The word “gifted” gets a bad rap as a label, one often perceived to hold back our kids. But it’s not the idea of giftedness that needs our attention. We need to rethink school instead.
5 minutes of watch time; 2 ends of the gifted ed spectrum. 12 Stanford students with a damaging label; 4 fourth graders who have it all figured out.
Or so it appears.
If you’ve not seen the video, allow me to provide a brief overview. The backdrop is a darkened studio, the interview subjects appear one by one. Boaler begins with the students from Stanford:
“Tell me a bit about your experience as being labeled smart, or gifted.”
The answers aren’t easy on the ears.
“I was supposed to always know everything and always be the top of everything because gifted people are always supposed to be invincible.”
“I needed to be doing everything, all the time, so there was no room for mistakes.”
“I usually made it seem like I wasn’t struggling, which resulted in me struggling more because I wouldn’t ask for help.”
“I wasn’t supposed to ask questions. People were supposed to come to me for help.”
“I was this gifted person, but then I couldn’t be…my full self.”
And then, the fourth graders. Two different questions for each kid:
“How would you feel if your friends were told they were gifted, and you weren’t?”
“When people say that somebody’s smart, what do you think that means?”:
It’s not fair.
You’re taking away opportunities.
Either tell everybody they’re a regular kid, or tell everybody they’re gifted.
At the end of the film, the participants discover they can, in fact, learn anything, and that our idea of “giftedness” should be rethought. There is much rejoicing, and viewers are left feeling encouraged.
Except for me, and for anyone who truly understands and works with gifted kids. We – their parents, their advocates, their teachers – are left uneasy.
Those Stanford students? Someone – a parent or a teacher – misinterpreted the true nature of giftedness.
And that’s a whole lot of pressure for a child.
It’s clear from my blog I disagree with Boaler, and I’m not going to rehash that here. But I am going to address a startling reality:
When we’re talking giftedness in schools and society, very often we’re talking something else. We’re referring to high achievers who’ve got grit, determination, and a solid work ethic, characteristics the truly gifted often lack. The perception leaves our children trapped in an archaic, backward method – a caste system modern education promotes at will.
The truth is, It’s not time to rethink giftedness. It’s time to rethink how we educate our kids.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a homeschooling mom to three poppies – two of them are 2E. Before my current gig as their mom, however, I taught English at a private, college prep high school. After my first two years with the standard level students, I was assigned the honors classes, my institution’s first step in the course ladder for the gifted.
There was a lot I didn’t know.
- I didn’t know that gifted children are really neurodivergent, a term often reserved for the autism spectrum.
- I didn’t know that gifted children exhibit uneven development, an asynchronous journey to adulthood.
- I didn’t know that gifted children have specific sensitivities, even though I’d seen them in myself my whole life.
To me, that last one is the kicker. Though I was a product of traditional gifted education, my time as an educator still had a pretty steep learning curve. Why? Like most of society (and the majority of my colleagues) I grew up in an environment that assumed gifted kids had an undefinable “something,” as Northwestern education professor Paula Olszewski-Kubilius phrases so well:
“There’s a fundamental belief, not just among educators but in general in our society—and the word ‘gifted’ doesn’t help—that, well, [gifted individuals] lucked out by virtue of genetics. They’ve got something other people don’t have, and so they should just be satisfied with that. They don’t need any more.”
Well, I did. And my gifted students did, too. But it wasn’t until I spent time in the classroom as a grown up that I realized an irrefutable truth:
When we view a gifted child from the perspective of IQ, or as a matter of comparison against typical peers, we’re looking for something they aren’t.
First of all, gifted children are exactly that – children. Their minds may be theoretical and complex – they may think in abstract and efficient ways – but they don’t exhibit adult levels of common sense or executive functioning skills. In fact, they often lag far behind their own peers in that arena. Secondly, our expectations of academic greatness often lead to blindspots over comorbid issues:
Gifted kids can have learning disabilities.
Gifted kids can struggle with depression and anxiety.
Gifted kids can end up paralyzed by perfectionism and really struggle in the classroom.
But all we see is an underperforming “genius,” whose test scores don’t correlate to real life.
It’s not the gifted label – it’s the educational approach
The word label has a negative connotation. We equate it to a narrow way of thinking, a habit of categorizing and setting apart. But if you’re familiar at all with the special needs community, you’ll know that the idea of label far more often connects with service than stereotype – it’s a designation for getting kids the assistance they require.
That is how I look at “gifted.” Yes, it is a label, but not one intended as a matter of privilege or elitism. It is a recognition of a special need, an indication of required services. It is the angle from which we need to approach the education of gifted children: one of inquiry and encouragement, not expectation and inherent smarts.
For the most part, traditional education doesn’t tackle gifted learning from that perspective, especially in the higher level grades. It’s an atmosphere of lecturing, absorbing, and testing on a schedule, and we just go along with the mindset of wash, rinse, repeat.
But what if we didn’t?
What if, instead of supporting the demise of giftedness and throwing the label out like a dirty word, we tackled the real problem in our society and educational system: a one-size-fits-most approach to learning, where the gifted are expected to fend for themselves?
How to Rethink School
What we need first is an increase in professional development, especially among traditional schools.
We need to teach teachers about the true nature of giftedness, about overexcitabilities, Twice-Exceptionalities, asynchronous development, social and emotional issues, and more. This is especially important for areas and families with few educational options. Our school systems should be prepared to teach all children effectively from the start.
Then, we need to raise awareness of educational options, like micro-schools and homeschooling.
Some children learn best outside the traditional school environment. Micro-schools, which combine mixed-age classroom learning with field experience, are a great way for gifted children to collaborate with intellectual peers. Similarly, gifted homeschooling provides opportunities for self-paced experiential learning, plus the added bonus of educational flexibility.
Finally, we need to encourage inquiry-based models for learning, where children ask questions and experience the world head-on.
Techniques like flipping the classroom and Socratic seminar are perfect for this, as are classrooms without walls.
When we change the way we approach gifted education, we will change the way we approach our gifted kids. The word “gifted” won’t be synonymous with a high-achieving form of elitism. Rather, it will come to represent the intellectual nature and challenges of our children.
To me, that’s more than fair.
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