Ours is a society that takes it as a given that every child should be educated to the limits of her or his abilities. There are special programs in place for the learning disabled, for the mentally retarded, for the physically handicapped, for the emotionally disturbed. An earlier age might have segregated or even institutionalized most of these groups; today they’re more likely to be “mainstreamed” in a conventional classroom.
None of this is controversial, which may be a sort of measure of our culture. What does get sparks flying is any discussion of extra education for children capable of achieving more than the norm–the gifted. “Elitism!” is the battle cry of opponents of special programs for the gifted. The principal of one fairly affluent school district told me, “We have a lot of very educated, very successful parents here. If we offer something for a few children, they will demand that we offer it to all children. And we obviously can’t do that.” At another district’s public meeting to discuss possible spending cuts, the mother of a retarded child–“mainstreamed” with the help of a full-time, tax-paid aide–stood up in protest when other parents pleaded for the retention of a few enrichment programs for “our special children.” She shrieked, “All of our children are special! The smart kids will do fine on their own!”
Already overburdened teachers don’t want anything more to worry about. And officials who are scrambling for the dollars to put state-mandated programs in place aren’t looking for excuses to do work that’s not required.
To get a measure of what giftedness is and isn’t, and its place in today’s educational arena, I talked with three authorities on giftedness and its implications. Elizabeth A. (Betty) Meckstroth is coauthor of Guiding the Gifted Child, a guide to discovering and nurturing giftedness; she counsels gifted children, their parents, and school personnel, and is a former president of the Atlantic Association for Gifted Children and Adults. Ellen D. Fiedler is an associate professor in the gifted/talented master’s degree program at Northeastern Illinois University; her interest in gifted education began with her involvement with her own two children. She is at work on a book dealing with curricula for the gifted. Adriana Mandel Greisman, a flautist and music teacher in Lincolnshire, is the mother of a gifted child; she spearheaded a group called Parents for Challenge when the local school district proved oblivious to the needs of gifted children.
Where do we start in discussing gifted education? Perhaps we should begin with what giftedness is–and what it isn’t.
Elizabeth Meckstroth: I appreciate what you’re saying about “what giftedness isn’t,” because there are all these prevalent myths about what a gifted child is. Often we think of the whiz kid, the little man Tate, the walking encyclopedia. We equate giftedness to academic achievement. We believe that if the child is gifted he is well behaved, bright, often a boy. I didn’t slip up when I said he; we get many more referrals for boys for testing than for girls.
Another obstacle to identifying giftedness is laughable–it’s handwriting. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard teachers say, “This child can’t be gifted, you can’t even read his handwriting!” We have a lot of equations that the gifted child is the perfect child; the gifted child doesn’t make mistakes. I’ve seen so many articles that say that a gifted child can succeed without any help, that they will always show their giftedness, that they will always rise to the height of any situation they’re in.
Ellen Fiedler: Part of the problem is that people equate giftedness with genius and they can easily understand that someone of Einstein’s level is gifted. They even get it that someone can be gifted musically–a Mozart–or that you can be an artistic genius. And I think they even get it that you can be athletically gifted, a Michael Jordan, for instance.
What they don’t understand is that there is a range of giftedness, in which you can be mildly gifted or moderately gifted or highly gifted, like the genius. You can even be highly gifted and not look gifted at all if you’re in a setting that doesn’t allow the giftedness to emerge. Gifted kids go underground and hide their giftedness, or they go underground and act out and cause all kinds of havoc. And nobody could possibly believe that you could be gifted and be a troublemaker and obnoxious. Except when you’re arrogant. Then you’re a smart aleck and you think you know more than other people–and then you’re in trouble even if you do know more than other people.
So those are some of the misperceptions about giftedness. I think probably all of us grapple with the ideal definition. My favorite definition of all is one that a gal whose background wasn’t in education came up with–and sometimes not having that background helps, because it gives you a perspective that allows you to see the forest for the trees. She says, “Gifted children are those who do things a little bit earlier, a little bit faster, a little bit better, and perhaps a little bit differently from most others.” The only trouble with that definition is that some gifted kids are those who do things a lot earlier, a lot better, a lot faster, and a lot differently.
Didn’t Albert Einstein not learn to read until he was nine or so?
Fiedler: Right, and that’s another misconception, that you can’t be gifted and have any other kind of learning difficulties. There are a lot of people even in the field of learning disabilities who don’t understand that you can be gifted and learning disabled, let alone gifted and behaviorally disordered or gifted and physically handicapped. I guess that Betty and I are both trying to say that giftedness is a very multidimensional phenomenon that isn’t easily definable or easily quantifiable, and that because of that there are a lot of misconceptions. Schools can easily recognize kids who are performing at very high levels based on what their traditional teaching is and what their traditional priorities are. Some of those children may be gifted–and some of those children may be good academic performers without having the depth of understanding and the ability to make connections and see things in multifaceted ways, or be able to really grapple with some of the issues at an early age that a gifted individual is capable of.
Meckstroth: Adriana, I wanted to discuss with you how parents recognize giftedness, and the problems they sometimes have convincing school personnel.
Adriana Greisman: If you have an Einstein type of a child, there’s no arguing that that child is exceptionally bright, and there’s not much questioning from the school district. But in our small school district they claim they’ve had maybe two who have been gifted. Well, you may have had only two children that were the Einstein kind of genius, but I’m sure they’ve had more than two children that were gifted. And it’s very difficult to discuss with them because they’re looking for the kind of child who can do square roots in kindergarten.
