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.
For more blogs on the mysteries of giftedness, click on the box below:
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.
Please click on the link below to get more perspectives on testing!
This will be the first installment of what I learned at the NAGC.
The opening keynote was Chester Finn Jr., former professor of education, an educational policy analyst, and a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education. He is currently the president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C. He recently wrote a book called Exam Schools with Jessica Hockett where they take a look at a number of mostly public high schools across the US that through a rigorous admission process cater to academically minded university bound students. He contends that America’s “no child left behind” policy only served to “raise the bottom” and neglected the academically, high potential students. Basically, gifted students have been gypped. He also gave ten reasons why he believes that this is happening:
1. Our nervousness about perceived “elite education”.
2. A mindset that says high ability kids will do fine regardless of the education system.
3. Widespread belief that equity concerns center around socio-economic status, special needs and cultural groups…not gifted.
4. We are schizophrenic about whether giftedness is a special need.
5. Universities are awash with applications to attend leading us to believe students are well educated.
6. Our (US?) immigration policies have made it possible to import talent.
7. The field of gifted education has been hazy and avoiding a clear definition.
8. Our field needs more research about what really works for gifted students.
9. Gifted education has been meek in advocacy.
10. Gifted education suffers from a lot of bad ideas…one of them is differentiation.
Chester Finn Jr. received the NAGC President’s Award for outstanding contribution to gifted education because of his work in Exam Schools. Some of the suggestions that he made were interesting.
1. Instructional innovation will foster innovative students.
2. There is a lot of pressure to remain conventional…we need to look at idiosyncratic approaches to learning that students are able to choose.
3. We need to find ways to give credit for non-test evidence.
4. We have to get away from the notion that “best students” are in a limited supply.
While his comments were very well received there were a couple of lingering questions that seemed to be echoed throughout the conference.
1. Is academic success the only kind of success we need to concern ourselves with in the field of gifted education? Most would agree that gifted children are complex learners that require a broad spectrum of support. 2. What should our definition of “gifted” be? The current definition posted by NAGC is here. It is a broad definition (10%) encompasses our need to raise the ceiling but fails to identify the broad spectrum of abilities in that 10% range.
My first mentor in the land of gifted education told me that gifted children were like all other children except moreso. It’s very similar to what Annemarie Roeper of Roeper School and Roeper Educational Review said: Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences. What kind of educational experience will serve these students best? Maybe it’s some kind of an idiosyncratic program that Chester Finn Jr. referred to. But some of the other sessions that I attended had some interesting suggestions as well. Stay tuned for reports on my visit to Ricks Center for Gifted Children, words of wisdom from Temple Grandin and more from Joseph Renzulli on school-wide enrichment!
A friend posed this question to me a couple of months ago and I’ve thought about it a lot since then. We often think of gifted underachievers as students who aren’t getting great marks…but 95%? Across the board? How can that be underachieving? And then there is the question that naturally follows: if 95% will get you a scholarship and the university of your choice, why worry?
I could probably do a PhD on just this question alone as it begs so many more: What does it mean to truly know something? Does passing a test mean something has been learned? If we can do much more than is expected, should we be expected to do it? What does a grade really tell us? How do we make grades meaningful? What is the purpose of grades? Should we be grading at all? What is the impact of an “undeserved” grade whether it be low or high? These are questions that most educators grapple with on a daily basis as we endeavor to make the work in our classrooms meaningful in addition to maintaining accountability.
This year as my students set goals, many of them cited a certain GPA as their goal. For some it was the honour roll, for others it was first class honours and others had a number like 95%. When they came in to update their goals in their last session almost every one had achieved the grade goal they set out. When I asked if it had been a challenge most of them responded “not really”.
How do we learn to dream really big when fitting in is so much easier? Can we expect a classroom to offer more? Many of my students have found their challenges and passions outside of the classroom in individual pursuits: music, sport, art, dance, theatre and more. But for the student who is still searching to find their passion, how can we get them excited about what lies beyond the 95%? Because it will make the idea of university so much more enticing if they do.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have been the teacher of…DaVinci, Darwin, Edison, Curie, Einstein…Jobs. You’ve likely heard some of the stories. Some of their teachers thought they weren’t very bright at all, others were incredibly intense about their studies while some “dropped out” for various reasons only to find their way later in life. Would I have recognized their potential? The law of averages tells me that a student like that might pass the average teacher one in one thousand times and according to history, may not show up “looking” like we expected.
I recently took a refresher course in psychometrics and was reminded that all of our testing is designed to find the average, a nice normal curve that can show us where we are in relationship to the average. The accuracy of any test begins to fall apart the further we stray from average as there are fewer “non-average” people that you can be compared to. And since the “average” contains the largest number of people (68%) we tend to focus on what they need so we can “help or sell to” the largest number of people. (One of the reasons I can never find a nice pair of size 11W women’s dress shoes!)
