Monday, February 13, 2006

The word "gifted"

I had spoken about this blog with a reporter for a journalist trade magazine recently. The resulting article gave the blog a nice mention. One thing that did surprise me, though, was that the author put "gifted" in quotes. You rarely see quotes around "special" education, though that's a coined term as well. I guess what made it jarring is that I view quote marks as a way to sneer at something. Strunk & White's Elements of Style notes on colloquialisms, "If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better."

I don't think the reporter was inviting us to join her in a select society, though. There's simply a fair amount of trepidation about using the g-word. We all have gifts of some variety or another. You can be a gifted athlete, a gifted conversationalist, a gifted liar. Why use the word just for children with high IQs?

From what I can gather of the history of gifted education, Lewis Terman coined the term gifted child in the early 1920's. He used it to refer specifically to those with high IQs because, well, that's what he studied. He believed people with high IQs would be the movers and shakers of the future, and were thus gifted with abilities that needed to be recognized. Leta Hollingworth used the phrase "gifted children" in a book title in 1926. It caught on. Most of us use the word without dwelling on it because it makes as much sense as any other word. It's a euphemism, sure. But it sounds better than "brainy children" or "High IQ children" or other phrases I could put in quote marks because I don't like them. It's also a nice metaphor. A gift is useless unless unwrapped. Likewise, being gifted won't do a darn thing for you if you don't develop your talents and work hard.

But a lot of schools don't like using the word. We've grown accustomed to acronyms, rather than simply calling something the gifted program. Think TAG, GATE, etc. In schools with lots of ability grouping, the more advanced groups are usually called the "apples" or the "blue jays" or something else that doesn't imply a value statement. Indeed, I've often joked that schools should call their gifted programs something perjorative. The clowns. The dunces. The remedial program. If parents were still willing to put their kids in there, you'd know they really needed the intervention, not that it was a prize to brag about to the neighbors.

I wonder if any blog readers have examples of euphemisms their schools have used, or ideas for what gifted education should be called.


Kim Moldofsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kim Moldofsky said...

One thing I picked up on when my "PG" 7 year-old was at public school, was that it was unacceptable to refer to him as "special." That word was reserved for children with learning disabilities or developmental delays. Apparently by calling my ahead-of-the-curve/smart/quirky/differently-wired son special I was reducing the specialness of all of his peers. I wasn't looking to have him put on a pedestal, I just wanted him to receive an appropriate education.

That gets me thinking- what do schools call the parents of gifted kids? Other than demanding and pushy, I mean. :-)

Jill said...

In our school district, the gifted pull-out program is called TARGET. Which, I find morbidly appropriate.

After all, our gifted kids *can* be targets of all sorts of things...misunderstanding, scorn, disbelief, ridicule. The list goes on and on. ;-)

Jason Smith said...

In my nieces school the euphemism du jour is the 'enrichment program'.

Back in the Jurassic age when I was in high school it was called the 'honors class'.

Not that either is great, but I prefer both to 'gifted'. The problem I see with gifted is that a gift has the connotation of something you are bestowed without really earning it. There is a risk the children in it, and their educators, will take that name way too seriously and not inculcate the value of academic discipline.

The trait with the strongest correlation with exceptional contributions by anyone (see Laura's post about the US losing its competitiveness) is an almost obsessive devotion to their field. IQ and everything else is secondary.

Maybe some were fortunate enough to be born with greater gifts than others but nobody was given a large enough gift to make up for lack of hard work and dedication.


PS - ok Laura and all you moms of geniuses - flame me for questioning whether you or your children really learned calculus at age 6 without cracking a book.

Anonymous said...

We don't use any designation at home, other than to say that everyone has the right to get their needs met. When my kiddo walks through the high school hallway she's far more focused on how tall she is than how she compares intellectually.

Jason, I had to laugh when I read your last line about cracking books, because our whole goal in putting her in high school was so that she'd have to learn how to work, how to be challenged and rise to the occasion. We held our breath when she just switched to the honors college prep chemistry course- and were thrilled when she got a B+ on her first test, because she had to work for it. It means she's in the right place.

In public, though, I just say I have a kid with special needs. It explains why my career had to be set aside, without opening myself up to the judgement or extreme nosiness of the public.

I remember one of the first days she went to high school. I sat in the hallway on a chair that week, at her request. A teacher's aide approached me, asking if I happened to be the mom of the nine year old. She was obviously quite excited as she leaned in to me ask asked, "Is she a genius?" All I could muster was, "That's what it said on the tag."

Deborah said...

At my school, also ages ago, it was called WERC (wonder, explore, research, create) but it sounded like "work" of course. I think it was a good name. It wasn't embarassing to trot out of the regular class once or twice a week saying I was going to work.

Melissa said...

Wonderful comments, Jason and others.

I plan on providing my children with plenty of opportunities for hard work. I'm frustrated that the standard treatment for gifted children is hours of unchallenging work and seat time and an 60 minutes per week of "enrichment."

Contrary to popular opinion, becoming a Jeopardy champion, etc. is not a great achievement.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Keep the euphemisms coming! I love it -- WERC and TARGET.

As for Jason's question -- brings to mind the phrase that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I don't entirely buy that. I deal with a lot of people in artistic fields and I really do believe there is such a thing as innate talent. The opera stars already had wailing big voices -- that stayed on pitch -- at age 5. If two people work equally hard, the one with more innate talent will get farther. A lazy but very talented person is also likely to do better in an artistic career than someone who works really hard but isn't that good. Of course, the really talented person who also works really hard has the best shot. To be world class at anything you need both. So while I won't say it's 10-90, I'd say success is 60% inspiration and 40% perspiration. :)

brande said...

