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Is Gifted Education Still Viable?

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Indeed, gifted education has enriched the general education program in our schools.

Most people believe that developing the talents of our children is an important and valuable goal. In fact, it is hard to imagine standing up at a school board meeting and saying, "Why are we wasting all of this time and money on helping students develop their talents?" Yet as ludicrous as that sounds, it happens all the time during debates over the appropriateness of gifted education programs.

These debates occur in classrooms, faculty lounges, parent-teacher conferences, and school board and faculty meetings around the world. When economies are growing, the debates are less common and gifted programs flourish; when times are tough, the debate often becomes ferocious and the programs are eliminated. As an advocate for gifted education (and one who has seen many children benefit from gifted programs), I only recently asked myself a very important question: Are programs for educating gifted students still necessary and viable?

At first, my answer was a resounding yes. By providing our brightest students with an intellectually challenging environment, we are helping develop some of our country's most valuable economic and social resources. In addition, the criticism that these programs steal resources from other students is based on weak research evidence. Indeed, gifted education has enriched the general education program in our schools, since many educational techniques and strategies were initially designed and tested in gifted programs. The needs of our most talented students are no less important than the intellectual needs of other students, and gifted education reminds us of our educational responsibility to help these bright children succeed.

However, after serious thought, I am starting to have some reservations about gifted programs. Such programs certainly benefit some students, but primarily those who have exceptional academic talents. In addition, a substantial body of research suggests that the needs of gifted students from minority and lower-socioeconomic backgrounds are infrequently met by many school-based gifted programs. Finally, placing gifted children in special programs that separate them from their same-age peers during the school day may increase feelings of social isolation that are already experienced by many of our talented students. While gifted education is justifiable and desirable, gifted programs that remove talented students from the regular classroom during the school day may no longer be a viable educational strategy.

If students are routinely asked to jump over a bar that requires little if any effort, they will not be able to jump higher.

But if gifted programs are not the solution for meeting our children's and society's needs, what is? I believe that the time has come to shift our focus from educating gifted students to developing the talents of a broader, more inclusive group of students.

The advantages of developing a broad range of talents can be seen in Eastern Europe. On a recent trip to that part of the world, I expected to see signs of academic and social malaise. These countries, after all, were returning to economic and social freedom for the first time in over 50 years. During my visit, however, I was impressed by the progress that these countries are making, primarily by capitalizing on their vast human resources. The arts, business, education, political discourse--these areas are full of energy, due in large part to an investment in diverse forms of human talent. While a great deal of work remains for citizens in these countries, the appreciation for talent in all of its manifestations is helping to smooth the transition to democracy, free-market economies, and open societies. As daunting as our own problems are, they are not insurmountable if we begin to broaden our conception of talent and, as a result, reap the benefits sown by the addition of diverse perspectives and abilities to public discourse.

Many educators point out that schools are already places that develop talents. Perhaps, but the talents that are most valued are academic approaches to language and mathematics. Moreover, the predominance of traditional, lecture-discussion approaches to teaching and learning further restricts the working definition of "talent." While a few excellent examples of talent development exist, they are generally based outside of regular school settings (talent-identification programs; self-study programs; and weekend, after-school, and summer courses). Schools designed to foster the individual, diverse talents of students within the classroom are rare birds, indeed.

But there is reason for optimism. Researchers and practitioners know a great deal about developing talent, and the following strategies have been used by teachers across the curriculum:

  • Challenge each and every student. Not surprisingly, research suggests that students are bored in school and that a surprisingly large percentage of students are not intellectually challenged on a daily basis. Simple strategies, such as avoiding teaching students what they already know and showing how the curriculum applies to students' lives outside the classroom, increase the challenge and interest level. If students are routinely asked to jump over a bar that requires little if any effort, they will not be able to jump higher and will not seek out the challenge posed by a bar slightly above their reach.
  • Provide varied instruction and assessment. When individual preferences and perspectives are respected, students receive the message that their individual talents are valued. Similarly, the encouragement of alternative perspectives and strategies promotes the use of flexible thinking and problem-solving skills, which are increasingly necessary for success in the real world. For example, rather than lecture and have 3rd graders complete worksheets about dinosaurs, a teacher can ask children to explore the myths about dinosaurs by comparing old and new books on the subject to identify discrepancies. Students also can construct replicas of dinosaur skeletons in an effort to compare them with the skeletons of modern animals. This curricular depth requires considerable effort on the part of educators, but the increased motivation and cognitive benefits for students are worth the effort.
  • Encourage administrative and educational flexibility. Time is an educator's most precious commodity. By creating flexible schedules, schools can create time for innovative instructional activities. For example, one middle school finishes the regular curriculum a few weeks before the end of the school year. During this "found time," students and teachers form interest-based groups that attempt to solve real-world problems (such as creating a city or society in space, underwater, or underground). Distance education can also facilitate talent development. By allowing a student to participate in courses that are not offered in his or her own school, the student gains a new opportunity to learn and the school broadens its curriculum with a relatively minor financial investment.
  • Seriously address creativity. The ability to solve problems creatively, both as individuals and in groups, is an increasingly valuable skill in the global economy. But when creativity is addressed in our schools, it is usually introduced in the form of abstract or touchy-feely techniques that the students are never required to apply to real-world (or even concrete) problems. How often do students solve problems and then describe their solutions to peers, teachers, or other adults? How often are they required to provide or use constructive criticism? Addressing these real-world applications of creativity will go a long way toward developing our children's talents.
  • Give realistic grades that allow room for growth. Grade inflation is an obstacle to talent development, especially for those students who are talented in areas other than language and mathematics. As grades rise and are perceived to be meaningless, college-admissions officers, scholarship competitions, and others will return to a reliance on standardized-test scores (which are perceived to be more objective). This reliance will restrict the range of talents that are implicitly valued in our schools.
  • Do not ignore the needs of truly gifted students. Ignoring the needs of exceptionally talented students is no less objectionable than ignoring the needs of other students. In fact, even if a school is succeeding in its efforts to develop the talents of a broad range of students, the social pressures and anti-intellectual climate present in many of our schools can have a negative impact on gifted students' social and emotional well-being. If nothing else, counselors should be aware of the unique social and emotional pressures that talented students encounter.
  • Keep your teachers of gifted and talented education. The role of the gifted-program teacher can be easily transformed into one of talent-development support. Most teachers in gifted programs are highly trained in areas relevant to talent development, such as curriculum modification, diverse approaches to instruction and assessment, and designing challenging activities for students. These teachers are extremely valuable resources who can enrich the entire educational environment of the school.

To return to my original question: Yes, gifted education is still necessary and viable, but traditional, pullout gifted programs are not the best strategy--educationally or politically--for achieving the goals of gifted education. Rather, educators, parents, and community members must value and develop a broader range of talents. By providing teachers and parents with support and institutional flexibility, our children's talents can be developed most effectively and efficiently. As educators, this should be our main goal.


Jonathan A. Plucker is an assistant professor of learning, cognition, and instruction at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

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