Davidson Institute Educator Guild Q&A
In this Q&A, Robert A. Schultz, Ph.D., describes the myths about gifted students he hears most often and why it is important to address these myths.
What myths do you hear most often about gifted students?
The vast number of myths that exist about gifted individuals is just amazing to me. I’ll share three of my “favorites” that impact kids on a daily basis.
Myth 1: “Everyone is gifted in some way…”
This statement seems rather mundane on the surface. Sort of one of those Kindergarten rules we all assume are ubiquitous. But, this myth is essentially nothing more than verbal sleight of hand. I say this because this myth should be focused upon for what is not said, rather than what is.
The statement is only the first half of the thought—it is usually followed up with a negative statement or excuse (either said or inferred). Something like “…so there is no need for special programming…” or “…differentiation covers everyone’s needs…”.
I have yet to ever hear the second half sound something like this: “…so we are investing the resources and finances to individualize curriculum for every student…” Perhaps before I retire. We’ll see.
Indeed, I’ll offer a parallel statement that would infuriate the masses as much as the aforementioned frustrates those of us advocating for the needs of the gifted. “Everyone is disabled in some way…”
This half-baked, half-truth is as much on target as Myth 1. And, points out the absurdity of generalized statements based more on impression than intelligence.
Myth 2: “We have to focus on fixing gaps in knowledge or areas of weakness so kids are successful on The Test(s). The gifted already get it…”
Who can argue with this myth? (Well, other than me!)
Think about it. In your life, you get the opportunity to focus on your interests on a daily basis. You might not have an entire day to follow your bliss—working does help pay for those trips to the beach and that caffeine addiction, after all. But, you can (should?) realize you can shine, even at work. There isn’t someone waiting to remediate you as soon as you show a weakness or gap in knowledge.
Now, put yourself into the shoes of a sixth grader with a passion for physics. Where in the school day do you have opportunity to enhance this passion? And, if you are a little slow in your computation skills, will you ever get a chance to actually share your fascination with the concept that matter turns to pure energy at the square of the speed of light (e=mc2)? It is more likely you will get the wonderful opportunity to do even more computation to overcome that weakness. How fun does that sound?
Think of the impact we could have if we were able to just flip Myth 2. “We have to focus on areas of strength or creative problem solving…” Oh, what a place the world could be!
Myth 3: “They will all level out by fourth grade…”
This is my personal favorite. But, this is actually a truth, not a myth, for the gifted learner.
The short story is that the children bearing disabling conditions get access to special services, accommodations, or modifications of the curriculum as required by law (both state and federal). The average kids get their needs met since they are the targets of the curriculum. And, the gifted kids get…bored!
No challenge. No recognition for that deft prose or alacrity with arithmetic. Indeed, the gifted often get punished with more work; especially if they finish things too quickly in the classroom.
Sure, we level the gifted out by fourth grade. We conform them to expected behaviors. We teach them that everyone needs to have a turn; and, be heard. We socialize them to typical tendencies of their chronological age. We DISABLE them in schools where this myth is heard (and I hear it often!).
Why do you think there are so many myths about gifted students?
There are dozens if not hundreds of myths associated with gifted learners. They are attempts to explain phenomenon, tendencies, and behaviors based on anecdotal information; observations of one or two situations; or, the experience openly shared by teachers who have “been there, done that.” Myths are the folklore of our field.
Why is it important to address these myths?
Folklore is based on broad generalizations aimed at explaining tendencies that are often unique to a small group or even one individual. When we rely on folklore, we ignore the individual and are not open to learning. Folklore keeps us “in the dark,” causing us, at worst, to repeat mistakes; or, at best, to ignore real needs.
Benevolent ignorance or outcomes based on folklore are not behaviors or tendencies of professionals—unless, of course you are hunting zombies or vampires. Seriously, if educators are to be received as professionals on a societal level, we must police our ranks and address ignorance and folklore at every turn. We owe gifted students the respect to address their needs with empirically based evidence and our best approaches to enhance or enable learning.
There is a three-phased process to learning about gifted/talented learner needs I’ve discovered working with educators and schools for the past 15 years. First, there is basic acknowledgement that this population exists. Second, awareness that GT individuals have learning needs. Lastly, enactment of strategies to address these needs.
Single day in-service doesn’t provide much past phase 1 in the process. At the core level, educators just being introduced to the literature/scholarship in gifted education aren’t “open” to actually believing it. Being told you must differentiate is one thing; but, if you don’t believe there is a need to do so, you won’t.
As a field, we need to get past this approach to train educators. We need to get to the Awareness and Enactment phases or our efforts will have exactly zero impact.
If you were to give one piece of advice for educators working with gifted students, what would it be?
Think back to your general teacher education or induction program. How much emphasis was placed on exploring giftedness or the nature and needs of gifted learners? A wager I would place is that most of you took a Special Education survey course where gifted learners might have been presented to you in 2-3 paragraphs in one chapter. And, I’d also bet you can’t remember much about these paragraphs other than gifted kids learn quick.
Very few educators have training (awareness or enactment phases of learning) in the nature and needs of gifted children. Taking on-line courses, or developing lessons or curriculum away from your classroom does not provide the opportunity to test ideas and reflect on their impact running “live” with kids in a classroom. And, listening to so-called professionals who happily tell you “how it is”, is a far cry from watching these same people actually work with students in a classroom, in your school.
Can you be expected to intuitively know what to do with gifted kids in the classroom? Can we rely on your use of differentiation to meet these learners’ needs?
The answers are obvious to me—heck no.
Ask your building level professional development committee or Principal to provide awareness and engagement training on gifted learner needs. Get knowledgeable about tendencies and behaviors, advanced curriculum strategies, content/process/product modification, and assessment strategies that work with various types of gifted learners. (And, yes, there are different types of gifted learners!)