Meckstroth: The quality of abstract thinking is extremely characteristic of gifted [individuals], and this is an ability that is not often sought after in school. They’re looking for more concrete, rote-memory responses, and I think that children think in very complex layers. True-false questions are very difficult [for gifted children], because they can think of 19 ways that they can be true or false. So often it is not unusual that they don’t test well.
Another characteristic that we often find about gifted–and I need to qualify that, we can’t generalize about gifted children! They differ from each other more ways than they resemble each other. But we find that they are very intense. Other people would say they overreact. If I hear somebody say, “Well, he’s the sort of person who just makes too much out of everything,” or, “He overreacts,” I have a sense that we’re dealing with a gifted child.
Another measurable characteristic we’re finding is that most gifted people are introverted. Which means that they live in the world in their head. They don’t reveal, often, what they’re feeling and what they know. They’re the ones that seem kind of the daydreamers, they’re wandering, they’re not with it. But they’re processing huge amounts of information in scenarios internally.
Fiedler: And a result is that when schools are placing a very large emphasis–as they are now–on “time on task,” then the introverted gifted child, who is doing a great deal of internal processing, is perceived by the teacher and the principal as being off task. They’re frequently jerked back to low-level mundane tasks that they may be performing very badly if at all because they have no interest in them and their minds are elsewhere. They say things like “I’m bored,” but what they’re really trying to communicate is that “I’m hungry for learning, I’m hungry for challenge, and I’m not being fed, I’m starving here.” And, at the very least, “I’m hungry for time to spend at thinking and processing.” And that looks like daydreaming to teachers and principals; it doesn’t look like time on task.
Is there a problem with school districts when you point out that your kid is bored?
Greisman: Absolutely. They act as though it’s our fault that our children are bored when they have to repeat things they already know.
Fiedler: When gifted kids aren’t in school do you ever hear a gifted kid saying they’re bored? I don’t!
Meckstroth: Boredom for gifted kids is acute pain. It’s not just mild discomfort. It’s waiting for other children to catch up, and it depends on how bright the child is and in what area. But they can have half to three-quarters of their classroom time left over where they’re just waiting for the other children to catch up with where they are. Repetition is anathema to gifted children. They hate redundancy. And parents’ experience is that the child comes in and they say, “Well, how was your day?” wanting a recap of everything that went on. And the kid will say Fine and go to his room and to his books, and on to the next thing. It’s painful for them to have to recap with us what they’ve already done. It’s repetition.
Fiedler: But when they go to their rooms they’re not bored. They have a bunch of stuff to put together. They’re out looking at the ants making an anthill in the backyard or they’re making imaginary things. They’ve got all their toys out, piled all over the place, because they’re using them together. They put incredible combinations together. Bored? I don’t see gifted kids, by nature, ever being bored!
Meckstroth: To the contrary, they’re fascinated by so many things.
Fiedler: So when they come home and say they’re bored, the parent knows something’s wrong.
Many gifted kids are labeled emotionally disturbed when the reality is that they are emotionally disturbing. It’s very disturbing to a teacher or a principal to hear that what’s going on in the school is boring. That’s a direct attack on that teacher and his or her ability to provide a stimulating educational program. And so of course they get defensive. Their very core level of feelings of competency is being undermined and they don’t necessarily know how to change things.
Getting back to definitions–another is that gifted students are those who differ significantly from the average enough that they require services or programs that go beyond what the schools normally provide. And that’s an important point, because what we’re saying is that these kids are exceptions to the rule and therefore they require exceptional education, just as students who differ from the norm in other ways require services that are different.
Meckstroth: Ellen, you reminded me, when we were talking about intensity and living in the world in their head, how often these gifted children are misdiagnosed as [suffering from] attention deficit disorder, or as hyperactive, because they tend to require less sleep, to have high energy, to need to move around. And when they’re not on task, people also sometimes think of them as highly distractible. But my experience is that is merely the response of their internal processing.
Fiedler: And because of this hunger for knowledge they want it all. They can’t choose between all of these wonderfully appealing opportunities. They want it all, and they will not give anything up. The result is that parents often get accused of pushing their children because they’re driving them all over the place and doing all these things with them. But what people don’t know is that most parents are barely able to keep up with the kids and the kids are badgering them to allow them to be involved in all these opportunities–and along with the intellectually stimulating they include ordinary kid kinds of things like scouts and park district stuff. It’s everything all at once.
Greisman: That’s something that’s difficult to explain to the teachers and administration. They feel that we’re pushing our children. So when the children are doing multiplication and whatnot in kindergarten, they say, “Well, just don’t do that stuff with them at home. You’re pushing them even further away from their peers.” We’re not pushing them, we don’t do flash cards. She asks those questions in normal conversation, and I can’t stifle a child’s curiosity and say, “Well, I’m sorry, you’re too young to ask this question.” I can’t see the point in doing that–and yet that is what the schools do. She’s come home, her friends have come home, with examples of the teacher saying, “Well, don’t worry about that, you’ll learn that in third grade.”
But isn’t it true–and it’s not to put down the schools–but aren’t the schools there basically to serve the great mass in the middle? They can’t really deal with the needs of the really slow student or with the really fast student in the normal classroom situation.
Fiedler: In this country the history of education is that we have made a commitment–good, bad, or indifferent–to educate all the people, and that includes the slow learner and the gifted as well as the masses. Therefore, gifted students have a right to a free and appropriate education just as the typical student does and just as those with any kind of learning difficulties do.