Kim and Jill - Feel the same!
At my son's elementary school the program is called PACE: Program for Academic and Creative Endeavors. Primarily the children are grouped by ability, such as my 2ng grader in a 2nd grade class - he is working on 3rd grade curriculum and gets a 60 min 1x a week PACE class called an enrichment activity. This is our first year in a gifted program and I picked up on the emphasis school and district administration places on not being academically enriched in accordance with tested IQ levels but more importantly "well rounded" children. This year's PACE resource classes: 6 weeks of each - Character Counts, Readers Theater, Public Speaking, Psychology for Kids, Primary Ed Thinking Skills and Community Service.

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

I would break down the inspiration perspiration split differently.

Probably no more than 10% (and in some areas less) of the population has the innate ability to be at the top of any particular field.

However once you look at that 10% it is the 90/10ers amongst them who actually are at the top.

There are a large series of studies on top performers in fields usually associated with prodigies ( music, chess, math, art) that have shown after 10 years in a field the main determinent of who is the top performers are the total time they spent practicing. Admittedly by that time the individuals who do not have the innate talent have dropped out, but for the remainder the old 90/10 rule raises its ugly head.

In fact very few prodigies are successful adults in these fields, largely because their practice time fell behind their competitors who took up the activity later in life.

On a less scientific level every biography of an acknowledged genius in science and the arts makes a large point of how obsessed they were with their area of expertise. Even Einstein spent most of his time thinking about physics.

Jason (99/1) Smith

Anonymous said...

In our school system they are often referred to as "Highly Able Learners"

Laura Vanderkam said...

Brande- sounds like your school system was searching for something that allowed them to have a gifted program, but not actually encourage the kids to move ahead academically. I'm all in favor of character, but advanced math is nice, too.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Jason- interesting. I have an "as told to Laura Vanderkam" piece on Lang Lang, the pianist, in April's Reader's Digest. He certainly did practice all the time, and one of the reasons he was able to transition to professional success was his enrollment at the Curtis Institute after some initial accomplishments. The teachers there basically said "yeah, you're good. But you know what? You're not good enough yet." When he was about 20, he was good enough and his subsequent Carnegie Hall appearances and record label deals have backed that up.
There's a strong strong link between having innate talent and being willing to spend 6 hours a day doing something. But even then, doing something for hours a day will make you improve, but not necessarily enough. I write for an average of 6 hours a day, for instance (today, note the 9pm EST time stamp, is a 12 hour day so far and is threatening to go to 14 or more). I'd venture I'm in the top 10% on the writing front (your cut off on where you can approach world class status in something). I'd also venture I'm in the top 10% on the running front, though, of all things. I just completed a half-marathon on Sunday. It went fast and well. Are my hour a day training runs enough to make me a world-class runner? Of course not. But even if I ran 6 hours a day, I wouldn't approach Kenyan status. I'd get better and faster, sure. But a leggier runner would lap me in a second. I think there's a lot of differentiation even in the top 10%.

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

With the writing time you are logging in I expect a Pulitzer prize for you soon - if the theory I espoused is correct. You are right that there are probably significant differences in aptitude even amongst the top 10%. However it has been very difficult to prove that, or at least separate aptitude from practice, in controlled studies.

Part of the problem in better understanding the aptitude- maximum achievement potential relationship is that the current aptitude testing methods have a high uncertainty. As I posted before this uncertainty is one of the main reasons I feel 'gifted', or ' enrichment', or 'high aptitude', or 'honors', programs need to be inclusive to at least the top 5%. The other reason is that if they are made too rarified the allocation of scarce educational resources cannot be justified (cost per student is too high).


A. said...

I think you hit on the problem when you described the many things people can be "gifted" at -- usually "gifted" (yes, I use the scare quotes) modifies a noun other than "child" or "person" (e.g. athelete, pianist, liar, etc.). It says that a person is especially good at something specific. To call a person "gifted" with no qualifying descriptive word just sounds pompous: "My child is especially good." That's why people don't like it.

Further, most "gifted" programs that I know about are pretty focused on kids who do well on standardized tests. They're not terribly interested in the autistic kid who draws cathedrals from memory or the brilliant but obnoxious kid who makes paper airplanes out of standardized tests because he finds them to be dull. Those kids, they send to "special ed."

I would argue that the names of these programs are no more euphemistic than the word "gifted" itself, which has a very hazy definition to begin with.

Anonymous said...

This is a late comment, but I wanted to share this: when I was in sixth grade we were divided into "teams". There were North, South, East, West and (for the gifted kids) the Middle team.

Anonymous said...

I would likle some feedback concerning my 6 year old 1st grade daughter. Technically she was in kindergarten last year but really did 1st grade work. Now she is in 1st grade in a public school that is considered a magnet school where parents whose kids are high achievers send them. I was told it would start pretty easy but this easy. She is tracing letters and numbers in the 3rd week yet I taught her multiplication lasy year and she writes entire paragraphs. Should I still wait it out. I asked her teacher to give her something that would challenge her; not neccarily more but more in depth. She is getting very bored with the school part because it is so easy and the teacher told me that they have to "fill in the gaps" of knowledge. I think she should be in 2nd grade but the school says no due to her age. She will be 7 in Feb.