« Think It Off | Main | The Evolving Definition of Giftedness »

This Year's Kid, not Next Year's Teacher

| 24 Comments

There are a lot of reasons why the academic needs of our gifted students aren’t always met, among them lack of teacher training, lack of funding, lack of accurate data on student learning needs (or lack of acting upon the data we do have), lack of awareness about these students and the effects that little challenge can bring about for them, and so on.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of great things happening for the advanced learners in our nation’s schools. There are. But there are also many ways the learning needs of these kids AREN’T being met. And while lack of awareness and lack of teacher training (among other things) can account for large portions of the deficit (note my previous post on how few future-teachers are ever taught about gifted learners), misinformed excuses account for some of the rest.

The hundreds and hundreds of teachers I know have great hearts. They are good people with the best of intentions and, to a person, they want to do right by their students. I do not mean to negate that reality by calling our profession on the carpet today. I’m simply aiming with this post to hold up a little mirror to help us see the flaws in the default positions we so easily fall back on.

What are those default positions? I’m willing to bet we have all either said or heard most of the following:

* “Give it a couple years – the other kids will catch up.”
* “Schools don’t need to worry about gifted students because those kids are already where they need to be.”
* “If I let you do that, then I’ll have to let all the other kids do that, too.”
* “It’s elitist to target only certain students for accelerated learning opportunities.”
* “I don't have time to challenge students who are already meeting the benchmarks. I have too many other kids I need to get up to par.”
* “Identifying some kids as "gifted" only makes all the other kids feel badly about themselves. We should just treat them all the same.”
* “But all children are gifted.”
* "My school has a gifted program. I let the gifted teacher worry about those kids.
* “If only that gifted student would bother doing his assigned work, I might consider giving him something different to do.”
* “But if I move you ahead in the subject this year, then what will next year’s teacher do with you?”

Let’s examine these more closely…

* “Give it a couple years – the other kids will catch up.”
Okay, so if my sister had put her basketball talents on hold for a couple of years, I could’ve magically caught up with her? I suppose the fact that she was six inches taller than me didn’t matter either, nor the fact that I just wasn't all that good at basketball. Do we say to a 10-year-old version of Dara Torres, “Don’t worry about working so hard at your swimming, hon, the other kids will be swimming as well as you in a couple of years.” This “give it a couple years” excuse implies that an “early bloomer’s” learning curve will stagnate, that there’s essentially “no point” in putting any effort into continued growth because the other kids will get to that level someday, too. But this isn’t about "the other kids." This is about each kid having the opportunity to grow in his or her learning. You’re ready for a size 6 shoe? Well, give it a couple years and the other kids will be wearing a size 6 shoe, too. In the meantime, little Johnny sprouts up to a size 8. I find a terrifying metaphor of stunted growth in images of the bound feet of Chinese women. We need to quit putting bricks on these kids’ heads and let them grow in their learning! There IS a point to putting effort into continued growth... because learning matters.

* “Schools don’t need to worry about gifted students because those kids are already where they need to be.”
If, by "where they need to be," you mean the standardized bar set by education wonks of the realistic average expectations of a child of a certain age, then sure, our gifted learners have reached (*cough* surpassed) that bar. But do we say to a 12-year-old, "Oh, you're 5 feet 8 inches tall already? We need to let the other kids catch up to you in height, so we're going to stop feeding you for a couple years until they do." Of course we don't. That would be negligent. But shouldn't it be equally negligent to stop feeding a child's intellectual growth? Where these kids (all kids) need to "be" is learning and growing academically. Where they need to be is moving on from where they are, wherever that happens to be. EVERY child should be able to learn and grow intellectually. But just because our gifted learners have met or exceeded what for them are low expectations doesn't mean it's okay for us to not put any effort into them as learners. If the child can already spell the week's spelling list on Monday, that doesn't mean, "Whew - one less kid for Teacher to worry about." That SHOULD MEAN a different spelling list for that child so he can learn how to spell some new words.