I don’t believe at all that the teachers that are in the schools are incapable. I believe that in some cases they lack skills. But some of that is a result of limited funding and continually reduced funding that results in their being expected to provide for an increasingly diverse student body. There are some very good things about the idea of inclusion of special ed kids in regular classrooms–and I’m not against that–but I’m against this continually expecting classroom teachers to be more and more able to provide for individual differences within the current trends toward heterogeneous grouping, and without either adequate staff development, adequate materials, or adequate consultation, help and support services, and funding support. I think it’s high time that we made a commitment to putting our money where our mouth is in terms of an investment in the future, because our children are the future and–whether we like it or not–our gifted children have the potential for solving some of the problems that we see all around us.
I can remember a rather unpleasant discussion in the northwest suburbs a while ago. The parents of the slower children were very resentful that money was being taken for gifted education, and while granting that all children must be brought up to their potential the parents on the gifted side were saying, “These kids are the leaders, these are the kids who will be the scientists,” and so forth. And there were all kinds of screams of “elitism,” and that the gifted children were smart enough to take care of themselves.
I have also noticed, in the last couple of years, a movement wherein very intelligent children instead of being given extra assignments are supposed to go back and help the slower kids. Which seems to be counterproductive. What do you think of this?
Fiedler: Well, that’s a serious exploitation of a gifted child’s capacity. That’s not to say that a gifted child might not at times be involved with the slower students. But the truth is that every child has the right to learn something new in school. And if a gifted student’s time is being continually diverted to help slower students, they’re being deprived of their right to learn something new.
They’re also being deprived of the right to learn from real struggle, to grapple with things that are difficult for them. It tends to promote elitism and arrogance. The student who is continually working with others who don’t learn things as quickly gets the feeling that everybody’s dumber than they are–“I am this great font of knowledge and wisdom and I’m going to help these less fortunate souls.” And that’s worse than if you provide adequate time for gifted kids to be working with challenging material and working with other people who are challenging to them, who say to them when they come up with something that’s kind of off the wall, “What evidence can you give me for that? I was reading this thing the other day that totally contradicts what you’re saying, so I really think you’re wrong. Prove it.”
The other thing about this business of using gifted kids as surrogate teachers, which is really what this is, is that the teachers say in justification, “We all learn things better when we teach them to somebody else.” The teachers are in teaching because they themselves learn that way. But that is only one kind of learning style. Some people learn better by active, hands-on involvement-experimentation, trying things out, participating in role playing, simulation, doing. Other people learn things by sitting up in a corner reading and thinking about things. Other people learn things by arguing with somebody who knows more than they do. I think teachers sometimes slip into the trap of measuring others by using themselves as a yardstick.
Also–let’s face it–they’re desperate for help with the slower student. So justification of using the gifted children in this way becomes a way to relieve what is a serious problem for them. Very few teachers have been trained in any kind of classroom management strategies that allow them to group and regroup kids within their classrooms.
I’d like to go back to that “the cream will rise to the top anyway” issue, because that’s something we hear a lot of. One of the delightful people in gifted education years ago was from a farm area, and she used to say, “Yeah, but the good farmer doesn’t throw out the cream anyway.” And the cream doesn’t rise to the top any longer when you homogenize the milk and that’s a lot of what we’re doing with education today–we’re homogenizing the milk; we’re taking the cream and beating it up with everybody else into this new homogeneous mixture.
Greisman: What we find is that they are doing this heterogeneous activity and everyone does the same activity. There’s no guidance provided by the teacher with specific instructional goals for the various levels of the children. The children are just allowed to go with it. This is assuming that the gifted child is going to be highly motivated and know what’s the next thing for them to learn–which is quite a major expectation for a five- or six-year-old. Perhaps when you’re in high school this would work–but for a five- or six-year-old, I can’t imagine it. Everybody has to learn to set their own goals, but when that is the standard for the classroom there are no instructional goals.
Do teachers get adequate training for dealing with the gifted?
Fiedler: Nothing in normal teacher training programs adequately prepares the teacher to provide appropriately for gifted students. Teachers in Illinois now are required to take one course on the exceptional child. If they’re lucky, within that one course there is one class session devoted to giftedness–but some of the people who teach that course in this state leave out gifted because it’s not part of special ed in Illinois. So when they teach the course on the exceptional child they do one week on physical handicaps, one week on vision-impaired, one week on hearing-impaired, one week on learning disabilities, one week on behavior disorders, and all this other stuff–and they run out of weeks so they leave out gifted.
And in your standard methods of teaching reading in the elementary school nobody is telling them how to deal with gifted readers. Nobody tells them the methods of teaching mathematics to all students, how to deal with a student who is gifted in mathematics who is capable of doing algebra in fourth or fifth grade–not at all unusual for a gifted child. This is not a genius kid. This is a mathematically gifted kid.
Can you say that there is a percentage of the population that can be considered “gifted”?
Fiedler: The standard answer to that is 3 to 5 percent, but you’ll get all kinds of different answers. It depends a lot on how giftedness is defined. It depends a lot on the kinds of identification procedures that are used. And it depends a lot on the kind of program that a school system is prepared to provide. Some of the programs in gifted education are very inclusive and very open to kids kind of cycling in and out, and in a school system like that they might identify up to 20 percent of their population.
Greisman: Our school supposedly does that, but they include l00 percent. “We’re all gifted.”
