Category Archives: Gifted Education

Every Child is Gifted. Really?

Frazzled looking catMy head is melted! Someone called Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a blogpost called “Every Child is Gifted. Every Single One” which has caused something of a bruhaha in the USA. Numerous gifted advocates have taken to their keyboards in response, with blogposts flowing. Many  other parents responded saying they were moved to tears by the beauty of the article, one going so far as to say it was “the most beautiful thing I have ever read”. Late last night, I got sucked into reading a 765 comment long Facebook status update by the original author. I’m not the better of it yet!

At first, I thought that the problem centred around the use of the term “gifted”. Some use it in a loose, colloquial manner. Others use it in a strict technical sense to refer to those whose ability, particularly in terms of IQ, falls within the top 2%-3% of the population. Within educational psychology, there is no one accepted definition of gifted, which doesn’t help us make our case, but that’s a discussion for another day! Suffice to say that there are frequent calls for the term “gifted” in educational psychology to be changed, but I don’t believe that would make a whit of difference. Had Lewis Terman and Leta Stelling Hollingworth had a crystal ball when they first used the term back in the early 1920’s, they might have chosen differently. However, no matter what term we choose, it will also come with baggage attached.

I have now changed my mind, what is left of it! I believe that the real problem is society’s current obsession with telling every child that they are special. The term “gifted” is just an added complication. If it was considered normal to be average and ordinary, there would be no problem.

Taking the colloquial use, even here, we see several interpretations. Every child is a gift, has a gift, is gifted. There is absolutely no doubt that every child is a gift to their parents. To each of us, our children are special, unique gifts whom we love dearly and unconditionally. They may have a gift in the sense that each of them has strengths as well as weaknesses, something that they do relatively well. As parents, we must spot these strengths and encourage and nurture them. We must raise our children in an environment where they feel loved, valued and safe. However, to me, even in the loose colloquial sense, being gifted implies that you can do something better than a significant percentage of the rest of the population. Statistically, this is just not possible. For there to be a top, say 25%, there must also be a bottom 75%. So, every child cannot be gifted.

Society seems to have developed an overwhelming need to tell everyone that they are special, maybe not as marked in Ireland as it is in the USA, but we’re getting there. We don’t have Gifted and Talented Programmes in our schools, so there is less perceived benefit to being labelled gifted. We are also a nation of begrudgers so, rather than claim that every child is gifted, we are more likely to scoff at the idea that someone else’s is.

Do we really do our kids any favours by bringing them up to believe they are special? By handing out medals for everyone at the school sports day, do we not devalue the winner’s medal? By devaluing achievement in this way, do we not disempower and set our kids up for failure, disappointment and a lack of fulfillment? This commencement speech by David McCullough Jnr sort of sums it up for me and I love his quote “Climb the mountain so that you can see the world, not so that the world can see you”.

It is important to note that, when referring to our children as gifted, we mean in the educational/psychological sense. We aren’t saying that our children are better than anyone else’s or that they will necessarily achieve great things, not even straight A’s. We simply mean that they are different, in the same sense that children at the other end of the spectrum are different and that, because of this, they may need some special support and understanding as they grow up. The educational system, designed to meet the needs of the majority, is not always a good fit for them and, all we are asking for is that they are recognised and supported as they navigate their way through their early lives. Giving them a label is supposed to make it easy to identify them and understand their needs, in the same way as the label “dyslexic” is used to identify kids with dyslexia. Unfortunately, the term that was chosen for us almost 100 years ago, has come to mean something else that is currently emotionally loaded.

In Being Gifted is a Beautiful Mess, teenager Madison Kimrey describes eloquently her experience of being a gifted child. You should take the time to read it.  Every child is not like this. Every child is not gifted.

Neuroscience and Education: Myth versus Reality

Neuromyths in EducationEver since the time of Plato we have been attempting to discover how humans learn. Our fascination with the brain has endured and evolved as scientific research has delved deeper and deeper. Many of us think we know a fair amount about the human brain and how it works, but we are bombarded with some very prevalent myths that have taken hold in our vernacular and in some cases, our educational environments. Here we examine the three most common ones, find where they come from, how they are used in education and see how we can extricate ourselves from their grasp.

Myth 1: We are either Left-brained or Right-brained

We have all heard the theory that we have a dominant side to our brain which determines our way of thinking, our approach to learning and even our personality. Creative or logical? Rational or emotional? Verbal or visuospatial? Probably to do with which side our brain ‘leads’ with, according to this myth. The idea that people are either left-brain or right-brain dominant has been around for some time and, like most myths, has a grain of truth somewhere in its core. Two early brain researchers working towards the end of the 19th century discovered that damage to specific brain areas resulted in language deficiencies and concluded that some speech and language brain areas were lateralized. Broca’s Area  is found in the left frontal lobe and is named after Paul Broca who discovered that damage there caused difficulty in language and speech production.  Around the same time, Karl Wernicke found that language comprehension is localised in the left superior temporal gyrus and damage to this area results in what is now known as Wernicke’s aphasia. Both found on the left hemisphere of the brain, the conclusion that speech and language dominates the left side is clear to see. (Incidentally, Wernicke’s area is found in the left hemisphere in about 95% of right-handers and 60% of left-handers, so as with everything to do with the brain, it’s not all black and white!)

