An introduction to gifted learners
My interest in gifted learning is really an interest in creativity and talent development.
However, I understand why many people have a complicated relationship with giftedness.
While most of us feel a moral obligation to help those at a disadvantage, many are morally challenged when they are expected to support the needs of people with “superior” abilities.
But giftedness is not just about high intelligence. Research has shown that gifted minds think and feel more intensely than the average person. This intensity can cause significant social difficulties that are often misinterpreted by non-gifted learners.
Because of these cognitive and emotional differences, giftedness is part of special education programming in Ontario, alongside other exceptionalities including behavioural (such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example.
As such, I find it difficult to read about threats to reduce or remove special programming for gifted students — to make this argument is to argue against special education altogether.
Fairness is not sameness
The Ontario Ministry of Education embeds the belief that “every student has his or her own unique patterns of learning” into its curriculum policy, including this foundational idea: “Fairness is not sameness.”
The tragedy of the public education system is — for a variety of reasons — that it does not always attend to the individual interests and abilities of every child, and because of this, so many talented and gifted learners go through life unidentified.
Psychologist Mary-Elaine Jacobsen’s book, The Gifted Adult — which has been foundational in my understanding about giftedness — laments that too many gifted students grew up without specialized educational support:
The typical gifted person has never been accurately tested, has no factual information about the nature of giftedness over the life span, and has determined what’s right and wrong about her or his personality behind a smoke screen. Because of sweeping stereotypes, such people are faced with a socially inherited reluctance to acknowledge and invest in their special gifts… and have no idea how deeply that lack of information affects their lives and well-being.Mary-Elaine Jacobsen
I’ve had the privilege of teaching a number of courses for gifted learners early in my career. It’s indeed challenging to teach to the wide variety of interests, emotional needs, and talents of gifted learners, but it’s benefited my practice greatly. Unexpectedly, it made me an even stronger teacher when working in typical classrooms. Using differentiated instruction practices, I now place the highest emphasis on my students’ potential intellectual and social differences when designing learning activities.
Intensity, complexity, drive
When it comes to developing differentiated lessons for gifted learners, I rely on Mary-Elaine Jacobsen’s categorization of the five characteristics of gifted learners, which she dubs ICD: intensity, complexity, and drive:
These five characteristics are the best distillation that I’ve found in relation to the differences between a gifted learner and a typical learner.
And, reaching beyond the concept of giftedness, these five characteristics, to me, also describe the traits of many talented and exceptional people I’ve encountered in broadcast journalism, politics, the arts, and other fields and workplaces.
I am sure that some of these talented people developed their potential within the education system. Others, I think, reached their potential in spite of it. Even more of them, I believe, like Jacobsen theorizes, go through life without someone to nurture their gifts and talents — and perhaps struggle through life because of their special psycho-social differences, too.
No two children are the same
It’s hard not to reflect on the lost potential to our society, in terms of lost insights and inventions, when we don’t properly deal with giftedness and talent development in the classroom.
There is an element of social justice embedded in this pursuit, too. Students who are lucky enough to be identified as gifted while in the public school system need to have attentive parents and teachers — and also wealth, too, as there are typically long queues within school boards for psychological assessments, which cost thousands of dollars to obtain privately.
I wonder, because of these barriers, how many gifted learners never get the assessments they need to reach their potential? As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”.
While not everyone is gifted, nor perhaps is everyone talented either, in my teaching practice, I espouse the belief that everyone is important and, critically, everyone is creative.
No matter what type of classroom I teach in, at minimum, I try to be creative and try to engage the creativity within every student.
I believe, and I believe that all teachers agree, that every child deserves an education commensurate to their abilities.
Bélanger, J., & Gagné, F. (2006). Estimating the size of the gifted/talented population from multiple identification criteria. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30(2), pp. 131-163
Definition for Intellectual Giftedness Exceptionality. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.abcontario.ca/11-abc-ontario-news/77-definition-for-intellectual-giftedness-exceptionality
Gallagher, J. (2000). Unthinkable thoughts: education of gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly. 44(1), pp. 5-12
Gifted Education in the U.S. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/gifted-education-us
Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J. M., McIntyre, L. J., Mykota, D. (Eds.). (2006). Exceptional learners: introduction to special education. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada
Hunsaker, S. L. (1995). The gifted metaphor from the perspective of traditional civilizations. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 18(3), pp. 255-268
Jacobsen, M. (1999). The gifted adult: a revolution guide for liberating everyday genius. [Kindle version]. Toronto: Random House, Inc.
Ontario Ministry of Education (2017). Special Education in Ontario, Kindergarten to Grade 12: Policy and Resource Guide. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/onschools_2017e.pdf
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (September 2016). OCDSB gifted program review: final report. Retrieved from https://weblink.ocdsb.ca/weblink/0/edoc/2789590/06%20Gifted%20Review%20_Final%20Report_Sep%2009%202016.pdf
Singer, E. (24 March 2009). Brain images reveal the secret to higher IQ. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/412678/brain-images-reveal-the-secret-to-higher-iq/
TEDx Talks. (2017, December 12). The Gifted Adult | Lynn Berresford | TEDxTauranga [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSdrcXTLDlk
U.S. Census Bureau (2013). School Enrollment in the United States: 2011 (P20-571). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/onschools_2017e.pdf