It has been very humbling for me to attend a drawing class with my teenage daughter. The instructor tells me that it is harder for me (the old one) to see the pear we are drawing because my mind wants to draw what it thinks a pear looks like. Look for form he tells me. Recognize and mark the edges. Notice the shadows and the light. Consider values as you begin to shade it in. Two hours and 20 sketches later, I think I am making progress. When I get stuck in my “way of seeing” he will ask if he can take a turn and I watch to see which forms he draws, where he makes his marks and how he approaches shading. I am startled to see things on his picture that I hadn’t seen myself and when I look back at the pear, I realize they were always there. How could I have missed it? He tells me that he has been learning to see what he is drawing for years.
Having worked with gifted children for 14 years of my career, I have come to understand that for many it can be hard to “see” children who are gifted. There are plenty of archetypes that that can inform understanding as well as varying definitions that can predispose us in a particular way and so it isn’t surprising when people are confused or frustrated by what it means and doesn’t mean to be labelled “gifted”. I was reminded of this the other day when a colleague sent me a link to the video Rethinking Giftedness. In it, Stanford students reflect on the impact the gifted label had on them, and their responses were primarily negative. The video makes a very compelling argument about the danger of labels for both students who are gifted and those who are not and it is easy to be drawn in to the argument that we should focus on a growth mindset as opposed to gifts which makes perfect sense…if you think giftedness is about achievement.
It is important to note that I do not doubt the veracity of the statements and observations shared by the students in the video, in fact I applaud their courage in sharing their insights. Their struggles are very real and I have seen them reflected in many of my students. Part of what I try to do is help students understand what giftedness is and what it is not because many of the students who are referred to me are referred because they are struggling; the label simply gives us some insight into what might be the nature of that struggle. But if they or the people in their lives don’t understand the many “forms and shades” of giftedness, the label can create all kinds of problems. Does that mean we should stop identifying and supporting these children? If we don’t “identify” the giftedness they can often be “misdiagnosed” with other labels: behavior problem, superstar, rude, immature, rocket scientist, arrogant, brainiac, annoying, intense, over-emotional, lazy… many of which I know can be just as problematic and fail to “see” what might really be going on. Having the label gives us another way of “seeing” them, if we understand what the label means in all of its complexity. But there is a point in the film that is well made- the label should not be the identifier. Children who are gifted are first and foremost human beings, just like everyone else, wonderfully unique in their own individual way, who may or may not be achievement oriented.
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How do I know it is springtime? I am in the middle of the gifted screening process where we look for the students who will benefit from being included in gifted programming as they enter into the fourth grade. As a team, we meet and review the information that has been gathered and from that make our determinations. Our information package includes report cards, checklists and relevant work submitted by teachers. Parents have also completed checklists and included their observations. At the top of the pile are the off-level cognitive testing results. All that is left is to sift through the information gathered, then based on the needs identified and the resources available, make our recommendations. At first blush it feels overwhelming, and with good reason.
“It is inevitable that different values and priorities influence the ways we conceptualize giftedness and define the mission of gifted education.” David Yun Dai and Fei Chen in Three Paradigms of Gifted Education: In Search of Conceptual Clarity in Research and Practice, Gifted Child Quarterly, Summer 2013
It is no secret that within the gifted community there is a lack of agreement on what it means to be gifted. From a cognitive psychology perspective there are gifted individuals with FSIQ scores ranging from superior to profound alongside prodigies who may only be gifted in a specific domain. The talent driven perspective contends that giftedness not necessarily identified by a test, but should include “other talents” that when paired with motivation and/or the ability to be “school smart” demonstrate excellence and achievement that may not indicative of a particular IQ score. There are our creatives, whose unique perspectives and uncanny ability to make connections take us by surprise, but who may not fit well in a typical classroom setting. But let us not forget our twice exceptional students who may have extraordinary strengths that may not be visible due to a learning disability, ADHD, ASD or physical impairment and whose strengths may be additionally masked by their ability to compensate for weaknesses or invoke behaviors to hide their weaknesses. And for the most part we don’t even consider how giftedness might be defined (or not) in different cultures. It is no surprise that many might find the process behind who is determined to be gifted in different jurisdictions mysterious.
Despite the lack of agreement within the gifted community, each year individuals around the world get a new way of understanding what makes them unique: in some cases a code for their cumulative file- gifted. The responsibility our assessment team is given is tremendous but before we begin, we always go back to the research and review our understanding of giftedness in light of the programming we are able to offer and the needs of the students who have been referred to us. Each year we “tweak” the program to adjust for emerging needs that may not be currently met or research we have gathered to support how we look at the information being provided. There are some referrals that don’t get decided on until we gather more information, some that are very straight forward and still others that involve a lot of rich discussion. While a part of me wishes that I had a Hogwart’s Sorting Hat, I learn so much from these conversations that by the time we are done, I am feeling confident about our decisions and looking forward to having meaningful conversations with parents and colleagues.
So does this mean there is no real mystery? Absolutely not. We do the best we can with the tools and information that we are given but truth be told, tests and portfolios only tell us so much. We know that every year some students get missed for many reasons: not identified at all or identified for referral but poor results on assessments and it is this knowledge that keeps us vigilant…is there something we missed? Something we should do differently? And so we do our best to remain open to feedback from teachers and parents once the process is complete. But the fact that our tools and methods are imprecise is as much a blessing as a problem. Children should be mysterious. They should be unpredictable. They should be full of possibilities and potentials that we cannot even begin to imagine because the secret to the universe is that within each of us is something that could never have been anticipated that will emerge when the time is right. Being able to measure or predict something like that would not only be a bad thing, but would rob us of possibilities that we cannot even begin to imagine.
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