Adding to the basis of this myth were laterality studies of split-brain patients from the latter half of the 20th century. Split-brain patients in these studies usually suffered from epilepsy so severe as to be life-threatening and treatment involved surgically separating the corpus callosum, the main means of communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. In a series of experiments  by Roger Sperry and colleagues at CalTech on these patients, further empirical evidence was found that language function is largely lateral. This underlined the belief that the left hemisphere is more ‘verbal’ than the right hemisphere and led some researchers to the conclusion that one hemisphere is more dominant than the other. From there, the idea rolled on into different teaching strategies for left-brained and right-brained learners, and the notion that the characteristics can somehow be divided into different brain hemispheres.

Of course this is not at all as it seems because our brains are so interconnected that while some brain functions are lateralized, most are bilateral, particularly in higher order cognition. The over-simplified notion that the ‘left-brain’ is logical or analytical and the ‘right-brain’ is emotional or creative is just plain wrong. We have one brain, not two!

Myth 2: We are Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic learners

This myth is based on the idea that children can be divided into three different ‘dominant’ learning styles; Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic, or VAK. This view seems to have many origins and some amount of research.The assumption is that children learn best when material is presented via their dominant sensory modality. A quick internet search will demonstrate the prevalence of this myth and, although there are many caveats in the information, many people continue to believe that learning outcomes will be improved if a child has material presented through his or her dominant sensory channel. In reality, very little empirical evidence has been produced to back up the theory. However, learning outcomes do appear to be improved when material is presented using all of the different modalities. In other words, although children, and indeed adults may have a preference for a certain way in which they like to learn, they use all their senses to do so and therefore presenting learning material in a variety of ways is more likely to result in improved outcomes. The improvement in performance, if there is any, from being taught exclusively in one’s own learning style has yet to be determined.

So, although preferences in styles of learning do exist, the myth that we can be categorized into one style or another is false. Our brains are so interconnected that information from each modality is shared within and between others, so we learn in many varieties of ways rather than just one. Researchers have attempted to make clear that this is a preference or a strength whereas the education industry has been inundated with ideas for the classroom which do not take into account the evidence that a variety is what is required, rather than a crude classification of children into groups or types. The attraction of this myth is that it confirms what we know, that people learn differently and in their own unique style. It is neat and simple, learn through your dominant style and you will be smarter. Of course, good teachers everywhere already present material to children in a variety of different ways, to keep their attention and their learning styles satisfied, but the notion that by using each modality separately the brain processes the information independently is patently false.

Myth 3: We only use 10% of our brain

Amazingly, this brain myth is one of the most persistent even though there is not a shred of evidence to support it. It has been claimed that this particular idea gained traction when Albert Einstein said the he only used 10% of his brain during a radio interview in 1920, but this hasn’t been confirmed by a transcript and no record of the interview exists. If he did say such a thing it is doubtful he intended a whole industry of brain-boosting and brain-expanding theories and products to come of it! The truth is that we use all of our brain, 100% of it. As John Geake puts it:

“…if you are only using 10% of your brain, then you are in a vegetative state so close to death that you should hope (not that you could) that your relatives will pull out the plug of the life-support machine!”

In more recent times fMRI has revealed more information about what parts of the brain are used during which activity and confirms that even during sleep or restful times we are using all of our brains.

So why do these ideas persist? The answer probably lies in several directions. Technology is letting us know more and more about the human brain. In previous times brain research could only be carried out post mortem which told us the basic structure but left us in the dark about much of the workings of a live brain. With the advent of PET and fMRI we are learning more detail about what the brain does and how it does it but it is important to remember that neuroscience research is carried out in a laboratory. Extrapolating from neuroimaging data to classroom strategies needs to be done very carefully and very cautiously. Not every new piece of information about the brain can be applied in a pedagogical environment.

The media who report on advances in brain research also need to shoulder some of the responsibility for spreading and sustaining neuromyths. Good headlines seem to count for more than accurate reporting these days and research is all too often oversimplified in an effort to pull in as many readers as possible. Somewhere along the way, the caveat about what can be taken from a particular study is left behind in the wake of the interest-grabbing headline.

Add to this the lucrative industry which has grown up around these and other myths (such as the Mozart effect) and we can see that there are interests other than neuroscientific advances at issue. Educators and parents are bombarded with products, games, websites and apps aimed at maximising a child’s potential, and who doesn’t want that? Sorting out the activities based on sound pedagogy and brain research is often too confusing and time-consuming, and so the most attractive idea or product takes hold, and so the myth lives on. The key to debunking the myths is to understand that we use every bit of our brain in all of its interconnected glory, between and within hemispheres and that it is still probably the most complex thing we will ever own.

References:

For a more indepth look at these myths and others check out the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in psychology, 3.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research, 50(2), 123-133.

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(5), 406-413.

