A gifted individual is a quick and clever thinker, who is able to deal with complex matters. Autonomous, curious and passionate. A sensitive and emotionally rich person, living intensely. He or she enjoys being creative. -definition of giftedness written by the Netherlands Study on Giftedness in Adults

Friday, May 18, 2012

Eminence is a Result, Not a Goal

‎"outstanding achievement or eminence ought to be the chief goal of gifted education."
From Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, et al.

In the world of education, there is little that is more tragic, in my opinion, than seeing a child who has great aptitude turn into one who shuns opportunity and challenge because expectation has created a burden that is too heavy for them to bear. And I reject this goal for gifted education outright - because "outstanding achievement or eminence" is a burden that is too heavy for most of our gifted children.

Someone defined eminence as the child of passion and intelligence. It seems to be a efficacious goal for a group of children who, by anyone's definition, possess high intelligence and quite often a great deal of passion to go with it. 

But what about the child who can't limit her interests enough to find a place of mastery? What about the child who is fascinated by a subject about which nobody else cares? Or the child who doesn't desire a place in the limelight, but simply wants to do interesting stuff and be left alone? 

What does that pressure do to a child who begins to think all he is valued for is his brain?

And, how many people truly become eminent? If we send children through school with the full understanding that we expect them to be like Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Nikola Tesla, or any number of names that go down in history - what happens to those children once they realize how unlikely it is that they will be? Even for those who take all the chances, who make all the right moves - maybe they won't be in the right place at the right time when the light bulb turns on, or the apple falls from the tree. Maybe they go through life always feeling like a failure because they haven't achieved The Thing they were told was their goal, their destiny. What could have been a full and meaningful life turns into a wasteland.

Once you put that level of expectation on a person, can you take it back? What happens when the glass shatters and a fragile ego, built upon expectations put upon them from misguided parents, teachers, or friends, can't be put back together? 

I know a lot of truly gifted people (some of them quite highly gifted) - and I can count on one hand how many of them could be considered eminent. In fact, make that one finger - and I'm being generous with my allocation of "friends" at this point just to get that one. There are some who have localized eminence or a reputation of expertise amongst their friends and colleagues. They are well-respected. But eminence? No. But you know what - they are all doing things that they love. They are contributing to their world in unique and wonderful ways - sometimes through their chosen career, and sometimes through other activities. And, for the most part, they are happy. Are they not gifted because they haven't achieved the highest status in the land in their area? 

We have GOT to get away from making achievement our goal for gifted children. We need to engage teachers and administrators in learning about giftedness so they can recognize it and know what to do with it when they find it. We've got to start supporting our gifted children, not adding demands to their already intense lives. We give them the tools they need to create their niche, their space in which they can feel accomplished and find contentment and joy. If their passions lead to eminence - fantastic! We will support them the whole way there and wherever they go from there. But if it leads to an underground bunker/home/workshop where he can build his inventions and hold a sale every year on his birthday - if that's where his passions take him, what's wrong with that? 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Still a Square Peg and a Round Hole

There's been a lot of discussion recently about how to define giftedness. It's an important discussion to have, because in order to effectively advocate, inform, and educate for and to gifted children, we need to first have common language so that we are speaking with a unified voice. We will be better heard if we are speaking together. So this is an important challenge for us to face.

There seems to be a divide on the issue, however, between educators and parents. Having said this, it's no surprise that educators seem to be more interested in a child's education and performance, and parents are concerned about whole-child issues. It's our job(s). And we're pretty good at them.

I wonder sometimes, as we are discussing back-and-forth the value of the whole-child approach to gifted education - do these same conversations happen in regular education? Or other types of special education? I know that every parent is interested in whole-child, but do they expect educators to nurture the whole child in the same way parents of gifted children expect it?

Maybe it boils down to the level of intensity in gifted children - my kidlet, for example, cannot be understood (nor taught) without having some basic understanding of asynchrony and the social-emotional effects of giftedness. And, as we learned at our last school, bad things happen when those aspects of his personality are not carefully nurtured in addition to the intellectual side. As his parent, I recognize this and would love it if a school (anyone? anywhere? well, anywhere near us?) could take on the challenge of supporting him emotionally and cognitively. School (traditional and non-traditional) seems to be able to handle one, but not both extremes.

How does he fit into the current debate on the definition of giftedness?

He won't perform. Recently, a friend who had met him for the first time got a glimpse of his mathematical brilliance, and then set about trying to elicit a little tap-dance of mathematical problems from him. The kidlet just glared at him and walked away - sigh, another lecture from mom on being polite. It's not about stricter discipline, or him learning who is in charge, etc. He's not a computer, he's a child. Yeah, he's pretty amazing at that stuff, but performance anxiety makes his brain shut down when he feels like he's on the spot. He's really not trying to be stubborn - he's panicking. This goes for regular schoolwork, too (I've learned this as we are homeschooling - he needs lots of opportunities to go outside and walk around to process in between subjects, or even when he comes up against a problem that is hard - he will come back in ready to tackle it again).

His sensory and emotional sensitivities ratchet up very quickly, and learning will not happen in those interludes. Everything stops. You cannot get in his face and try to get him to learn when his brain is in full shut-down procedure. One classroom full of noisy kids is enough to keep him on shut-down all day; an assembly with the whole school sends him into a rocking fetal position and tears. And you expect him to come back to class, sit quietly at his desk, and write for 30 minutes? Sorry - complete mental shut down at the same time the body is revved up. That is not a recipe for self-control. Nor "performance" on any measure or standard.

Any discussion of "talent development" has to recognize that performance cannot be standardized for all gifted - and especially 2e - kids. When we talk about potential, we have to understand that how we determine potential for one child isn't going to work for determining the potential for another - it's so subjective I don't know if there is any way to make it "fair" for all children. So I get scared as we talk about "potential" and "talent development" - because I see my kidlet falling through the cracks. If we don't want to lose our most gifted children, we've got to give them the freedom to express their giftedness in ways that are appropriate to who they are. Because, they are children and should be valued for all of what they bring to the world, not just their brains.

I realize that educators are in charge of the brain part, but I don't think we can be quite so dualistic about it. No child should be seen as just a brain, but our smartest children often get treated like that's all there is to them. They are complicated. They are intense. They are whole persons who care, who love, who dream, who imagine, who create... We should treat them that way.


"Stop Short-changing Our Most Gifted Students" by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, president, National Association for Gifted Students [sic], article for The Hill

"A Defining Moment" by Jim Delisle (response to NAGC's Bold Step).