'Gifted' should be retired for good

The ''gifted'' label should be permanently retired, along with ... other elitist terms, writes Stacy Hunt.

I've had an increasing sense of unease about the concept of ''giftedness'' ever since it started appearing in mainstream media a few years ago. The article ''Precious and Precocious'' (ODT 26.01.12) gave me such concern it pushed me to try to organise my thoughts, which boil down to: I believe the ''giftedness'' initiatives in our schools are seriously misguided; in fact, the very concept of ''giftedness'' is entirely broken.

I agree wholeheartedly with the basic concept. It could be summarised like this: some children show unusual aptitude in specific areas of learning. Our society should provide support and resources to give them the chance to realise their potential. Where things start to come unstuck is that the concept of separating a group of people off is usually a bad one. I accept that proponents have the good intention of enabling children to reach their potential, and there are finite resources available. However, segregating a group of kids and giving them a label is not going to achieve this. What it will achieve is to create a sense of isolation which always creates tension and disharmony.

The article states: '' ... a certain sector of pupils will be hoping for a little understanding. Because being labelled gifted is not always easy.''

Which begs the question: could giving them the label be part of the problem? My second issue is with the label ''gifted'' itself. The term ''gift'' has two strong connotations: first, that it is something beneficial, and secondly that it is given to the recipient by an external source.

As the article acknowledges, such a ''gift'' is not always beneficial. I worked first-hand with a self-proclaimed ''gifted'' programmer. He was pleasant and intelligent but found contact with other people difficult and tedious. As a result, he couldn't deliver what the company wanted and he lost his job. I felt sorry for him because his ideas were sound; but his inability to relate to others made it difficult to make use of his other abilities.

My final issue is: who is it that's giving the gifts? Is it God? If so, there is a whole theological debate to be had. Regardless, it implies favouritism, that the giver chose one person over another. This is also inevitably going to cause friction, and it's also completely unnecessary.

In my experience, there are a small handful of key skills from which any other skills can be attained. They are:

• Communication - which requires respect and empathy for others.

• Motivation - which needs to be primarily internal.

• Access to resources and ability to find and filter them.

''Resources'' can include the local library, the internet, parents, teachers, friends, or a business network; any source of information that you are seeking is a resource.

With the exception of intrinsic motivation, they can all be learned. Note I didn't put ''reading at a level two years ahead of yourself'' on this list, because that can be attained using the skills in the list. And in the long term it really doesn't matter. I draw on other experience to support this. I started out as a dentist, but switched to software design. When they hear that, people ask me where I went to study graphic design and computer science - and they're surprised to hear that I didn't. One great thing about IT and computer graphics is that you don't need permission to do it, you just need to be able to prove that you're good at it, and all the resources are available if you have an internet connection. I agree with Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) that, barring significant disability, any individual can achieve mastery in a given skill given adequate information and 10,000 hours of practice. The main thing is that you don't need to be naturally good - you just need to know how to learn and be very determined.

Which brings up the last point: people who don't consider themselves ''talented'' can often fail to realise their potential because they don't try. Some of the people I mentioned will say: ''Oh wow, I could never do that!'' When I reply, ''Of course you could, anyone could if they were determined enough'' they invariably insist: ''No, I'm just not smart enough.''

It's just not true, and it's sad - and it's a result of typing people as ''smart'' or ''not smart''. Not being sufficiently motivated to make the necessary sacrifices is more commonly the real (and often justifiable) reason.

So I suggest that the ''giftedness'' programme in schools be repurposed.

The single factor that selects who attends should be intrinsic determination. One great thing about that is that it's self-regulating. The pupils who start out but aren't determined will stop attending, and it removes the poisonous ''chosen ones'' stigma.

The pupils should be selected by themselves, not teachers or parents.

The programme should have a different name that embodies the concept ''enabling motivated children to achieve their potential''. Something like ''extra resources for determined kids''.

The ''gifted'' label should be permanently retired, along with ''tall poppies'' and other elitist terms. Recognising ability can be done without segregation.

Finally, I should state that yes, I do have kids and yes, they did read books before kindergarten. And one of them lost his baby teeth early. And one of them lost them late. These things all fit into the same ''so what'' category: I'm proud of them for many other reasons.

• Stacy Hunt is a Dunedin-based IT entrepreneur, software designer and a former dentist.

Call it whatever you want

As a mother with a "gifted" child I don't care what you call it. All I care is that my child is with children who "get" him. He's now 8 and in Grade 3 and this is the first year since senior kindergarten that he hasn't been teased. Last year was the worst. He was teased daily, was urinated on, and physically bullied. His excitement for life was fading last year. The sparkle is now coming back and his confidence is growing.

Would you take that from him just because someone decided to refer to him, and his group of peers, as "gifted"?  Because you believe this is wrong without knowing all the facts? That he shouldn't be separated?  That how he's educated shouldn't be altered slightly to suit his well documented needs. And should be put back into a class with other children who will think him strange and ostracize him anyway?

Comprehending giftedness as it really is

Most of us working in the field of gifted education would agree with Stacy Hunt that the term "gifted" should be retired. Despite attempts by New Zealand educators to find a more useful alternative, it's still used here chiefly because that's the internationally recognised name for this condition and as such has been adopted by our Ministry of Education. It's a term that has caused a lot of grief, leading to gross misinformation and misunderstanding, often with devastating outcomes for the children involved.

Narrow definition

To limit the definition of "giftedness" to academic pursuits or ability is too narrow.

