Friday, October 17, 2008

Does Giftedness Wax and Wane?

Education Week has a fascinating article up on their website titled "Gifted Label Said to Miss Dynamic Nature of Talent." It requires a free registration to read, but I hope a few Gifted Exchange readers will take the time to do so, because I'd really like to hear your take on this one.

The article is basically a preview of a new book being released by the American Psychological Association called "The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span." In this book, various researchers comment on giftedness at different stages, with an emphasis on the idea that talent can wax and wane.

“The essence of this book, and the reason I found it so exciting, is that it is moving away from this idea of talent as something that some people have and some people don’t. It’s showing talent as something developable,” Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of the book's forward told EdWeek. Dweck is, of course, the researcher who's made a name for herself by showing that praising for effort, rather than ability, inspires children to try hard things and risk failing. Children praised for being "smart" don't want to challenge that assumption, and hence don't want to try things that make them seem not smart.

The book will talk about giftedness in various areas (spatial understanding, music, art) and the problems with the way school gifted programs tend to address the issue. "If schools were to view giftedness as more of a developmental process than an immutable attribute, they would likely need to test children more often. And children might move in and out of “gifted” programs more frequently, based on their individual needs," the article notes. "Instead, many schools test children once for academic advancement, and students tend to retain that classification for the rest of their school careers."

It's all well and good -- we all know that talent, not nurtured, can certainly fade. And hard work is probably the deciding factor between which, of two talented children, will wind up succeeding as adults. Furthermore, the whole pull-out enrichment concept is -- as we've talked about many times on this blog -- absolutely ridiculous. There is no reason you need to be gifted to spend 90 minutes a week learning about bugs, or Robin Hood, or the culture of Japan, or whatever. All kids could benefit from these programs. What gifted kids really need is advanced, accelerated academic work. It at least sounds like the contributing researchers are pushing that idea.

But... I'm worried about this book. I'm worried because of this explanation of the thesis near the top of the article: "Academic talents can wax and wane, the latest thinking goes, meaning that a child who clearly outpaces his or her peers academically at age 8 can end up solidly in the middle of the pack by the end of high school. Instead of being innate and immutable, giftedness can be nurtured and even taught."

If acceleration were widespread and uncontroversial, if students were grouped by ability and schools were committed to meeting gifted kids' needs, this statement, that academic talents can wax and wane would be fine. True enough. I used to be sharper on, say, math than I am now. We all know some kids who were identified as gifted who wind up having trouble later for a variety of reasons.

But the problem is, we don't live in that world where intellectual talent in children is seen as a precious resource and is nurtured appropriately. We live in a world where school systems seek out any reason to not allow acceleration, seek out any reason to mainstream gifted kids, do heterogeneous classroom groupings and the like. The last thing we need is a group of gifted advocates trying to make headlines by claiming that yes, kids really do all even out by third grade (the argument that's used to avoid serving younger gifted kids) or that giftedness can be taught, and hence we don't need gifted programs. See, all kids can be gifted! Gifted kids are probably just hot-housed by their parents and once professional teachers get involved nurturing other kids' gifts (and neglecting the gifted, who will fend for themselves) it will all get straightened out.

I hope I am wrong about this, and that the book calls for a massive upgrade in how our country nurtures its brightest kids. But trust me, that won't be the headline.


Rachel said...

I agree. This book may well muddy the waters for kids who are innately capable of way more than most of their peers.

Carolyn said...

Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy... If the students aren't educated appropriately, and stop showing their giftedness as a result, then the authors "prove" their thesis.

But saying it doesn't make it so.

And I'm pretty sure the IQ test publishers would have something to say about the idea that giftedness can be developed. Destroyed? Yes. Developed in those it inherently exists in? Yes. Developed in all students? I don't think so...

As you, I hope that this short preview is misleading, and that the book is a much better resource than this blurb makes it appear. But you're definitely right about the headlines...

It reminds me of the damage done to gifted kids by the headlines surrounding David Elkind's book The Hurried Child. After that title and the headlines, no one in education wanted to hear or believe Elkind's opinions on Acceleration in spite of his status as president emeritus, National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Margaret P said...

As I see it, giftedness is brain-based potential which is expressed if it is developed and not expressed if it is not developed. For example, my daughter understood who fed her by the time she was a few days old. That's inborn ability. On grade-level ability and achievement testing, she has tested very well at some times and poorly at others. She was driven to learn as a preschooler and tested on the 5th grade level in reading and math at age 5. By the end of second grade, she was testing on the third grade level: she LOST skills because she wasn't challenged in school and no longer looked gifted.

During third grade, she did 7th grade level grammar, grades 4-6 math including pre-algebra, and grade 5-8 level vocabulary from greek and latin roots during 4-6 hours per week of homeschooling. That February, she tested well above average for 8th grade on the Explore test. When challenged, she achieves at very high levels, but when she's not challenged, she doesn't look gifted.

Not all giftedness is or has been expressed in terms of academic skills. My ancestors were artisans, craftsmen, or businesspeople and excelled in their particualr fields.

Today, poor and black children tend not to show giftedness in academic/verbal skills. Studies have shown that poor and black families tend to parent in ways which develop practical and visual/spatial intelligence while "middle class" families tend to parent in ways which develop verbal and academic intelligence.

The school districts with very large concentrations of students with practical intelligence have found that they find few gifted children using tests of verbal intelligence, but many more using tests of non-verbal intelligence. The students they find with high non-verbal intelligence tend to excel in science and do well with most academic skills if they are taught appropriately.

There is no reason to believe that our ancestors, black people, and poor people today have any less potential "academic" intelligence than identified gifted people today. Their intelligence has just been developed differently.

Were you showing your giftedness when you were seriously ill or injured? Were you showing it when/if you had a non-sleeping newborn, infant, or toddler? I think my thoughts and actions in both circumstances were different from those of most people in that I was trying to figure out what was going on and how to fix it, but I certainly wasn't proving math theorems or analyzing literature!

Yes, the expression of giftedness can wax and wane based upon how it is cultivated at any given time.

Jason Kemp said...

I agree with the other comments about circular arguments.

Surely the answer to this nonsense is for the school to develop all children to gifted levels and we know that isn't going to happen any time soon.

Given attention and nurturing can all students do better? Yes. Is that the same thing? No.

I would say there is also a noticeable social dynamic here. If a child is for example twice exceptional and gets assistance then some / most of the noticed downstream behaviors will improve.

IS that an example of waxing and waning? No. If a gifted child is nurtured do those gifts disappear? Absolutely not.

But lets say the child is in a streamed class for at least part of the time - because what they do there is more age appropriate they would probably score at similar levels to the higher group.

Because they are several years younger they are still exceptional. Do they stand out in the accelerated group - much less.

Why is this book getting publicity?

Anonymous said...

From the book The Short Bus: "Many people, including many educators, cannot get their minds around the paradox of a brilliant kid who can't do certain seemingly simple tasks....Our culture often conflates giftedness with academic achievement. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Truly gifted individuals often don't do well in school at all..."
Why is this book getting publicity? APA, that's why. If you were running the gifted division of APA or NASP, wouldn't it be more exciting and a hundred times easier to focus on and celebrate people who are producing exciting and interesting things with linear speed and precision rather than devote any time to the enigmatic genius that cannot be measured? They don't know what they don't know.