Bright, gifted or creative…does it matter?

By Karen McCarthy. Originally published on on 29th August 2010

I was thinking recently about how fast the summer holidays have disappeared and half-dreading half-welcoming the back-to-school rush which is upon us already. That got me thinking, as usual, on whether I should ask to meet my children’s teachers right away in September to explain their learning differences. One (more!) challenge for teachers is identifying gifted learners and distinguishing them from bright high achievers. So how can teachers figure out who is bright and motivated, and who is gifted? And more pertinently, why does it matter?

This useful checklist will help determine bright from gifted learners, but doesn’t help tell us why schools should make the distinction. In fact, in our current educational system, where rote-learning is rewarded with high marks in State Exams, there may be no way to distinguish gifted students from bright students. And where there are likely to be a good cohort of bright children in every school, the same cannot be said of gifted learners who form a much smaller number of the population.

So, who are the bright, high achievers? They are the ones whose school reports read: “a pleasure to teach”. They are motivated, conscientious and hard-working. They fit in well in the school system, present good work, are motivated and committed to getting good results. They do well in exams and leave school with awards and prizes under their belts. They may be sports captains, head boys, head girls or prefects and are often among the most popular members of the student body. They are seen as having much to contribute to their communities. These children still need adults, parents and teachers to support them in continuing to add to their achievements, but as they are adept at working within the system they usually have little difficulty maintaining their high standards. In short, these children are the ones teachers and parents don’t really have to worry about.

What of the gifted learners then? The common myth is that these are the children who “have it all”, the easy path to academic success. Surely if the bright, high achievers have little to trouble them, the same would be true of the gifted learners? Not always so, unfortunately. Of course, it must be said that there are many gifted learners who are consistent and high achievers, who fit happily in the system and thrive as much as do bright hard-working students. Others, however, look at learning from a very different perspective, one that can cause huge conflict and difficulty between student, school and parent. They question, notice inconsistencies and injustices, they go off on tangents, they challenge, they often irritate! At primary school, some may correct the teacher…loudly.

By secondary they may have learned not to do that any more, or may have learned to at least keep it quiet! Some may under-perform in State Exams to the frustration of their parents, teachers and even themselves. They may start to question their abilities when they don’t fit into the exam success box. They may follow their passions which may not “count” in the future points race. They might even question the “point” of the points race before they get to the Leaving Cert! Along the way they may show flashes of brilliance and excellence in certain subjects or areas. They can demonstrate erratic performance in school, from complete mastery to average or mediocre levels, depending on their interest, their teacher or their passions. The creative among them often sing from a completely different hymn-sheet, some may not even see the point of school at all in the pursuit of their dreams. They may have a different vision of their future than the one mapped out by their parents or teachers. They may be right, but the adults in their lives may think they should have a Plan B in the form of formal educational qualifications!

So, why does it matter? Two groups of learners, one for whom the system is a good fit, the other, well, they’ll come into their own at third level. Or will they? Without going down the road of heralding the potential of gifted learners as if they are mere fodder in the pursuit of economic growth and a return to the Celtic Tiger (God forbid!) these young people, as much as any other, do have the potential to make real and significant contributions to our future society. I’m not one who likes to describe gifted children as the future cancer-cure scientists or business and political leaders because I’m uncomfortable with the implication that only gifted children hold this potential. We all know the reality is that children across the intellectual bell-curve can grow into adults just as accomplished as those with the highest IQs.

However, these exceptionally able children, for whom the educational system is an uncomfortable fit, are at risk of having their potential snuffed out by it. Whether their chosen path is at the top of academia, as a carer, a teacher or an accountant, they have a right to fulfill their personal potential. In this, gifted learners are poorly served by the Irish educational system in its current form. The inflexibility of rote-learning, the volume of prescribed material to be covered and the lack of opportunity for creativity, problem-solving or innovation in our exam system greatly reduces the chances that these young people will reach that potential. The risk is that they will be switched off learning by the time they have spent 13 or 14 years within a system that does not accommodate their needs.  The result will be that their career and life-choices may be reduced. And that is why it is important that teachers are able to accurately assess who among their pupils may be gifted as opposed to bright. From there, educators may be able to support the differences in their learning needs.

So, back to whether I should have that chat with my children’s teachers? Truth is, we’re into the first week of school now and I still haven’t decided. I don’t want to be labeled as a pushy parent in the first week of term and I don’t want unreasonable expectations placed on my kids either. On the other hand, nor do I want to short-change them by ignoring the fact that they are seldom challenged by classroom work. Maybe by the time they are heading to college I’ll have an answer to my dilemma. I’ll let you know!

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