Every year as we gear up for gifted screening my thoughts can’t help but stray to the early 1800’s and American polygenist Samuel George Morton who had a large collection of human skulls which he classified by race and would fill with buckshot to measure, record and compare the various sizes of the craniums. One of his goals was to prove that different races of humans were in fact different species and that the information he gathered could be used to scientifically ascribe various attributes to the different “species”. This early “brain research” is part of a fascinating read by Stephen Jay Gould whose controversial book “The Mismeasure of Man” traces the history of craniology to intelligence testing as a means of understanding the many ways humans can be measured as well as some of the process and motivations behind this inquiry. Gould attempts to demonstrate how Morton with his raw data and evidence appeared ignorant of his own a priori assumptions in his “scientific” quest to legitimize racial ranking. But Morton was not alone, as Gould writes on page 101, “Morton was widely hailed as the objectivist of his age, the man who would rescue American science from the mire of unsupported speculation.” While this may appear a rather bleak backdrop on which to consider “testing” students for programming, it helps me understand not only the deep suspicion and worry over elitism, but also the imperfect art of creating a way of measuring something as intangible as intelligence or “G”. But if we can move beyond some of the questionable historical roots of “brain research”, there are good reasons to test.
Yes. But here is why. If you think of “G” as being the sum of those cognitive abilities that are highly valued and cultivated in our society, then the creation of a test that focuses on the degree to which one possesses these abilities makes sense…especially if the political will in education is to cultivate those highly valued abilities in both the “average” child and “not so average” child. So in using cognitive testing there must be a recognition that there are many abilities or gifts that may not be measured by the tests we are giving. (Luckily many communities offer alternative forms of programming in arts, community service and sports programs outside of school.) Understanding cognitive development through testing helps educational institutions become efficient in educating students to become fluent in those highly valued areas. In particular, literacy and numeracy. So we must think of testing not so much to measure and “rank” intelligence, but to measure difference so we may discern what, in the name of efficiently cultivating what we value among the largest grouping of students (average), may in fact create barriers for our not so average students. We must also make this testing available to students who may already be “different” by virtue of culture and/or social economic status whose abilities may not be readily apparent to those unfamiliar with the expression of abilities in those cultures. The interesting thing about difference is that while it is naturally occurring, the solutions to the challenges it presents generally are not efficient. Managing difference then becomes an economic issue although we may pay a bigger price for not doing so. But even with this statement we once again enter the realm of “very difficult to measure.”
There is a quote from Charles Darwin at the beginning of Gould’s book that goes like this: “If the misery of the poor be not caused by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our shame.” It is hard to understand the limitations of our institutions until we’ve experienced them through the eyes of those who are different. At present our culture appears to be enamoured with difference as the number of movies, books and “viral” social media dedicated to individuals “overcoming the obstacles” can attest to. But while we thrive on success stories and the hope that in some place in time we too may “beat the odds” the stories of the individuals who have been defeated or waylaid by the obstacles don’t always capture the imagination in the same way. Hospitals, social service agencies and the justice system are rife with support workers whose catch phrase as they work with those who have fallen through the cracks is “If only…” Testing can be one way to find support for individuals who may be struggling with the obstacles they are encountering due to their difference. What people don’t always understand about gifted testing is how a difference which on the surface appears advantageous, could create barriers. It is well documented that above average cognitive ability can come wrapped in a package of asynchronous development, intensities, sensitivities and a host of frustrations that efficient systems may not easily accommodate. As a result many gifted individuals may feel that there is something wrong with them. “If I am so smart, why isn’t being in the system easier?” Testing can provide us with a different view on the anxiety, behaviours and frustrations that students may be experiencing. If it is based in some form of cognitive difference, the test can provide us with a map to some of the obstacles to success. The tests themselves may not be perfect, but if they are used in a manner that supports students in negotiating the barriers that arise out of being part of an institution governed by political and economic concerns, they do give us a place to start.
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