* “If I let you do that, then I’ll have to let all the other kids do that, too.”
Well, if all the other kids CAN do that, then why aren't they?

* “It’s elitist to target only certain students for accelerated learning opportunities.”
Ah, elitism... There's nothing wrong with being an elite athlete (and taking advantage of the opportunities that come with it), but dare to be an elite learner and the antipathy of society comes raining down upon you, even if you're only six years old. How about this perspective on elitism... Couldn't it be viewed as elitist to place egalitarian ideals above a child's right to learn? Couldn't it be viewed as elitist to not devote effort to teaching (stretching) children whose learning capacity is 'inconveniently' fast for our school systems? Couldn't it be viewed as elitist to "teach" a child content she has already mastered because we think "it will be good for her" to be there to help the other kids learn it? In my opinion, yes. I know we don't set out to be "elitist" in these ways, but I do see it as an unintended consequence of our resistance to doing what's necessary for these learners. It should never be elitist to provide each child what he or she needs to best learn! Doing so should simply be the right thing to do.

* “I don't have time to challenge students who are already meeting the benchmarks. I have too many other kids I need to get up to par.”
So if you don’t have time to reach every child where he or she is and move them on from there – if you don’t have time to challenge every kid at their learning readiness level – how do you decide which kids will get an education this year? How do you decide which kids will get to learn and which ones will be denied their potential degree of educational growth? Because that's essentially what this statement boils down to... saying we don't have time to educate some of the children in our classrooms is in essence saying that we are choosing to educate some students and not others. I don't deny that teachers are incredibly busy and overworked people. I, myself, haven't been keeping up here at "Teacher Magazine" because I've been swamped with so many other things. As teachers, our to-do lists are never-ending, complex, varied, and ever-changing. But we signed up to be educators. We signed up to educate. If we make no significant efforts to teach the most advanced learners in our classes (along with teaching all the other kids, too, of course), then we aren't actually teaching these kids. This is one place where administrators can come in and be a great help to their teachers (and thereby their students). Administrators have the power to tweak schedules, provide teacher training opportunities, guide a schoolwide focus, and influence policy. Hopefully teachers have some say in those matters, too, but for all the administrators out there - you can make a big difference for the gifted learners in your schools by taking a leadership stance about educating these kids.

* “Identifying some kids as "gifted" only makes all the other kids feel badly about themselves. We should just treat them all the same.”
Here’s one response to that. Stephanie Tolan, who was one of the three authors of “Guiding the Gifted Child,” (among other books) said recently, “You don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better.” Re-read that and let it sink in for a minute... Do we do that? Do we hold some kids back because we're worried about the feelings of other children? You bet we do. We say we can't have leveled math groups because the kids who aren't in the highest group will feel badly about themselves. We say we can't have leveled reading groups because the kids who aren't in the highest reading group will feel badly about themselves. But ya know what really happens? It's the gifted kid who ends up feeling badly about himself because he’s treading water with no goal in sight, because he's constantly encountering roadblocks in his learning, because no one recognizes what he can really do, and because he's not learning to his capacity. (How come we don't consider his feelings?) It's easy to pretend that there is no impact on the child because we often don't see the impact of lack of challenge until further down the road. But there is indeed an impact. And I agree with Stephanie. This is a MORAL issue, and we as teachers don't have the moral right to hold one child back just to make another child supposedly feel better about himself. We need to support and strengthen all kids' self-efficacy and self-esteem - and find ways to do so that don't involve sacrificing another child's learning potential in the process. It is not okay to sacrifice any child's learning potential. If we have concerns about the feelings of other children, then we should address that issue by explaining to kids that it's our job as schools to figure out what's best for each learner and then to provide it. The language we use in talking with kids about these things can go a long way to prevent any hard feelings. Besides, the kids know who the best reader in the class is, even if we aren't providing that child challenging reading material, even if we aren't "pointing it out" by splitting the kids into reading groups. We need to teach each and every child, including the ones who are 'ahead of the game' - and that means owning up to not having the moral right to hold some kids back just to make other kids feel better.