Things get further complicated in my world (where we try to find and support students who fall in the 2-3% at the far right of the curve) by the idea that most people just want to fit in.
The annual spring screening is right around the corner…while I love spring, screening always leaves me with a million questions as I wonder about all the things that tests aren’t able to tell me. As usual I turn to things like Ted Talks to get some other perspectives. I would like to share one of my favorite Ted Talks with Shawn Anchor’s perspective on the Law of Averages.
I came across this quote by Norman J. Mirman this morning as I was reading through a collection of articles in the book “Designing and Developing Programs for Gifted Students”. He writes “Children considered gifted fall within the upper 2% of the population in intelligence. This may be the only characteristic they have in common.” I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered a couple of conversations from last year. One with a student who asked me if I was certain the others in his challenge group were gifted and another with a teacher who confided that they hadn’t seen any brilliant assignments yet.
There is good reason for this confusion: the idea of giftedness can be nebulous enough without adding in the complication of how these gifts may manifest themselves in the unique circumstances of the students lives. Earlier in the same book in an article entitled “From Needs and Goals to Program Organization” Joan Franklin Smutny and Cheryl Lind write that any gifted program must early on decide on their target population of students which will then guide the selection process and curriculum planning. “A program focusing on math and science for example will use identification measures that may differ from one that includes all subjects or one that attempts to reach underrepresented gifted students (e.g., bilingual, multicultural, urban and/or rural poor). p.12 If we have expectations of how gifted individuals are going to behave or represent their abilities we are not only likely to be disappointed but also place an unfair burden on that particular individual.
I have had a number of students whisper to me quietly as we work on goals “but I don’t know what my gifts are” as they wonder and perhaps worry about what they should strive to achieve during this year of study. The beauty of my job is that I can tell the students that we don’t have to figure it all out now, that in the process of exploring things that we enjoy we might just discover it…or maybe not yet.
Last year I watched the movie “The Story of Temple Grandin” and it was an amazing look at how differently our minds can work. People often didn’t recognize her gifts for what they were…I’m not sure that I would have seen them. But in this well crafted film it is possible to see how differently individuals might perceive the world and how much we can learn from those varied perceptions if we take care not to reject them when they just don’t make sense to us. I highly recommend the movie in which Claire Danes stars as Temple Grandin or you can watch Temple herself in the TedTalk in my Vodpod collection!
Someone once suggested to me that instead of testing students for the gifted program, that I should go to classrooms and do observations. The problem is that I have spent years training myself to look for the gifts in everyone. Sometimes the gifts are not always easy to find, but when you spot them it is the most amazing experience. I can’t imagine someone heading to the Klondike during the gold rush being more excited when they come across that golden seam. Interestingly enough, some of the “gifts” that I perceive, aren’t always recognized in the same way by others and as a result our perceptions of what constitutes a gifted child can differ greatly. So how and why do we build gifted programs when there are gifts in all children and there are so many different kinds of gifts?
The how part is easy. Once you establish a definition of what kind of gifted child you are looking for, you find the tools that will identify students to fit that definition. If you are looking for students who are capable of achieving beyond their grade level, you use a test that will establish whether the student is able to engage in the thinking processes at a level beyond their current level. The test must be normed so students are being evaluated against a large group of students of a certain age and grade. It must also be independent of specific content knowledge that would vary from school to school and province to province. We use the Canadian Cognitive Abilities Test two grades above level to help us identify students who demonstrate advanced reasoning in the verbal, quantitative and non-verbal domains.
The why part is often more difficult to explain but the crux of it is that the most rewarding learning experiences come when we are faced with tasks that challenge us. If something is easy to do, we may feel a brief sense of pride in the fact that we are able to do it easily, but over time simply demonstrating that something is easy wears thin. We need not only the sense of discovery, but the comraderie of those who are discovering alongside of us. But this is nothing compared to succeeding at something that you weren’t certain you’d be able to do! So learning becomes an adventure and it’s great if you’re with a companion who points out what you might be missing and at the same time allows you to share your observations as well.
And so we develop gifted programs to find students who might be in need of that adventure, exploring beyond the boundaries of their current understanding, sometimes on their own, sometimes with other travelers. Could this adventure be supplied in their regular classroom? It depends on the student, the subject, the teacher and an understanding of the nature of the giftedness. Do the tests correctly identify the students for me? Most of the time. Every year, there are some who I’m told have not demonstrated their full capacity on the test for a multitude of reasons and are not included. And every year, the tests identify a few who despite my best efforts, are not engaging with the challenge that I try to create for them and withdraw from the program.
This spring I met almost 100 amazing students, full of gifts, in search of adventure. I was only able to invite 24 of them into the program based on the criteria we have developed for our district and the results of the testing. Despite knowing that the tests are not perfect and that all students have gifts, I will do my best to help create those challenging, meaningful learning experiences for those students who have been identified as needing my support.