Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gifted and Talented is Much More Than Being "Book Smart"

I have been thinking a lot about talking about "gifted and talented" but I had put off the discussion for a while as I was unsure about how to bring up such a controversial subject.  However, a recent article in the New York Times, "The Pitfalls in Identifying a Gifted Child", has finally provoked me enough to put some thoughts down on paper.

I really don't like the term "gifted and talented" as it provokes a lot of negative reactions and I wish there was a better term for it.  Maybe some giftie should have done a Latin translation and come up with something like "DomumEtIngeniumIA" (anyone with a better sense of how to decline the words gifted and talented should not hesitate to correct me!  I know you're out there!).  If we were talking about DomumEtIngeniumIA, maybe we could get beyond the resentment, the schadenfreude and jealousy that seems to permeate the discussion.  We could instead focus on the complex of conditions and co-morbidities that surround people with a high degree of creativity and intelligence.

However, I won't stick the reader with my bad Latin and will revert to the use of the term Gifted and Talented (GT).   GT is more than just an IQ and more than just performing higher than your grade and more than just being intensely creative.  All the discusssions relating to this article focus on the cognitive abilities relating to GT and some of the negative side effects of jealousy and resentment.

There is a lovely essay about a Is It A Cheetah by Stephanie Tolan that explains many of the dilemmas of GT.

Giftedness, a global, integrative mental capacity, may be dismissed, replaced by fragmented "talents" which seem less threatening and theoretically easier for schools to deal with. Instead of an internal developmental reality that affects every aspect of a child's life, "intellectual talent" is more and more perceived as synonymous with (and limited to) academic achievement.

Despite design and need however, certain conditions are necessary if it (the Cheetah) is to attain its famous 70 mph top speed. It must be fully grown. It must be healthy, fit and rested. It must have plenty of room to run. Besides that, it is best motivated to run all out when it is hungry and there are antelope to chase.

If a cheetah is confined to a 10 X 12 foot cage, though it may pace or fling itself against the bars in restless frustration, it won't run 70 mph.

If a cheetah has only 20 mph rabbits to chase for food, it won't run 70 mph while hunting. If it did, it would flash past its prey and go hungry! Though it might well run on its own for exercise, recreation, fulfillment of its internal drive, when given only rabbits to eat the hunting cheetah will run only fast enough to catch a rabbit.

If a cheetah is fed Zoo Chow it may not run at all.

If a cheetah is sick or if its legs have been broken, it won't even walk.

And finally, if the cheetah is only six weeks old, it can't yet run 70 mph.

A school system that defines giftedness (or talent) as behavior, achievement and performance is as compromised in its ability to recognize its highly gifted students and to give them what they need as a zoo would be to recognize and provide for its cheetahs if it looked only for speed. When a cheetah does run 70 mph it isn't a particularly "achieving" cheetah. Though it is doing what no other cat can do, it is behaving normally for a cheetah.
Like cheetahs, highly gifted children can be easy to identify. If a child teaches herself Greek at age five, reads at the eighth grade level at age six or does algebra in second grade we can safely assume that child is a highly gifted child. Though the world may see these activities as "achievements," she is not an "achieving" child so much as a child who is operating normally according to her own biological design, her innate mental capacity. Such a child has clearly been given room to "run" and something to run for. She is healthy and fit and has not had her capacities crippled. It doesn't take great knowledge about the characteristics of highly gifted children to recognize this child.

Back to the NYT.  Needless to say, like many responses, I, too, disagree with Ms. Hemphill about early testing in Kindergarten.  For one thing, the affluent will go and get their children tested early.  They are already prepping their children for the "right" nursery schools and they understand that the label will buy you a certain amount of things in this society.

Also, GT is more than just cognition.  There are a plethora of health conditions that are commonly found in this population such as vision, hearing, motor skill, sensory integration disorder and digestive issues.  These issues are commonly confused with ADHD, Aspergers and Autism which also occur in the GT.  Not treating these issues properly is one of the reasons why GT fall behind later in childhood or early adulthood.  You can only compensate so far.  Depending on the severity of the issues, GT can fall behind in school or at work because they literally can not see or hear properly.  These problems are not screened for in the normal opthamologic or hearing or pediatric exams and require specialists trained in vision therapy, auditory processing disorder, sensory integration, and learning disabilities.  Many of the characteristics that get a bright child labeled as "dorky" such as poor balance, clumsiness and stiltedness are symptoms of motor apraxia or vision, hearing, or speech disorders that can be remedied with physical and occupational therapy.

GT also involves a whole emotional and social realm as well.  On the upside, the GT have an intensity of feeling (passion) towards life, can provoke and enjoy those "golden moments of intimacy" to a much deeper level than the average person.  GT also experience a sense of social justice and entelarchy, a vital force that directs an organism toward self-fulfillment.  GT can be more advanced emotionally, and may be starting to deal with issues of bonding and intimacy when their peers are still on play dates.   On the downside, there are issues with fitting in with the average, combatting jealousy from others, feeling a sense of superiority or arrogance.  Very few, GT programs actually work on the emotional and social realm to encourage GT to seek out other GT and average people who share their interest.  These programs don't deal with how to get GT to interact and find commonality and bonds with the average person.  The debate seems to be pull out a GT to a segregated program vs.  leave them to sink or swim with the average person.  Segregation buys interaction with the likeminded at the expense of jealousy from peers who have been left out.  Leaving the GT with their average classmates to sink or swim has not been successful either.   Some GT develop social acumen (and some of the untested gifted talents should include social ability); many  do not.  GT forums are full of stories of those who have been bullied and have spent a lot of time with psychologists undoing the profound trauma that bullying and abuse can bring on.  Many of the stories of school age bullying are truly on the level of the hunted Piggy in "Lord of the Flies".

Not enough is being done to understand the relationship between a gifted individual and a group.  For example, how do you identify a brilliant sociopath, a brilliant yet "oppositionally defiant" person, a brilliant abuser, or a brilliant kid with motor problems (that gets him to bump into people, accidently),  and how do you explain such differences so that every one can understand it.  On the other side, of the coin, how do you encourage the average person to develop empathy for other people who are very different, and how not to feel insecure or jealous of other people's talents?  Theoretically, our major religions and our belief in American democracy should help us; but, all too often, these preachings are not practiced.  Teachers are just starting to intervene on the school yard but many of them believe that it is OK to sanction a misfit without looking into the reason why a child may be dorky.  And, we are expecting that the kids will just "sort out" these issues by themselves at  kindergarten!  The  kindergartener that could understand when a dorky kid is OK... might actually be gifted him/herself, just socially gifted!

Despite the intense focus in the literature about the educational aspects of GT, GT is not just a developmental phenomenon that occurs only from K-12 through college but a lifelong combination of cognitive, physical, and emotional/social traits.  I am wondering if we need a neurological Bill of Rights: that people have a right to act in accordance with their inborn neurology within a more loosely defined set of boundaries than defined by  modern American society.  You know, a Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness defined neurologically.
Mental growth through positive disintegration,Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration Processes
Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration Processes

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