* “But all children are gifted.”
I think when people say this, they mean that all kids are special, all kids have something they're good at, and all kids have something unique and wonderful to offer the world. Of course! But all kids do not learn as gifted children learn. Try this logic on: So "all kids are gifted" because all kids have something they're good at? Well, we all have something we're not good at, too. So, therefore, are we all retarded or disabled? It's absurd, and we easily recognize just how absurd when it's turned inside-out like that. It should sound just as absurd to say "all kids are gifted" because "gifted" isn't about specialness or contributing to the world or 'being good' at something. It's a learning difference. And as long as we remain in denial about this learning difference's existence, we will continue to be denying our gifted students the education they are capable of.

"My school has a gifted program. I let the gifted teacher worry about those kids."
These children don't become un-gifted when they enter your classroom. Their learning needs don't matter solely in the gifted resource classroom. We make accommodations in our classrooms for children whose learning needs are on the other end of the spectrum. We recognize that grade level material is not always the appropriate learning resource for those kids. We make adjustments according to what is best for the child. Most of us have been trained in how to do this and most schools have enough special ed personnel to aid us in the process. But when it comes to making adjustments according to what is best for a gifted learner, we have two strikes already against us. #1 Most teachers have received little or no training on how to do this, and #2 Most schools are severely understaffed of qualified gifted ed personnel. (As one example, there are only about 40 FTE in gifted ed positions in the entire state of Montana... that's less than a whole person per county!) In order to do what's best for these learners, we really do need to work together throughout the day to reach (i.e. teach) them where they are.

* “If only that gifted student would bother doing his assigned work, I might consider giving him something different to do.”
Imagine if, in order to begin your job each day (the learning opportunity that stretches you to new levels) you had to first fill out a few worksheets on Bloom’s Taxonomy (or some other concept you've mastered) to be able to get in the door. As adults, we wouldn’t stand for it. As adults, when a learning opportunity isn’t reaching us where we are – if we’ve been through it all before – we resent having to sit through it again. Do you like to go to professional development opportunities when the presenter isn’t delving into the topic any deeper than you’ve already mastered it? Nope. We get up and walk out. We can. But the kids are stuck. Assigned work that provides no educational growth for a child is busy work to fill time. In the real world, businesses don’t hire employees to stay busy and fill time. They hire them to FULFILL A PURPOSE. A gifted child isn't in your classroom to raise your test scores or to be a good role model or to dutifully re-hash material she has already mastered. She's in your classroom to LEARN. That is her purpose to fulfill there. The steps to take to make that happen could involve recognizing that some of the assigned work isn't appropriate learning material for that child. Yet still making her do it first as some sort of "entrance fee" before she can do the work that IS appropriate learning material for her is - well - cruel. And yes, I'm deciding to use that word. Ask the gifted kids. When they have to do both the assigned, too-easy, regular work and the challenging extra work, they see one or the other as a "punishment" for being smart.

* “But if I move you ahead in the subject this year, then what will next year’s teacher do with you?”
Our focus in the classroom should be the KIDS, not our colleagues. It is not okay to not teach a child just because some hypothetical teacher in the future might not know how to move the child on from that point. It is not okay to not teach a child just because "next year's teacher" won't know what to do with him. Ya know what? Next Year's Teacher could retire or move away or take maternity leave. You don't really know for sure who Next Year's Teacher will be. But you DO know for sure who This Year's Kid is. Teach This Year's Kid!

Feel free to add any others you may have heard (or even said) in the comments section. You can find additional examples at the Hoagies site in the “Ridiculous Things I Heard Today” section.

Just some food for thought to challenge our default positions...

24 Comments

My husband is unconvinced by your counterargument on doing the assigned work first; he says, "If the teachers were that against cruelty, they wouldn't have been making the argument in the first place."

