Saturday, February 7, 2015

Potential doesn’t equal performance.

It's a new semester.  Once again, I sent out the names of the identified gifted students to the teachers via email, so that they'd have the heads up on who has GIEPs, and, more importantly, who should be tapped for some serious higher-level questioning and challenges.  I do this twice a year, shortly after the start of each semester, and then grit my teeth as I await the inevitable comments.

  • "HOW is it POSSIBLE that (insert student name here) is GIFTED?"

  • "Are you kidding me, some of your list is ridiculous."  (As if I just randomly generated my own list of the allegedly brightest students in the school.)

  • "If HE/SHE is gifted, then I must be EINSTEIN."  (Occasionally substituted by Tesla, but you get the idea.)

Rethinking Thinking.

In truth, I've shifted my energies and opinions about the various levels of energy that I emit, by the time kids get to high school.  Many gifted students are identified as early as first grade in our district, and it is rare for a student to be exited from gifted services prior to graduation.  I mean, seriously, how do you indicate to a parent that their child used to be gifted, but doesn't seem to be in need of specialized instruction now?  Sure, the occasional multiple-concussion athlete might have a medical reason for losing a few IQ points, but there are many more lackluster performers than there are head injuries walking around in the hallways. 

So what causes this giant shift in thinking and motivation?

That, my friend, is the question whose answer could change the world of gifted education.  Many blame it on the social/peer pressures of middle or junior high school.  "It's just not cool."  The Teachers of the Gifted hear it every year -- "Little Johnny doesn't want to be in gifted any longer."  Or, my favorite, "I told her that if she didn't start getting straight A's again, she couldn't go to gifted any more."  

So, it's great that the kids love working in our room so much that it is viewed as an actual reward, which is where much of the skewed ideas about gifted abound.  Somehow, there's an opinion that if kids are actually engaged, having fun, and producing something for an authentic audience, that the time spent is somehow less valuable than instruction in other classrooms.  (What parent would threaten to remove a kid from special education for the same reason?)  There has to be a defined understanding, and respect, for the need for specially designed instruction for gifted kids.  Without that, gifted education can not be effective. Somehow, the revelation that the need for gifted services for the top kids (we're talking bell curve here, people) doesn't seem to apply as equally as the support services at the opposite end of the spectrum.  If a child is learning disabled, he/she could be as learning disabled (from a stanine standpoint) as a gifted kid is learning-abled.

The work of Tracy Cross and LJ Coleman truly caused an epiphany for me.   Their conclusions, that beyond middle school, there is little value in educators working to cajole significantly underachieving gifted kids into action when they lack the desire or motivation to do so.  With finances stretched, school districts could benefit by adopting Cross and Coleman’s model as practice and focusing enrichment resources on talented and task committed  students, assisting them in their exploration in areas of strength and passion.   Advanced development and productivity occurs when opportunities for learning are presented and acted upon by the individual demonstrating high cognitive ability and creativity.  Using both foundational and performance domains, individuals are identified as having unique abilities.  The latter is the most important on the secondary level, as performance is an achievement through concrete productivity, rather than just a numerical indicator of high intellect.  Without demonstration of significant achievement, the student is no longer gifted as defined by curriculum.  

I've adopted this philosophy since first discovering the research, and it has benefited both gifted students and highly-talented (although not formally identified) students, as those who are truly motivated come together to connect, share, and discover. 

There is a certain assumption that gifted is superior -- and, in many ways, the labelled students are.  The hazard comes when judging who is on that list that I send out at the beginning of the semester based on personal observations, or considering those not in the upper echelon are somehow less than superior, or inferior.  Certainly volumes have been written on the tree-climbing fish analogy, and our testing methods continue to be refined.  The reality is, however, that there are many super-highly motivated students who can perform as well as, or better than, an identified gifted student.

A recent article about the number of gifted individuals in prison, shed some light on the potential risk to  rejecting the outliers.  I'm not sure, given the funding discrepancy (billions vs 5 million?) of the ends of the spectrum, that we can argue that money is the motivating factor.  More likely, we, as a society, have defined acceptable brilliance with a definition tied to societal, financial, or personal success, requiring a certain, defined-acceptable, contribution to society to prove worth.  The kids who are really far outside the box -- the non-conformists -- will either do something brilliant, or land in prison, depending on how far outside the box society has defined their ideas are.  Somebody, somewhere, failed to meet them where they were to assist them in learning how to play nice in the sandbox.

As Teachers of the Gifted, we champion the cause, and defend the kids who never utter a word in a classroom, leaving the teacher to assume that the student is disinterested or disengaged, knowing that that student reflects on the learning in that class at a level much more deeply than anyone in the room -- often blogging about it elsewhere, or connecting the ideas in one discipline with the ideas in another.   Some of the deepest intellectual conversations happen in the band storage room, or at a table in the cafeteria.  Evidence of effectiveness for engaged and motivating gifted students can be found in the tweets and facebook postings of students, still mulling over an idea weeks, months, or years after originally presented.

Still, we sit with our data, moaning about the kid with the 145 IQ who wants to take academic level courses so that he/she won't have to work as hard or have a better shot at valedictorian, or whatever hare-brained scheme they've created this week.  We poke sleeping bears, and nudge curled up dogs with the toes of our shoes, hoping to create enough excitement to generate interest, all the while hoping that we aren't growled at, or bitten, in the process.