Fiedler: If everyone is gifted no one is gifted, because it destroys any meaning to the term. And everyone has value and everyone has gifts and talents to varying degrees, some of which are appropriate for the schools to respond to and others which are not necessarily appropriate for the schools to respond to. They are not the business of the schools, regardless of whether they’re socially valued talents or not. But the truth is that giftedness does represent the upper end of a very large and multifaceted continuum. So it isn’t like it’s a thin line. It’s more like a broad network of highways moving in a particular direction.
But we’re still talking about the top end of that, and whether you look at that as 3 to 5 percent or broaden that a little bit, the thing that’s most important is that giftedness cuts across all racial and socioeconomic barriers. The problem is–and that’s where we get back to the comment that you made earlier about elitism and some people’s concerns about elitism–is that in the past in gifted education we didn’t do a very good job of identifying giftedness across the board and across those racial and socioeconomic boundaries. So we had underrepresentation of lower socioeconomic groups and of racial and ethnic minorities in gifted programs, and we had overrepresentation of children from those groups in remedial programs and special ed programs. As a result of that we began to see people as seeing gifted education as being elitist, not only in the sense of special privileges for special kids but it was privileged kids who were getting those kinds of privileges.
The good news is that we’ve gotten better in our identification procedures and can look at giftedness not only more multidimensionally in terms of various talents but also more multidimensionally in terms of finding giftedness within different populations. But the trouble goes back to what schools value. Schools are looking for academic achievement and they’re looking for kids who perform well on tests. And who are the high academic achievers and who perform well on tests? Kids from the cultural majority, kids from the dominant culture. And if that’s what we rely on to identify kids and that’s the picture in our head of what a gifted kid looks like, then no wonder we get white, middle- and upper-class kids in gifted programs. Because they’re the ones who do well on tests.
How much of intelligence and giftedness are a part of environment? I know all of these people who put flash cards in front of teeny, tiny infants in the crib, force-feeding them the multiplication tables; the comic strip Cathy has the character who tries to turn her daughter into a genius so the child can be snotty in three languages, and so forth. How much of this is the environment the child is in and how much of this is inherent? And to what extent do we “invent” a gifted child?
Meckstroth: We think that intelligence is about 80 percent hereditary. How you really quantify it is very difficult, but there’s a lot to support [the idea] that the material we have to work with is to a large extent hereditary. There’s a ceiling at which certain people cannot have the complexity or the abstract thinking abilities to comprehend certain concepts. And there’s also a floor. And when I first heard this idea it just shocked me. How can there be a level which you cannot go under? But when you start thinking of some of these highly, highly intelligent people, you realize it’s impossible for them to simplify to a very basic concept.
Greisman: I have an example of that with my daughter recently. She’s six. They were given a math problem and they’re supposed to complete the pattern. And she’s very big into patterns, she just loves that. She gets this thing and it’s a number line, 2-blank-4. And she’s supposed to complete it. So she puts 8 in the middle! Fortunately, her teacher didn’t mark it wrong. She questioned her about it–and she was looking at it as multiplication. Then she did some others. She tried to do these really complicated mathematical computations with the numbers and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do. She was looking for a very complicated pattern, and the pattern was rote counting–1-2-3-4-5! I said to her, “Well, did you see that it’s just the number line?” And she said, “Yeah, but what kind of a pattern is that? That’s not a pattern, that’s just numbers all lined up in a row!” So it’s that inability for her to see the very, very simple pattern that was there and she’s looking for this highly complex one. Her view of this world is on a much different level than looking at sequential numbers. She just totally missed it.
Fiedler: I’ve had very bright graduate students who do the same thing.
So you believe that 80 percent is hereditary intelligence and the other 20 percent is environment?
Meckstroth: Yes. And there are a lot of ways that the environment can kind of punish out a good part of inherited intelligence if a child gets messages continually. “What you are is not what’s wanted.” “You’re just getting too big for your britches.”
Fiedler: “Don’t ask questions. As long as you put your feet under my table and eat the food that I provide, then you’ll do what I say and stop thinking.”
Greisman: Or, “Don’t worry about that now, we’ll get to that in third grade.”
Fiedler: There are other ways that the environment impacts on whatever the hereditary potential is. Some of that has to do with nutrition; some of it has to do with basic needs like safety–I’m thinking about the kids who grow up in Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes whose safety needs are not even being met. To ask them to function at a level that is truly reflective of their hereditary potential is asking an awful lot.
To get back to your Cathy cartoon image–I’ve seen some parents try, to use the old saying, to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but they will be able to succeed in helping their children develop whatever potential they have. What we’re trying to do is to take the ceilings off so these young eagles can fly as high as they’re capable of. But if a child is a prairie chicken that’s fine, too. Prairie chickens enrich our lives. So do bluebirds, crows, and even vultures!
I guess one of the things we need to get over the hump on is acting as if a gifted child is better than anyone else. A gifted child is different from others and that’s why we have to be a little careful about saying that these are the kids who can solve the problems of the world. First of all, it’s too heavy a burden to place on the shoulders of anyone. We’re back to the Peanuts cartoon where Linus is saying, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” And I really don’t want to do that to gifted kids because gifted kids need a chance to be themselves. Ironically, that gives them the best chance of being able to use that potential in order to help others.
