Opinion: Why Gifted Education Remains A Controversial Topic

George J. Ziogas

Being gifted isn’t always a gift

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Every time a school’s gifted program might get cut, Facebook debates get heated. Supporters champion gifted programs as investing in kids who learn differently and need challenges; anyone who disagrees is basically the dictator from “Harrison Bergeron.”

The other side decries gifted programs as classist, racist, expensive, and based on bad science; anyone who disagrees is a bigot.

It can seem like there’s no middle ground.

Gifted educators sometimes miss the underlying reasons that this issue is so emotionally charged, much more-so than other exclusive and expensive programs like athletics.

Imagine a student who, at age seven, is identified as gifted. By the time she’s fourteen, she’s decided that teachers, standardized tests, and labels were part of The System, and she wants nothing more than to Wreck The System and Stick It To The Man. Like many observant, creative students, she tanks in school for a while just to defy people’s expectations.

But, she’s still “gifted.”

Suppose, instead of following the track that was created for her, this student eventually takes a bunch of art classes. She doesn’t end up at an elite college or graduate with honors from a state university.

After all that, she gets a decent job and enjoys her life. Did being identified as gifted help or did it hinder her?

Gifted programs are contentious among parents, teachers, and taxpayers. If you’re a teacher or an administrator in favor of these programs, it’s worthwhile to consider a few points of conflict that consistently accompany these programs.

1. Kids aren’t allowed to try again when it comes to academic placement.

Most students can only qualify for gifted classes once or twice in twelve years of school.

That’s it.

Contrast that to the “Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team his freshman year” stories. Many of these stories are often true and so many greats fail the first time.

In academics, though, people rarely get multiple chances at qualifying for gifted status. Plenty of studies show how intelligence can change right up to the age of age 21 and how dramatically it can be improved if a student makes an effort. Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, is but one of many cognitive scientists who is emphatic that time and again, the evidence points to a very flexible IQ before adulthood.

If a student is permanently rejected in academics from the get-go, no matter how much they enjoy the subjects or want to improve, it makes sense that they begin to devalue academic education altogether.

2. The selection process is prejudiced.

Low income, disabled, and racial minority students are disproportionately less likely to be picked for gifted programs. This reflects a prejudice that’s hard to dismiss.

Beyond that, placement tests emphasize verbal, spatial, mathematical and logical intelligence over social and creative intelligence. And, frankly, no attempt is made for testing those in the majority of schools, even though socially and creatively gifted students are often just as poorly suited to typical classes.

Since high TTCT scores (the only viable objective measure of creativity invented so far) are more correlated to success than WISC-V results (the most popular exam used to track students), shouldn’t those be factored into evaluations as well?

3. Nobody likes jerks.

While it’s certainly true that some gifted students are ostracized or socially rejected simply for being smart, the fact is that for most gifted students who struggle with social rejection, giftedness is not their main problem.

Consider this confrontation between an unpopular, bright student and his friend who is highly socially intelligent. After alienating his peers by monologuing in a one-sided way, his more socially savvy friend realized he needed to have some sense talked into him.

The friend’s advice is wise: “Listen. You have to ask people questions about their interests and listen to their answers. Then ask follow-up questions about whatever interests you about them. Compliment people. Ask if someone wants advice before giving any. When someone is struggling, try to say something encouraging. When *you* are struggling, ask for help; people actually really enjoy helping people, since it makes them feel good.”

By all accounts, this advice could go a long way to solving the socially awkward student’s problems. If a school bothered to measure social intelligence, the friend would be in the 99th percentile.

Unfortunately, students selected for gifted programs who lack social skills are rarely given this kind of advice. Instead, they’re encouraged to ignore the students who rejected them, regardless of the reason, and only seek out friendships with their intellectual peers. In this way, gifted programs unintentionally send the message, “smart is special; kind is optional.”

So. What do we do about it?

Gifted programs are a useful tool to help students with high verbal, spatial, and mathematical intelligence succeed, in school and beyond. It’s beneficial to fund them and to fight for them.

But until we can get rid of the prejudiced process, schools should take a growth-oriented approach to intelligence instead of a fixed one, and circumvent students’ judgment of each other, since these programs aren’t wholly good.

It might not be clear how to change these programs for the better, but until we can, gifted education will remain controversial. Gifted education advocates need to take that controversy seriously.

“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.” — Rene Descartes

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