Views of Gifted Irish Teenagers Needed

Gifted Teenager SurveyIn a rare opportunity for gifted young people to share their experience of growing up gifted in Ireland, we are looking for gifted second level students to participate in a study of the supports available to them in school, particularly with regard to guidance counselling provision. This involves the completion of an anonymous questionnaire which should take only 15 to 20 minutes. By gifted, we mean either formally or informally identified. This may be, for example, by an educational psychologist, acceptance for the CTYI/CAT programmes or identification by a teacher.

This survey is being carried out by Tracy Gibson, a second level teacher and guidance counsellor, who is currently studying for a Master’s in Guidance Counselling with the Department of Educational and Professional studies at the University of Limerick. As part of her studies, she must complete a research dissertation on a topic of interest to her and related to guidance counselling. We are thrilled that she has chosen to study The Role of the Guidance Counsellor in Supporting Gifted Students in Post-Primary Schools in Ireland.

Tracy has already completed a study of this issue from the point of view of  the guidance counsellor and, having read her thesis and met with her as she prepared for this second piece of research, we are very impressed with the quality of her work and her depth of understanding and interest in this area. It is very exciting and encouraging to see research being done into giftedness in an Irish setting. It will help us, as advocates, to make a stronger case for recognition and support of our gifted students if our argument is backed up by current research done here. So, we are asking for you help to make this study as big and useful as possible.

In order to satisfy the requirements of the UL ethics committee, signed parental and student consent must be given. Therefore, the survey must be completed in hardcopy form. If you would like to participate, or would like further details or clarification, please contact Tracy at survey[at]giftedireland.ie or by using the form below.  Responses needed by Friday 14th March, so please allow time for posting back and forth! Please leave your postal address in your message.

If you are a relative, teacher or friend of a gifted post-primary student, please let them know about this study and encourage them to participate.

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Teachers Needed for Study of Gifted Education in Ireland

Survey

The Irish Centre for Talented Youth (CTYI) at Dublin City University has commissioned the Centre for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary to conduct some research around the area of teaching gifted students in Ireland. This will be the first research of its kind and we hope it will lead to the development of better provision both for gifted students and  for their teachers.

The Irish education system currently makes no specific provision for gifted students. Indeed, the term “gifted” is one often avoided, with “exceptionally able” being preferred by the NCCA when drawing up its draft guidelines in 2008. The fact that gifted education is a distinct area of education and psychology elsewhere in the world is often not appreciated here and, apart from Dr Colm O’Reilly of CTYI, we have no resident experts in the field.

Despite a lack of training, recognition or support, many individual teachers recognise that gifted students often need extra or different support in order to do well in school and are doing their best to provide this within an already hectic system.

We know teachers are busy, but we would really appreciate it if you could help by completing one of the surveys linked to below, one for Principals and one for Teachers. There are no difficult or trick questions, but we believe you’ll find it interesting and thought-provoking. It should take about 20 minutes to complete and the password requested at the start is wm.  It is hoped to have completed surveys back by Friday December 4th.

 
This survey will be distributed to all schools directly from CTYI shortly. They have asked us to raise awareness of it in the meantime.
Please spread the word among your colleagues.
Thank you! 
 

Gifted Students in the Classroom?

chemistry

Teachers occasionally ask us for advice in dealing with gifted or exceptionally able pupils in their classrooms. We are not qualified teachers and we are always conscious that our advice comes with this caveat. However, we have many years of experience as parents of exceptionally able learners and our suggestions come largely from them and what they have experienced, both positive and negative.

Recently we came across a query from a second level teacher about how she could support a student who was clearly ahead of the class by a long way, while still attending to the needs of the other students in her class. Without knowing the details of the situation, our advice would be to start with the student himself. Often, acknowledgement of the child’s ability is a huge step in empowering the student and allowing them to be who they are. Most children can clearly see that in a classroom situation, the teacher has limited time and resources and has to spread his or her attention as evenly as they can. By having an honest discussion with the student in question, the teacher can let them know that (a) they know how able they are (b) that they are pleased to have a pupil with passion and ability in their subject, and (c) that they recognise that they are limited in what they are able to offer within the classroom setting. Never underestimate the powerful message that acknowledgement sends to gifted children. They already know, certainly by second level, that the system is not designed to meet their needs. However, to have a teacher understand their frustration gives that pupil a support that is immeasurable.

Opening up the dialogue with the student means that they have some input into their learning. In many instances, a pupil may have a particular passion for one aspect of the subject. Our own experience would suggest that gifted pupils often feel they have no outlet to express their ability and this can lead to frustration and disillusionment with the education system. By asking the student where their interests lie, both teacher and student may be able to find a way to keep the spark there without deviating too far from what is required in the classroom. In addition, the parents of the pupil may be a valuable resource in supporting enrichment through project work, inter-schools competitions or industry-related initiatives. Parents can be an overlooked asset where gifted students are concerned. They may have resources, ideas or mentors who can further support their child’s ability. Even if they are unaware of their child’s particular proficiency in a subject, they would probably be more than happy to support any initiative the teacher and student might have discussed.

Our experience is in dealing with the student and parent end of the equation, but take it from us, if any teacher contacts us to let us know that they can see a special ability in our sons or daughters and want to support that talent, we’re all ears!