Don’t all kids need this? Of course. But gifted kids are frequently denied the opportunity to find out how much they can do. Or they’re expected to perform on command, and therefore are given the message that they are their achievements and unless they achieve they have no value. “Johnny can count to a hundred. Johnny, count to a hundred for Grandma.” “Susie can recite all the letters of the alphabet and she’s only a year and a half old. Susie, recite all the letters of the alphabet.” And Susie feels good because she’s got all the attention on her, but pretty soon she thinks that if she doesn’t do everything perfectly she doesn’t have any value at all. And she becomes a human doing and not a human being, or she shuts down altogether and doesn’t do anything because she’s totally immobilized by perfectionists. And those are some of the serious dangers and risks and pitfalls of giftedness.
Greisman: If you have a child that is gifted athletically, everybody is out there saying, “Go for it!” Even from the youngest age, when there is a child with unusual athletic ability everybody is there cheering him on. When a child has that same unusual ability intellectually the message is a little bit different. Usually they’re not there cheering. The parents might be, but everyone else is, like, why don’t you be quiet a little bit and let so-and-so do that. When we have an athletic team, we don’t tell Johnny, “Why don’t you sit on the sidelines? We need to let these other kids play awhile. They don’t play as well as you do.” No–we’re trying to win the game here! We let Johnny play as much as he can because he’s going to be able to score for us. We don’t do that with academically or intellectually advanced children.
Fiedler: In the jazz band, who gets first chair? Not the one who is at the remedial level in trumpet.
Greisman: You’re told to go sit in the back of the section. Whereas with the top player they’re like, “Hey, let’s give her a solo, and show her off a little bit!” You’re right. We don’t do that in other areas. In some ways I see kind of a negative association with these gifted.
Fiedler: There is. And if you look at some of the colloquialisms in our language you begin to see how we have an antiintellectualism that’s rampant. We don’t want people to be smart.
Meckstroth: “Don’t you get smart with me!”
Fiedler: “I don’t want any kind of smart-mouth kid in my class coming up with answers that threaten my knowledge level.” “I don’t want to be exploited by smart money.” “I don’t want to be upstaged by smart dressers.” “I don’t want to be endangered by smart missiles.” You start thinking about some of the ways we use the word smart and then you start looking at what’s out there in the popular culture, including in cartoons, where gifted kids are put down, where gifted programs are put down, and where anybody who comes up with anything that’s intellectual is called a nerd or a geek or a weirdo or an oddball. I’m concerned that we haven’t reached a point where we’re celebrating individual contributions, or celebrating intelligence and ideas.
I think there is a definite antiintellectualism and you don’t have to go very far at all to find it. Anybody who steps out of the groupthink feels this very quickly.
Meckstroth: I was thinking when Adriana was speaking about the prejudice against children who know so much. I wonder, do we have the moral right to hold one child back to make other children feel better?
That happens a lot.
Fiedler: But there are a couple of other sneaky things going on here. Some of the sneaky stuff has to do with seeing gifted kids as role models for others. As if someone who is functioning way up here can be a role model for somebody who is functioning at a normal, average, solid level. It’s like saying, I can use Michael Jordan as a role model for learning to play basketball. Or I could use Beverly Sills as a role model for singing.
Greisman: “If you worked harder or practiced harder you could be as good as Michael Jordan.” There is no way. There is a limit within which you can function. You either are Michael Jordan or you’re not.
You either have high notes or you don’t. You can’t will yourself to be a coloratura soprano.
Fiedler: You know, I really don’t think, no matter what I do in this lifetime, I’m ever going to be tall enough to be Michael Jordan. [Laughter.]
The problem with that is that it can discourage you from trying at all.
Fiedler: There was a father at a meeting that I was conducting several years ago who hit the nail on the head with all of this “We need these bright lights in our class to liven up our discussions and be role models” stuff. He told a wonderful story about being in school with a fellow who at that time was our state senator. He said, “I went to school with this young man,” and he said that when he was in the class it was “like the sun was shining on a bright, clear day.” But every once in a while they told him to go down to the library and do some independent study and work with a mentor. “And when the sun went over the horizon, the rest of us were like the moon and the stars. That’s when we got a chance to shine.” And that just gives me goosebumps because I think it’s something that we forget. Gifted kids, because they are so bright, are outshining everybody else, and if we let them have a chance to work somewhere else with others like them who are giving them some competition, and with others who can stimulate their thinking, including other gifted kids, and including mentors, and including teachers who will challenge them intellectually, then we’re giving others a chance to shine. And that’s important, too.
We’re also giving that teacher a fighting chance to provide a program that’s geared to a more coherent group; not one that’s got this kid that’s sticking way off the edge, that is usually getting ignored.
My husband tells me about one of his high school classes where the teacher, when asking a question, would beg, “Would somebody besides Chris please answer?”
Fiedler: And that happens to gifted kids all the time. It’s boys who tend to get into trouble more often. Because girls in our culture are taught to play the game–are taught not to call attention to themselves–they shut down their giftedness and go underground. If they stay underground too long their giftedness is no longer apparent to anyone, including to themselves. So we have a whole separate problem around gifted girls. Interestingly enough, it’s a fairly similar problem with African American gifted males. They have also been taught by the culture not to reveal and display their giftedness unless it’s in athletics.
I was going to ask you more about what you said earlier about how most of the kids who come to you or are brought to you by their parents are boys. There is a definite nonencouragement of intellectuality in girls in our culture. At least, that has been my impression.
Meckstroth: I’ve talked with other people in the field and confirmed that. I was testing a little girl this weekend and she had a 201 IQ. I went back to my files to look at the pattern of test scores for children who were young–six, seven, eight years old, who had, say, 170-200 IQ range. I had one boy and about seven girls in the highest ranges. But rarely are the girls referred because they tend to be so well adjusted, and they fit in.
