential depression.

While Tough suggests how schools can embed non-cognitive skills throughout the educational culture, parents need not (and should not) rely on schools for this to occur. Most of these skills can be taught at home. As a parent, you can offer the following guidance:

1. Tolerance

Gifted children are often compassionate toward those less fortunate. However, they may become impatient and frustrated when their peers cannot keep up with their lightening fast pace of learning. Young gifted children, in particular, may behave in an intolerant and critical manner toward their peers. "Why don't you get it?" "Why are you so slow?"

Your child will benefit from lessons about patience and tolerance starting from an early age. These include strategies for managing frustration, such as deep breathing exercises, attending to the present moment (e.g., mindfulness), imagining herself in her friend's situation, or even counting to ten. Praise your child when you notice her behaving in a tolerant and patient manner, so she knows how much you value this behavior.

2. Humility

Most gifted children are humble about their abilities, and may even doubt themselves. But with all of the praise they receive for their accomplishments and abilities, some can start to think that they might be "better" than others. Of course, this attitude often backfires later when they can't keep up, or lack the resilience to manage failure experiences, or feel like impostors. But initially, young gifted children may feel pride that their talents surpass those of their peers.

Continue to remind your child that he is fortunate to have a quick mind, talent, and creativity, but is no more responsible for possessing these strengths than the color of his eyes. How he directs his energy and behavior is what is under his control. Explain what it means to be gifted, and help your child put giftedness into perspective. Intellectual humility not only fosters a greater openness to others' opinions, but can relieve self-imposed pressure to be the best. Instead of focusing on his innate talents, show recognition for his hard work, self-directed behavior, intellectual or creative risk-taking, compassion and tolerance for others, and collaborative work with peers.

3. Endurance 

While some gifted students are driven, hard-working, and even perfectionistic, others are underachievers who coast through school or sometimes drop out. Since their needs are frequently overlooked in schools, they often learn to excel academically without much effort. As a result, they work well below their potential and have little experience with sustained effort and endurance. Once they are faced with a task that requires extended effort, whether academic, athletic or in the arts, many collapse under the weight of this expectation and give up.

Recently, many schools have embraced the concept of "grit" in an attempt to motivate students. But Angela Duckworth, who launched this concept, has noted the misappropriation and distortion of the term. She has stressed that grit combines both perseverance and passion; however, most schools only focus on perseverance - making grit synonymous with drudgery. Furthermore, meta-analytic research suggests that grit has little effect on improving performance. Perhaps this finding stems from studies of programs that focused exclusively on perseverance and ignored the importance of passion..

You can help your child learn to pace herself, set short-term goals along the way, appreciate the value of hard work, and raise the bar on what she expects for herself. But enduring, persevering and hanging in for the long haul require a level of passion and dedication, and discovering meaning in the task. The more you encourage your child to find intrinsic joy in learning, the more likely this passion will drive future efforts.

4. Social interactions

While some gifted children are socially mature and even excel as leaders, others struggle with asynchronous development that manifests as social immaturity. These children often are aware of their deficits, and may avoid social interactions, become shy and withdrawn, or develop rigid beliefs about whom to pursue as friends. Offering support and specific guidance to younger children may help them feel more confident, and improve their social skills. Gently pointing out behaviors that might be offensive is important, but praise them for their strengths and any improvements, as well.

Gifted teens also struggle. Some may try to fit in by "dumbing themselves down." Others wear their differences as a badge of honor and refuse to conform. Either way, they must learn to accept their giftedness and how they differ from many of their peers. They may feel like outliers, and may be atypical, but hiding and denying their uniqueness will feel inauthentic. Eventually, they will learn to assert who they are, even if this goes against prevailing norms. When they are open to your guidance, offer support and encouragement to help them weather these difficult years.

5. Managing boredom

Most students feel bored in school at some point. But gifted children feel bored a lot. Some parents try to address this dilemma by advocating for changes at school, finding  extra-curricular activities to engage their child's passions, or even choosing to homeschool. However, your child still benefits from strategies to manage his overly active mind. There will be times when he will feel bored, regardless of how stimulating the learning environment - and relying on his phone for entertainment should not be the fall-back solution. Encourage him to use his imagination, creativity, and ideas to engage his mind. Help him come up with a range of entertaining strategies, such as devising stories, songwriting, imagining what he might paint or build, or identifying what problem he plans to solve.

6. Conscientiousness

While some gifted children are driven, focused, and even perfectionistic,  others may be careless and disorganized. They can sustain tremendous focus if they are passionate about their interests, but exert little effort for what seems boring or trivial to them. As a result, many start to fail or at the very least, receive low grades in subjects that do not capture their interest.

Gifted teens who are idealistic, concerned with justice, and sometime self-righteous in their passion for sociopolitical change also may show disdain for social amenities, and refuse to behave in a socially appropriate or considerate manner. They may refrain from basic gestures of social kindness such as greetings and "thank you's," claiming these require acquiescence to false or superficial expectations of which they want no part.

Conscientiousness is a skill/trait that may need to be nurtured in some gifted teens who eschew the concept. Appealing to their logic, and pointing out how it will benefit their progress, facilitate achieving their goals or even help them advance their social justice agenda, may provide a rationale that motivates them. Similar to Duckworth's concept of grit, conscientiousness is one of the Big Five personality traits most highly associated with success in academics and career. Fostering this skill will help your child succeed, but she must first "buy in" to the belief that it is a valuable at all.

7. Confidence

Many gifted children are insecure. They doubt their abilities, feel like impostors, or experience guilt when they realize how they grasp concepts so much more easily than their friends. Those who have struggled to fit in or who have been bullied may feel socially anxious and retreat from activities with peers. Some become clinically depressed and anxious.

Popular confidence-building concepts have focused on resilience and academic risk-taking. Gifted children also benefit from reminders that they are so much more than their abilities and giftedness, that it is okay to fail, and that they will be loved regardless of their accomplishments. Identifying the underlying reasons for their low self-esteem and gently challenging assumptions that are perpetuating this can be helpful. Encouraging independence and self-sufficiency as much as possible is also important. Help your child recognize his "inner compass" - a sense of strength, intuition and self-awareness to help him navigate a variety of challenges.

Of course, all of the above skills can be - and must be - reinforced and nurtured through the schools and other interactive opportunities, as well, including extra-curricular activities, camps, team sports, volunteer groups, or clubs. These skills will not flourish in isolation and require interaction with peers and reinforcement from influential, caring adults. And school is an ideal setting for your child to try out and hone these skills every day. But as a parent, you set the foundation, share your values, and provide the support and encouragement your child needs. You know her best, and can offer the guidance she needs for the road ahead.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page blog hop on Beyond Academics. To read more blogs, click on:

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