Which I think points to another important element of this whole argument, albeit one I have no idea how to phrase outside safe spaces for gifted ed -- the kids are learning something from being in environments laden with those excuses. We're learning that the world is out to get us, that our age-peers are morons who exist to slow us down (particularly if we're forced into peer teaching at the expense of our own learning). We're learning that adults despise and misunderstand us. We're learning that accepting torment (from teachers and students both) is just a normal part of reality.

They're horrible, pernicious lessons, and it took me years to unlearn some of them, and I doubt I'll ever unlearn them all, or get rid of the pain and anger that comes of knowing several of my school administrators went out of their way to prolong my crippling depression (whether that was their intent, whether they understood that or not). Many of the grown-up gifted kids I know have never unlearned those lessons, still take these beliefs as a matter of course, and are likely never to participate in broader communities or willingly share their talents with the world for that reason.

You'd think, even if the needs of the gifted make no sense or are unimportant to a lot of teachers (a lesson which I still cannot unbelieve), the self-preservation instinct would kick in. Surely teachers -- of whom I was one for years -- do not want any kids to be learning these lessons, or to be carrying these beliefs into adulthood.

(Into adulthood, where they all stir up again with higher stakes as I start thinking about education for my toddler, and notice that my local school's improvement plan does not include the words "gifted", "advanced", or "accelerated", that my state does not mandate gifted education, and that my school district's long-range goals do not mention it, that a kindergarten learning standard is learning the alphabet which she's known since summer. I'm trying to keep an open mind but I'm not going to go through the fights my parents did when I have the option of paying ridiculous amounts of money to local private schools instead -- another lesson I would think my public school teachers years ago, and my (excellent and thoughtful) local government now, would have preferred I not learn.)

From my experience teaching in an under performing school, there is a huge movement to address the needs of the lowest performing students, but nothing is done for the gifted or highest performing students. An 800 student high school that offers only ONE honors/AP class (English) per grade level, is not meeting the needs of students.

While the lowest performing students definitely need extra help and resources, I continue to believe that the school will never improve if they don't also raise the bar for their brightest students. The mass of the student body is never going to rise in performance if the bar isn't also raised for kids at the top.

I agree with Tamara, particularly about the lamest of excuses "what about when he/she ...?" for some time far in future. This gets brought up most often when resisting acceleration.

I find the "but he'll not have his driver's license when everyone else in his class will". I'm 54 this month, and I *still* haven't "gotten my driver's license."

Leaving things to the gifted teacher is fine---if you give the whole student to the gifted teacher. Actually, my favorite model is for there not to be "gifted" teachers who teach some cheesy pullout that is not part of the general curriculum, but to have all teachers teaching the subjects that they are best at, with students going to different classes based on their current level of achievement. A gifted math student with dyslexia could be with peers in both math and reading, but those peers might be 5 years apart in age.

I think that this is an important post, and I definitely agree with Tamara. I wish that these arguments could be put in front of all teachers (and parents). The self-esteem argument particularly grinds my teeth. You would never see schools saying that the talented athletes shouldn't be put on teams, because this makes the other kids feel bad.

I was very disappointed to read recently a statement from the director of Hunter College Elementary School in NYC (one of the very few specialized public schools for young gifted kids) claiming that Hunter should wait until 3rd grade to admit kids because "assessments are more reliable at that age".

While it is true that IQ tests do have higher stability at age 7+, testing at age 4 (Hunter's current practice) results in only slightly lower stability (around 0.72). That means that nearly 3/4 of the kids tested as preschoolers will NOT see a significant change in IQ if they are re-tested later.

Educators should not deny those who show signs of giftedness at a young age the chance for a properly challenging environment during their primary school years.

Some more....

to me as a child asked to evaluate social studies texts--'Don't you think that book would be too hard for other kids to read?'

about my 2e math talented child--'We can't go beyond what is offered in elementary school because we'd have to bus him to middle school for 5th grade or the teacher would have to come up with an individual program' (but they were amused that he maxed out the WJ math achievement test) 'Your child is not failing so no accommodations.' 'Be glad he got a 99th percentile in reading comprehension, he's just an average reader'

about my gt K child--'we are not allowed to present reading material beyond the end of first grade to K students'--this at the end of semester 1 and concerned a whole reading group not just one child 'We can't evaluate a reading level beyond the end of first grade'--this at the end of the year

And we wonder why my now 5th grade 2e child really does now have motivation issues....