Fiedler: And maybe only the highly gifted girls get referred to you, because they’re so different that they still can’t blend in.
I know in my grade school class there was one very bright boy who was intensely loud and a troublemaker. My reaction to boredom was to whip out a library book. I would get in trouble because I wasn’t paying attention, but it was not nearly the same trouble he got into for being grotesquely and deliberately disruptive.
Fiedler: And the class clown. It was his way of dealing with boredom. Your way was safer.
Is there a tendency for children who show early signs of being gifted to deny it later on?
Fiedler: Absolutely. By the time they’re adolescents they frequently shut down because they don’t want to be called attention to. This happens more and more the closer they approach adolescence, because of their concern with the peer group. It’s especially true for girls, who tend to fade into the wallpaper.
Meckstroth: And girls tend to be too well adjusted for their own good. The parent or the teachers are saying, “There’s no problem here. She’s doing very well.”
What kind of results do you get when you take recommendations on a student to a school district, Betty?
Meckstroth: I’m finding a much more positive response from school systems than I ever have. I really truly see a trend of teachers and school personnel being more receptive to making adjustments–pretesting, allowing the child to move ahead to another class for one segment–even in schools who have said “We never skip children, it’s against our policy, don’t even think about it!” We work with them, giving them information about the advantages of acceleration, what the facts are, that almost invariably it’s a positive experience for the child. Those who tend to be against acceleration are those who didn’t get accelerated. It’s a very delicate thing and it needs to be done very, very carefully.
Greisman: When you say acceleration you’re talking about grade skipping?
Meckstroth: Skipping a grade, yes.
Greisman: Not accelerating the curriculum within the classroom.
Meckstroth: Yes, and sometimes the acceleration can be one or two grades just for one subject. It doesn’t have to be the entire thing.
Fiedler: It can be partial acceleration of subject matter, rather than grade skipping. There is a lot of negative feeling towards acceleration.
My mother skipped two and one-half years and felt the effects of always being the youngest. She never wanted me to skip.
Fiedler: Everyone has a story about a person who was accelerated who had terrible harm done to them, and yet research evidence clearly shows no negative effects to accelerating eager learners who are really ready to move on and gobble up all they can. The only disadvantage of acceleration is they are never able to put a child at the level that they are functioning at–because usually the candidates for acceleration are functioning many grade levels above where they are and just moving them up one grade doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. First of all, they’re still learning things faster, so if they’re given an appropriate education they get more different rather than continuing to progress at an even rate. Another thing, they make more than one year’s growth every year and so accelerating them one year doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes, they’ll think, “Oh well, we’ve taken care of that, now we don’t have to do anything different.” So that’s all they’ve done and that’s all they’re prepared to do.
But I’d like to go back to what Betty said about how the schools are getting better in responding to the needs of gifted. That is good news and it is really true, but it’s part of a larger trend in education. This is an unbelievable time in education. Absolutely incredible. I think in gifted education we have had a dream for a long time and now it’s happened. A friend of mine who’s not in gifted education but is an educator cornered me the other day and had me write down the names and the addresses of all the journals of gifted education, because she’s figured out that we’ve been doing for the last five years what everybody in education is doing now.
Thinking skills development is an example. People in gifted education have been talking about higher-level thinking for as long as I’ve been in gifted education and that’s a long time–20 years or more. Now everybody is doing thinking skills development because, guess what, they figured out that everybody can think at higher levels. It’s just that gifted kids come by it naturally and need many more opportunities to do it and less time spent on doing lower-level thinking, which is basically learning how to memorize and remember information. Cooperative learning, in the best sense of the word, is stuff we’ve been doing with gifted kids for years. Even the way we respond to teachers! The idea of teachers as collaborative managers is something that’s been a part of gifted programs for a long time.
And now the rest of education is waking up to the fact that this works for everybody.
Fiedler: But that’s been part of our role in gifted education. We’ve been the pioneers. We’ve been desperate. Instead of saying, “We ought to get rid of gifted programs,” maybe they need to keep gifted programs to allow gifted programs to be the “pilot.” If it flies in a gifted program, then maybe that can be tried in general education. Take interdisciplinary thematic curriculums. That started 20 or 25 years ago in gifted education. Now that’s an integral part of what’s happening in educational reform. We don’t get the credit for it.
Greisman: That’s right. You just smile.
What is your advice for parents who think that they might have a gifted child?
Greisman: Well, that’s a difficult question because initially my response was to go ahead and get her tested and present that information to the school district. But the trend now is away from pullout kinds of programs or tracking kinds of programs for the students and so that doesn’t seem to be effective in our school district. It doesn’t get her anything different. It might be to her detriment, actually.
But building the support network of other parents in the same situation has helped tremendously. We don’t require IQ testing of children to join our group; it’s for people who are interested in providing an appropriately challenging environment for their children. It’s important regardless of what level their child happens to be at. So we’ve formed a support system for ourselves. We sat down and talked about what we would like the school to change and then approached the school to work with them.
How valuable is IQ testing, really?
Meckstroth: I think it’s very valuable when we are working with the schools and for your own expectations. Again, there’s testing and there’s testing. We measure what a child can do with a pencil in his or her hand. I’ve tested a child who on a group IQ test will get 120 or 130, something like that. Then we’ll use another test, and the child might test in the 130s. If we use a test that measures abstract thinking and has a lot of space to measure giftedness, that is when we can find the children who have the 170 or 180 IQs.
