Education Opinion

Born? Made? Developed? Unstoppable?

By Tamara Fisher — December 10, 2008 7 min read
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[ugh... I suppose it’s now obvious to the whole world that I have too much on my plate this year, huh? Sorry for the delay everyone... Here is today’s update.]

Hello, all! :o) The transcript for the recent EdWeek chat on “The Evolving Definition of Giftedness” can be accessed at this link HERE. It’s a fairly long read (but of course very interesting), so leave yourself a half hour or so when you click the link to go read it.

Many of the questions posed in the chat were not specifically focused on the three authors’ new book and the ideas in the book, rather, some questions were aimed at more general Gifted Ed issues, such as identification measures or meeting the needs of twice exceptional learners. But there were also some questions that aimed at getting the authors’ insights as to whether “giftedness” can be “taught” or if it is innate (“constitutional pre-dispositions” is the term preferred by one author). Whether giftedness is born, made, developed, or unstoppable (the “in spite of”) is, always has been, and likely will continue to be a hotly debated question in education, especially in the field of gifted education.

As the authors allude to in the chat, there tends to be a straight-line process in America for determining giftedness, a process that essentially boils down to “give the kid a test, determine the kid’s score, and - if the score is above a certain mark - stamp the kid with a G for gifted for the rest of his life.” (Okay, so I’m simplifying dramatically, but you know what I’m getting at...)

But that is essentially what we do in many, many places across the country.

Not that I don’t understand WHY that’s common practice. That kind of a process makes it all so “easy.” It takes out all the messiness of having to examine oodles of data and explain why Kid A “gets in” and Kid B doesn’t. The explanation becomes the test performance. IQ is 128? Sorry. Try again next year. (Nevermind the child’s four-grade-levels-above reading level. Nevermind the test’s margin of error. Nevermind the 99th percentile that the kid scored on the state assessment two years in a row.)

But, of course, when I look at the challenge of identifying these kids through the lens of a community that looks far different from mine, I become more sympathetic to the daunting task. We have school districts in our nation that are so big their student populations exceed the total population of my entire state. I live in an itty-bitty microcosm by comparison. But if I were in charge of identification for a district that had hundreds of thousands of students... well, I’d probably be using a process that looks far different from the one I’m using now. [That realization struck me at NAGC when I attended a session about the K-BIT. Hearing someone say, “We have 800,000 students in our District and this is the research that shows that the K-BIT is a useful screener in our identification process” made me see an angle to the identification dilemma which I hadn’t fully understood before... that big districts have a numbers issue! (i.e. population)]

[Was that my fourth tangent already in just five paragraphs‽ ;o)]

So I was intrigued to read in the interview how the authors handled the whole “nature vs. nurture” question of giftedness. Many of the comments y’all wrote after my previous post highlight this debate. (Kudos for participating! And I imagine today’s info will generate even more discussion/debate along that line...)

I’ve grabbed a few statements from the interview that illustrate some thought-provoking ideas on the topic. (I do, once again, encourage you to read the full transcript of the chat to get a better picture of their ideas. These snippets will give you a good glimpse but not the full picture. I did my best to grab pieces that offered a broad overview rather than ideas out of context, but the best way to get the full context is frankly to read the whole thing if you have the time.)

“Twenty-three years ago we used ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ as categorical attributes which, once declared were considered permanent characteristics. Now, in 2008, the field has moved on so that giftedness and talent are more properly thought of as individual differences that are in dynamic change across the life span. In this perspective gifted and talented behavior can appear at different points in development and once in evidence may or may not continue.” (Frances Degen Horowitz)

“The definition of ‘gifted’ that I like the best focuses on exceptional learning needs requiring some kind of educational adaptation -- something like ‘Exceptionally advanced in one subject or another such that accommodations must be made to the educational programming normally given.’” (Dona Matthews)

[Hmmm... sounds a bit like a learning difference... ;o)]

“All children and adults have strengths, but not everyone has abilities that could lead to outstanding performance or the development of great ideas.” (Rena Subotnik)

“The developmental theory I put forward is actually an attempt to re-frame the nature-nurture debate into a consideration of the interaction of constitutional and environmental variables as they affect development. I do not use the terms ‘innate ability.’ Rather, I prefer to think about individuals as having constitutional pre-dispositions. I think these pre-dispositions can certainly be nurtured.” (FDH)

“We do not know if all of this can be ‘taught’ but I think it is fair to say that many of these behaviors can be nurtured. In some cases they will not develop without nurturance; in some cases these abilities appear to develop even in some not particularly nurturing contexts.” (FDH)

“We are arguing that giftedness can be developed rather than taught.” (RS)

“The paradigm shift that we discuss --away from a categorical perspective on giftedness, and toward a developmental one-- is a lot more palatable and politically acceptable, mostly because it effectively addresses traditional nay-sayers’ misconceptions about giftedness.” (DM)

“Exceptional abilities are developed and often nurtured and... giftedness is not a static characteristic over the life span.” (FDH)

“Address whatever gifted learning needs you see developing in your children as they develop, understanding that development is uneven and variable over time, and that there are many important dimensions developing simultaneously, in addition to the cognitive, including emotional, social, and physical.” (DM)

“The implications of what we are saying is that assessment for gifted and talented behavior should not be a one-time evaluation that results in labeling a child as gifted or not gifted then and forever after.” (FDH)

“It seems to me we’ve got two major objectives in gifted education: (1) nurturing the abilities of those students who are exceptionally advanced relative to their age peers, and (2) fostering giftedness more broadly in diverse others. Both of these involve lots of teaching, but it’s not about teaching kids to be gifted, more about LISTENING and RESPONDING, and then nurturing and fostering what we see needing to be developed in the kids.” (DM)

“SPED generally is moving toward a much more dynamic and flexible approach to understanding learning differences, an approach that we need in gifted ed. Ultimately, it’s all about finding a good learning match for every learner, right?” (DM)

It all reminds me of a statement that the professor for my “Assessment and Evaluation” class made one day. [This was maybe my sophomore year of undergrad... Why THIS random statement of his has stuck with me so clearly, I have no idea, but I’ve always remembered it...] He said, “You’re a band, not a point.” ...the essence being that any test or measurement can give a good general idea about a learner’s abilities or understanding of a concept, but on any other given day the person would test a little bit differently. One day a child might come out as a 100 IQ, a few weeks later as a 98 IQ, and a few weeks after that as a 107 IQ. His point was that the results of any given test (assuming it is reliable and valid) should be considered a good general idea of a (reasonable) range rather than an exact, fixed point. It’s the "-ish” factor. (Note that an individual "-ish” does not stretch across the entire spectrum!)

We may not have control over what we start with, but we do have some control over what we do with (or don’t do with) whatever we began with. And teachers and parents can play a big role in providing opportunities for development (or setting up roadblocks that impede development). As the authors point out above, it’s not about “teaching” everyone to “be” gifted. It’s about paying attention to the kids and then providing them what they need as learners. And some kids have “exceptional learning needs requiring some kind of educational adaptation.” Let’s not neglect to stretch their bands, too.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.