This isn’t my first run at the difficult topic of acceleration. In February 2015, I addressed how acceleration was a (Not So) Simple Fix, and more recently in a post about Math and the Gifted Learner, I reflected on acceleration as one of the options available to students who were gifted in math. Having been involved in many accelerations and conversations about acceleration over the past few years, it is rare that I have a straightforward, rubber stamped, “this child is perfect” for acceleration meeting. Here are some of my observations from full grade accelerations.
- Sometimes the testing does not look like we would expect. I have had situations where the cognitive testing has not matched up with the off-level or achievement testing. While the IAS (Iowa Acceleration Scale) allows for some flexibility on this, it is important that the team discussion take a careful look at demonstrated levels of achievement and what might be contributing to a lower cognitive score, particularly if there are gaps in subtests so appropriate supports can be put in place if necessary.
- The interpretations of the testing results may vary. As the gifted specialist, I get to work with different psychologists as we review applications for acceleration. I have worked with psychologists who have recommended acceleration to parents based on testing results that fall below the IAS recommendations. I have had psychologists recommend against acceleration when the testing supported what was outlined by the IAS but they felt that the cognitive flexibility results were lower than they would like to see. While testing is only one part of the process, it is important to weigh everything out carefully during sometimes difficult conversations.
- The other interests of the student. Students who are actively involved in competitive sports may find that they are disadvantaged at certain points in their development. One student recently pointed out that the only drawback to acceleration has been the fact that being one of the smaller players on the team has felt like a disadvantage. While they are likely to grow out of it, it may have a longterm impact if this sport is part of a career goal.
- The receiving school and teacher. Never accelerate a child into a situation where the receiving school and teacher are not supportive. Even when they are supportive, monitoring expectations is important. It may take time for a child to adjust academically and socially to the grade skip. Teachers sometimes have expectations of how a gifted child “should be” that differ from the child who is being accelerated behaves. Sometimes students are comfortable with other students knowing they’ve been accelerated while others want it kept very low key. Other students have experienced frustration that the fact they’ve been accelerated isn’t acknowledged as an accomplishment. As students get into the higher grades, a single grade acceleration usually goes unnoticed, students who have been accelerated more than a single grade will continue to need advocacy and support as they are in a sense a “visible minority” and will need to continue to manage perceptions.
These observations around acceleration get complicated when they become part of the news like the recent article in the Business Insider that is interested in defining a certain measure of success for a particular group of gifted students. The article draws on research that supports acceleration and creates a sense of urgency around the necessity of challenging our youth while focusing our perceptions of “genius” on a particular set of variables. While it tracks the success of 5000 students at or above the 99th percentile, the actual number of individuals who constitute 1% of the total population of the US is well over 3 million people who, I imagine, are as diverse as any group of 3 million people. Those of us who work with an even larger group of students (the top 2.2%) get caught up in the urgency in unexpected ways while working to act in the best interest of the gifted.
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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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One of my favorite tools in helping parents and teachers understand giftedness are the six profiles outlined by Betts and Neihart as they go a long way in describing how differently giftedness can manifest itself in individuals. While there are times that reading through the profiles and discussing our observations can result in an “aha” moment there are just as many where we will note how the child we are speaking of doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. Despite the moniker, “giftedness” does not show up in a neatly wrapped package that is easily identifiable or predictable, but having the profiles is a great starting point for conversations about behaviors, needs and supports both at home and at school. Interestingly enough, characters and individuals from popular culture often become part of our conversations as well, but to what extent to they help or hinder in educating us about giftedness?
From Sheldon to Rachel, Matilda to Ender, we are enthralled with gifted characters. We are fascinated by the complexity of their thoughts, their unique and amazing abilities, their unusual reactions to situations, their character flaws and how they overcome difficulties. Do they serve us well as we seek to understand more and educate about giftedness? As with any caricature as characters often tend to be, storylines can highlight some qualities of the gifted experience but ultimately fail in capturing the unique qualities of many of the gifted students that I work with everyday. Thinking Sheldon (who is by far and away the gifted “character” who is referenced most often when people are looking for examples of gifted behavior), as representative of giftedness would leave one with a very limited understanding.
We are no less fascinated by gifted individuals whose lives in the spotlight have given us yet another glimpse into giftedness. From Elon Musk to Oprah Winfrey, Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson we are not without our iconic examples of giftedness. That their giftedness is tied to astronomical levels achievement carries no small burden for many gifted students whose talents and abilities can sometimes become the focus of who they are. But having said that, there is a benefit to reading biographies of gifted individuals and gaining some insight into their journey. As a songwriter myself, Joni Mitchell’s biography In Her Own Words by Malka Marom is a favorite. I have learned so much from her struggles, not only with how she saw herself as an artist in contrast to the expectations of the musical community, but also to what she was trying to achieve with her lyrics and music. All this on a landscape of considerable social change helped me to understand the inner world contributing to the music that I love.
But despite some of the drawbacks to how gifted individuals are represented and/or celebrated in popular culture, I will admit to being very drawn in by how one of my favorite literary characters is being served up in a very modern rendition of a popular mystery series. Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes rates as my favorite series with the major drawback of not airing often enough. If you haven’t seen in yet, watch this short clip Sherlock and John’s First Meeting. A very different portrayal of the gifted detective, I really enjoy the pace with all the twists and turns in the plot. Cumberbatch is a no slouch either!
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One of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years at Christmas is that despite all my good intentions, all my research into what makes a great gift for a child, the gift that my children play with the most tends to be the thing they asked for in their letter to Santa. It doesn’t matter if what I bought was recommended by teachers and parents from around the world, if it wasn’t what they asked for, it often ends up in a corner. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t had times where we’ve explored new games or activities with success, but over time I’ve learned to expose my children to the possibilities and then listen.
Maybe that’s why I like this article by Lannie Kanevsky so much. In the Fall 2011 Gifted Child Quarterly, Dr. Lannie Kanevsky of Simon Fraser University asks 646 grade 3-8 students how they like to learn. She compares the responses from 416 students identified as gifted to the 230 responses from students not identified as gifted to see if there are any significant differences. The results are interesting. There are certain things that all students want, differing only slightly in degrees. And then there are the things that gifted students want significantly more than other students.
So what did all students want (or as she puts it, really like)? Here are the top ten:
10. Doing activities that have more than one right answer and more than one way to find it.
9. Working with kids who learn as quickly as I do when I’m learning in a group.
8. Knowing how I will be graded before I begin.
7. Using computers to find new information through the internet and databases.
6. Learning with a partner who learns as quickly as I do.
5. Learning when I get to choose the way I learn (from books or experts; groups or alone; worksheets or projects.)
4. Doing projects in a group when I get to choose my group.
3. Learning about topics I choose. It might be ANYTHING!
2. Doing projects with a partner when I get to choose my partner.
1. Learning at my own speed.
What did gifted students particularly like? (More than a 10% difference.)
8. Understanding the way ideas are connected.
7. Choosing the way I will show what I’ve learned.
6. Understanding things the way experts do.
5. Working in groups sometimes, working alone sometimes.
4. Finding creative solutions to difficult or weird problems.
3. Understanding complicated ideas and problems.
2. Doing activities that let me learn something new that is different from what anyone else in my class learns.
1. Learning about weird topics that I wonder about. They are things that we don’t study in school.
There you have it! Pared down from a list of 110 possibilities it’s great information for those of us who are working to engage students in meaningful learning as we move into a new year! I hope 2012 is a great learning year for us all!