There are great hazards about using tests to define a child by their testing ability. It measures a very limited part of the child. One thing that’s essential to know is that a child cannot fake a high score on an IQ test. There are a zillion reasons why a child may not show what he or she knows on a test. He might be afraid that if I score well on this my parents are going to expect more from me, then I’ll have to get A’s. They might be missing their favorite TV show at that time and want to punish the people who are taking away their TV. They might want to punish their parents at that moment and prove to them that they’re not as bright as they think they are. So almost any score needs to be considered as a minimal measure of what that child’s abilities are. We can’t begin to tap into and measure the full extent of a child’s ability.
Fiedler: Most tests just measure a child’s prior knowledge, and don’t really indicate what the child is capable of. I use the image of taking a test tube and dipping it into a raging river–and then analyzing the contents of that test tube and assuming that tells you everything about that river at any point in time. The contents of that test tube will tell you something about that river at the moment in which you dipped it into the river. You can learn the pH of the river, you can learn the amount of sediment in the river and what that sediment consists of, you can learn what kind of life is present in that particular sample at that moment in the river. But it can’t tell you anything about the depth of the river, the breadth of the river, how fast that river is moving, where it’s coming from or where it’s going–even at the moment that you dipped into the river–let alone where it will be and what it will be like five minutes from now, five hours from now, five days from now, five years from now, or five hundred years from now.
In Illinois we have a long history of relying on standardized testing and using test scores as the bottom line in deciding whether someone is or isn’t gifted. It’s something that educators in particular but the general public also likes to believe in because they think it’s objective. There were certainly abuses back in the bad old days when we just ran into classrooms and asked all teachers who their gifted children were. They only had about a 50 percent hit rate. But that’s because they didn’t know what we were asking and what they were looking for. So they played it safe and they told you the names of their “teacher pleasers” and their conforming, performing academic achievers. They didn’t tell you anything about the one who was acting out or the one who was fading into the wallpaper, let alone anyone who was creatively gifted but didn’t necessarily perform well on tests.
Now, that leads to another question. You specifically said that it’s not just the whiz kid and so forth, and that there are other kinds of giftedness. How do you find them if you can’t find them with the standardized testing?
Meckstroth: There’s musical giftedness. There’s creativity–and the child who is creative is going against the grain, finding alternative ways to do things. They are not the teacher pleasers. They are often the ones who drive the teachers crazy–parents, too, sometimes. There are those gifted who are interpersonally gifted. We can use different categories of giftedness. There’s the spatial or aesthetic gifts. There are those who are the jocks. That is a definite type of giftedness that is not measured on an IQ test.
Fiedler: There are even intuitively gifted kids, kids who seem to just know things, who seem very tuned in, partly because they have a data-gathering system that isn’t logical, linear, mathematical. They can’t come up with a whole list of reasons why they know something that they know. They just know it. Business and industry is certainly recognizing now the value of intuition, and there are all these tapes out there that businessmen are running around listening to to help them unlock their intuition and so forth.
Meckstroth: And the visual-spatial children who can see geometric shapes and how they fit together could be architects, perhaps. It is an area of giftedness that isn’t quite recognized in school systems.
Do you see any problem with existing gifted programs? Is there a tendency to lump all the gifted together whether they belong together or not?
Fiedler: What we’re seeing are abuses like the use of achievement test scores in reading and group IQ tests, which are also very linguistically oriented in ways that might be appropriate for certain programs but not for other programs. Some teachers shared a situation with me yesterday–some kids who were identified as gifted by their reading scores were placed in gifted math. The trouble was that they were drowning in gifted math. It actually was very detrimental to them.
In another situation, a district was using across-the-board methods for identifying giftedness, multiple criteria, a very good multidimensional look at giftedness–and then placing the kids strictly in gifted language arts programs. And so they were picking up not only on kids who were gifted in language arts but also kids who were gifted mathematically, kids who were gifted in science. And some gifted kids are more narrow in the range of their giftedness, very focused, very specialized. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good idea for them to have some exposure to challenging activities in some of the other areas, because sometimes they have potential in those areas that hasn’t been tapped yet. But they should also be allowed opportunities to specialize early and to pursue their passionate interests in those focused areas.
Other gifted kids may be gifted in everything, despite the fact that educators particularly sometimes would like to feel that for every gift there is a compensating deficit. The reality is that with some gifted kids for every gift there is a compensating gift. They’re good at everything, and they kind of overwhelm teachers whose own gifts and talents are more limited. The result is that a teacher who is feeling inadequate in some ways may feel threatened by a child, who at the age of 10 or 12, or even 6 or 7, knows more than they do about subjects that they’re supposed to be the expert on. So if that teacher has a lot of ego needs to be this font of all wisdom and knowledge in the classroom and they have a child sitting in front of them who challenges them and who has the data to back it up, they may feel very intimidated and very insecure. The good news is that they don’t have to at all. They’ve lived longer on this planet, they have years of experience and wisdom. Gifted kids don’t need someone to supply them with information–they need someone who will help them find answers to the questions that they have.
In fact, they are far better off with the teacher who will not answer their questions but will help them learn how to find answers to their questions.