Tamara does bring up a very important issue, when she says that gifted and talented children need to be identified and appropriately addressed in ther academic growth. I would need to add to her comments that students in our public education system who are learning English as a second language have the potential to be gifted and talented ((“Language Learning
and the Developing Brain”, 1996) and they too fail to be identified because a number of gifted and talented programs (when offered)do not look at identification process using the studets' native language.

While I agree that gifted students need differentiation and learning that honors their needs, I disagree whole heartedly that they be excused from required work. If you look at the argument that adults would walk out of a workshop; that simply isn't true in all cases. I think some of the best learners that I know would stay and listen for tidbits that may help them to improve upon what they already know and ask questions that could better address their needs. I believe that all of the other statements and arguments are valid. I just don't think that constantly excusing them from required assignments is a good practice.

“You don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better.”
"How do you decide which kids will get to learn and which ones will be denied their potential degree of educational growth?"
AMEN!!! Sing it sister!!! Your blog is music to my ears.
I'm reading "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" about a young girl in nineteenth century China, so the foot binding analogy really spoke to me. Thanks for taking the time to write this entry.

This comment is for Kim about "missing required work". All I have to say is oh pleeezzee. Of course that's not all I have to say. I'll use this analogy--you, as an adult, have gone to Colorado for beginning ski lessons. You loved it and decided to go back for intermediate lessons the next winter. You buy the new outfit, rent some snappy skis which you strap onto your car and you head off. You get to the ski lodge and Swen comes out of the lodge and says "Sorry, intermediate has been cancelled, you have to take beginning again." As an adult you'd say "H*** no, I'm not taking beginning again, but kids don't have that option. Many of them are asked to do beginning again and again and again. We don't ask our learning disabled students to do all the work they missed while they were receiving special support in a resource room, why would we ask our gifted students to do the work they missed. The work was a mis-fit for both kids. Give me a break.

Thank you Nancy. You said what I wanted to.

Also to Kim,
This is the purpose of pretesting out of the required work. We were given the same argument you present when our son was in second grade. He needed to sit through the lesson just in case he could pick up a tidbit of information. With the way math is taught these days, spiraling curriculum, he spent an entire year waiting for those tidbits. Do you know what he finally learned? Curtains come in pairs. That was the ONLY new thing he learned in math that year. He had already skipped first grade and we didn't want to skip another (although it probably would have been appropriate academically). We asked for more challenging math to be presented if he could pretest out of the material. He wasn't even given the option. The SD was too afraid someone else might ask for the same "special treatment" (I'd call it appropriate determination of present levels) so he wasn't allowed the opportunity to actually LEARN in SCHOOL. We didn't ask that the teacher give him a private lesson in math everyday. We just asked that he be allowed to work independently on something appropriate. They offered that IF he sat through the math, they'd give him a folder with extra math to work on in his free time. What kid isn't going to recognize that he is being given more work as a reward for his ability to sit through a class? We finally realized we weren't getting anywhere and pulled him out to home school. Now we pretest each chapter in math, if he doesn't know the material we do the chapter. If he shows mastery (that doesn't mean 100% perfection, BTW), we move on to the new material. He is thriving and actually learning.

The question is why teachers are requiring assignments that are inappropriate for the child. If I decide to enroll in piano lessons and already know the basics, no decent teacher would make me do all the same exercises at the same pace as someone who was a total novice.

"I think some of the best learners that I know would stay and listen for tidbits that may help them to improve upon what they already know and ask questions that could better address their needs."

These are really the best learners you know? Would they like to be taught to read again because they've never heard of Junie B. Jones? Wouldn't the teacher ignore their questions because they aren't relevant to what she's teaching?

Sorry, that should have been "in case they've never heard of Junie B. Jones"

Tamara hits so many of the vital points we gifted instructors work to overcome, but she missed a hidden one; administrators who take funds specifically given by the state for gifted education and use it for Industrial Tech., yearbook, or stipends for sports coaches.

Andromeda - you hit on at least 2 topics near and dear to my heart. First, I believe that children WILL learn no matter what, if not the content of what we teach, then the subtext. The subtext I learned was to wait.

Second, Tamara said "It's easy to pretend that there is no impact on the child because we often don't see the impact of lack of challenge until further down the road." Tamara, how do we ensure that the same people who made the decisions in the first place are the ones who get to see the impact down the road? I don't believe they do, and Andromeda's "crippling depression" is such an impact. I spent my school years escaping the boredom in ways that got progressively more destructive, culminating in a year planning suicide. It always surprises me when I read that suicidal thoughts and depression are not "typical" among gifted kids. It pleases me, because I do hope that other people have an easier time of it, but it surprises me because when I'm bold enough to admit it (which is rare) I usually hear similar experiences in return.

Thanks for this post. This is a topic near and dear to my heart - teaching and gifted education. I taught in gifted education at a middle school for 5 years and I find some of the myths surrounding gifted education frustrating. People thought, oh it would be easy to teach those kids... it's their parents who want it... they all get As. Hah! Anyone who has ever done it knows that it is not easy. Motivation is a huge problem and many are at risk for dropping out of school.

I often find when I am speaking other teachers or adults that when I use the analogy of a gifted athlete or musician being held back and left without a coach or mentor I see a light go in their head. I will be filing away the quote from Tolan “You don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better.” for future use.

Thanks for pointing out that gifted students have needs too and they often go unmet.

Thanks for posting your thinking around this very important topic. I like the way you set it up with the quotes and then your thoughts... excellent!

How would you feel about me linking to this on Two Writing Teachers?

Barton brings up an important point about misuse of GT funds. How do different states/districts/campuses audit and oversee distribution of GT funds? Are there are any studies that have addressed how the funds are spent?

Do you know of any schools that are geared to gifted but offer assistance to gifted/Learning disabled kids. (i.e. organizational skills, processing deficits, etc?) Any info would be appreciated.

I have recently been looking at information about Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset. Growth Mindset is the belief that we can learn if we work at it while Fixed Mindset is the belief that we're just born good at some things and there's no way to change it. Students with growth mindset will work hard to meet new academic challenges because they believe the work will be rewarded by mastering the material. Students with fixed mindset are likely to give up when they don't already know the answer.

Ironically, gifted students are far more likely to have fixed mindset. I wonder whether the lack of challenge for so many years "ruins" them in this way. We grow new neurons when we're academically challenged. By not challenging gifted students we are literally killing their brains and making them stupider. The Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School has excellent information about this topic. http://www.laurelschool.org/about/CRGinMS.cfm

Great Article! I'm passing it onto my son's teacher. My son's teacher says he's pesky, his other teacher says he's brilliant. food for thought.

Come on. Penny's just not smart about physics and science. You make it sound like the show is a little chauvinistic because it has a hot girl who is of average intelligence, way into pop culture with a mountain of common sense. Penny is just another character with different gifts and quirks. The guys in the show are really dumb about pop culture. Does that mean the writers are female chauvinists because the guys don't have very much common sense and are stereotyped that way...Leonard's common sense seems to be growing. Nice article overall. PS I love the show too.

Comments are now closed for this post.

Advertisement

Most Viewed On Teacher

Archives

Recent Comments

  • astounded: Come on. Penny's just not smart about physics and science. read more
  • Sam McKenna: Great Article! I'm passing it onto my son's teacher. My read more
  • Wicked Witch of the West: I have recently been looking at information about Growth Mindset read more
  • allie: Do you know of any schools that are geared to read more
  • Teri: Barton brings up an important point about misuse of GT read more