Meckstroth: There’s something that I think is essential to nurturing, involving, and encouraging gifted children, and that is for people who care about gifted children to recognize that giftedness does not go away. The gifted children grow into gifted adults, and if you are a parent of a gifted child it is highly, highly, highly probable that you’re a gifted child grown up. The most frequent response that I’ve had from people reading Guiding the Gifted Child has been, “I saw myself on those pages. Now I know why I never fit in. I always thought there was something wrong with me, but now I realize I used to be a gifted child.” Or I hear, “I was a gifted child and put my brain on the shelf.” Unfortunately, I hear so much of this from women. If I hear one more mother say, “She gets it from her father. . . !”
Unless an adult can claim that they have exceptional, unusual abilities it’s almost impossible for them to give a child permission to claim how he or she is different, different from the norm. It begins in acknowledging the differences in themselves.
Fiedler: But we live in a culture that tells people not to brag, that values humility and modesty, and that clearly communicates to people if they feel anything good about themselves then they’ve got an ego problems. There’s something wrong with them and they’re to be ostracized and shunned. And so even very bright people have been known, in public meetings, to say, “Well, I’m not gifted, but I really care about these gifted blah blah blah blah blahs.”
But it is rampant throughout society. I was singing in a church choir where we had a number of new members one night. The choir director thought it would be fun to have everybody introduce themselves and besides giving their names say one good thing about themselves. And I saw 40 people freeze and be totally incapable of doing this. This was a group of people that knew each other very well and knew they were in a safe place where people were up-front and God loved them and all the rest of that, and the closest anyone in that entire chorus came was a fellow who was sitting behind me who was finishing his masters in counseling, who was a residence hall adviser in the dorms at the local university, who said, “My name is So-and-so, and I don’t have any cavities.”
Meckstroth: At a workshop on the gifted the woman conducting it asked us, “Could you talk to us about why you could not possibly be gifted?” And these adults were saying, “Because I cannot read a map.” Or “Because in second grade my teacher told me that I can’t spell.” Or “Because I can never remember where to find my glasses.” People take the most obscure thing about themselves and generalize that they can’t possibly be gifted.
Fiedler: But I think that some of this often really does come from childhood. And it comes from people saying to very many children, “You’re supposed to be gifted.” Or “You have such a high IQ, why don’t you do your homework? How could you possibly leave your jacket on the bus for the third time this week? How could you possibly forget your lunch again?”
I think people feel like if they put themselves down first then they’ll beat somebody else to the punch. Then if somebody else criticizes them they’ve already criticized themselves, so it’s OK.
I think also that it’s a protection against being thought arrogant or having too high an opinion of oneself.
Fiedler: Also, if you acknowledge your giftedness, either as a child or, even worse, as an adult, there are all sorts of expectations that come with it. “If you’re so smart, if you’re such a good writer, how come you haven’t finished your book yet?” “If you’re so smart, how come you haven’t gotten a promotion?” “How come you aren’t rich?” “How come you haven’t been able to make a success of marriage?” We can talk about all the things that are weighed on people as guilt trips, and isn’t it safer to deny your giftedness?
Which gets us back to something that I was thinking of earlier, when the question came up about parents reacting to their kids’ giftedness. My experience with parents in general has been that the very first thing that happens to them when anybody presents them with the idea that they might have a gifted child is denial. “Nah. My kid? Gifted?” And the truth is that every one of us when we were pregnant asked, “Please, God, can I have a normal baby?” And giftedness isn’t normal. They differ from the norm, so don’t give me a gifted one. I’m not sure I know how to deal with a gifted child. If I have a gifted child then I have to be a gifted parent, and I barely know how to be a normal parent. I barely know how to do a good job with a normal child. And then you’re telling me I’ve got all this other responsibility? So it’s just a whole lot easier not to acknowledge that you have a gifted child.
Greisman: But I think that also goes into the myth that a gifted child must be a genius. “You know, I have a gifted kiddie, he’s only seven, do I have to enroll him in Harvard or anything?”
Fiedler: “Do I have to know more about education so that I will know whether the schools are doing the right thing? If I just have normal children the schools will do fine by them and they’ll do fine at school and they’ll have friends and everything will be lovely.” So that’s phase one.
An awful lot of our identified gifted kids are first children, which is a whole other story. If it’s the first child the parents didn’t have any basis for comparison, so when their kid was doing things that were precocious they had no way of knowing that that was really unusual.
The second phase that parents go through–“Well, yeah, I guess my kid is gifted. But I want the schools to improve for all children.” So you’re democratic. “And if the schools will improve for all children, then my child’s needs will be taken care of.” And that’s a more comfortable place to be coming from. If the child’s needs aren’t met and the schools aren’t responsive some parents will get to the point of pounding on tables, and that’s what I call the militancy phase. And saying “I don’t care about anything except seeing that my own child’s needs are finally met and you guys better do something about it.” And that’s when schools start going, “All right. Here comes the pushy mother and the pushy father.”
Is there any one particular element that you think is necessary to fully develop children’s talents?
Fiedler: People who accomplish things have usually had at least one person somewhere in their life who believed in them and who said, “I see you. I see who you are. I see your capabilities. Go for it, you can do it.” Sometimes that’s Grandma, sometimes it’s a favorite aunt, sometimes it’s a teacher, sometimes it’s Mom, sometimes it’s a neighbor. Sometimes, like in Albert Einstein’s case, it was somebody they rented a room–a university student who was a boarder in their house who saw young Albert, mentored him, and turned on the lights to let everybody see what Albert Einstein was capable of.
What I’d like to do is increase the probability that there’ll be at least one–and preferably that there’ll be a whole constellation–of people in every gifted child’s life who will see what they are really capable of and encourage them to be what they’re capable of being, to lead satisfying, happy, productive lives.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.