To borrow from sports, certainly 10,000 hours of practice and training will improve an individual's performance and "mastery" can be defined there as "the best that this individual can do".

However, no amount of training, hard work or perseverance will allow such an individual into the top ranks of elite sport.  The level at which top athletes perform is almost incomprehensible to those who are not.  And while they all still have to put in the same hard work and be determined, their natural abilities - what we call gifts - do set them apart.

To deny that is ludicrous.  To backtrack from there, the same applies to those whose intellect or dexterity or whatever other quality similarly operate at an incomprehensible level.  Again, you can put in the 10,000 hours, but you will never be that good.

What would be useful would be research to identify the characteristics of such individuals as is done for elite athletes. We know WHY certain individuals can run or cycle or lift weights due to muscle types and physiology.  We don't know exactly why intelligent individuals or musicians can perform so well, whether it is faster reactions or coordinated nervous activity, or greater degree of interconnectedness of the neural system etc.

Finding that out would be far more useful than pretending that it doesn't exist. 

Gifted... To label or not to label... That is the question?

I am pleased to see people interested and open to discussing 'gifted' as a word and as a concept.  I read the article and was impressed with the content.  It was linked to relevant literature and research.

Internationally the term 'gifted' is used in research and professional literature.  I acknowledge at times people people are not positive about the term itself but I personally beleive this shifts the focus away from what is important... gifted children and meeting their needs.   Labels are useful if they are required for accessing support or programming... we have many labels in education and psychology.  I believe if a label is a way of making a positive difference for a child then it is useful.  A label just to name or identify something is not. Labels are often required for funding in education - not just in NZ but internationally.    

As president of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, a Director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG www.sengifted.org), and as a psychologist who works in this field I have heard many gifted stories.  Some are positive and others are not.  As a community we need to look at what we are doing and how we can do it better.  

The key message is to be open to catering for a group functioning at this level, just as we must be open to children with special needs, who are challenged by the pace and content of the curriculum on a daily basis at the lower end.  I work with both sets of children and believe each has significant challenges.  

For further information on gifted children and gifted education do visit the TKI (Ministry of Education Gifted Website) or the NZAGC and SENG websites.   

Regards Rose

There is a difference

While effort may be something that today is underrated, it cannot replace genius. A tone-deaf person may study voice for years and put loads of effort into it, but at the end of the day will still sing off-key, because she simply doesn't have the particular brain and ear mechanisms in place to hear what it is to be on-key (and yes, tone-deaf people *are* lacking a structure in their ear and the corresponding development in the brain!).

Giftedness, whether you like the word and its implications, is real. And it goes far beyond simply finding certain things easy. If you've never had to soothe a 2-year-old who accidentally read the news over Daddy's shoulder and is now too scared to sleep because of the situation in the Middle East, you'll know what I mean. Or the kid who finds going middle-grade parties uncomfortable because she's already too mature and can see the backstabbing and cruelty beneath the fun. Or the kid who is at the top of her class in reading in third grade, but who does it with hours and hours of effort that no one sees because she is an undiagnosed dyslexic that no one ever thought to check--she could be reading on a high school level but top of the third grade class is "good enough" for all the people in charge of her. It's like taking the shoelaces of a dancer and tying them together with Superglue.

Most of us tell our gifted kids that giftedness is nothing unless they use their gifts--the effort they need to put in, but most gifted kids are internally driven to use their gifts anyhow. And external forces that try to prevent them from doing so presents them with a very frustrating situation.

Does anyone question that a child with Downs or autism needs a little extra boost and has needs outside the statistical norm? Why should it be different for kids who are born different on the other side of the scale?


You just don't understand

One of the main reasons that "gifted" children need time together is that they learn differently and better when they are around their peers.

Do you know that "gifted" children usually have a sensitivity to sound and touch? Sound for these children is about 10 times as distracting as it is for regular students. Imagine trying to get an assignment done with overwhelmingly annoying noise surrounding you.

Do you know that "gifted" children think differently. They often cannot follow the normal patterns of thought to solve math problems or spell a word and being forced to follow the "way it's done" is akin to writing with your opposite hand. Switch the pencil and amazing things start to happen. 

Do you know that "gifted" children are more likely to have learning disabilities, but that they often hide them so well they are never discovered? Being around their peers makes it easier to compare apples to apples instead of oranges and helps root out disabilities that could be holding them back. 

Do you know that "gifted" children often have social issues. It's not because they aren't socialised enough, but because that section of their brain is often more immature and they are usually more sheltered than regular students.


Ignorance is not bliss if you share it!

I would like to respond to Ms Hunt's article on retiring the label ‘giftedness' and ask her whether she believes we should also retire the term special needs,  dyslexia, or other such ‘elitist' terms where we are taking certain groups of students and catering to their needs within the classroom or using withdrawal programmes. This catering for individuals  students underpins our whole educational philosophy in New Zealand.
Does Ms Hunt in fact think that we should remove all labels to ensure that no one gets special attention, as she sees it?

Clearly, the research that indicates the opportunity for students to collaborate and engage with likeminded peers is valuable for their development, has not reached her yet.

The skills that she describes from a single encounter with a gifted programmer would clearly indicate the need for certain skills to be developed with gifted students, and quite negates her argument entirely. I am at a loss to ascertain why she believes the ‘skills', she describes as key would not also be learnt when gifted students are being catered for. Does Ms Hunt find that all other students who have not been labelled as gifted have these skills, if so she lives in a very different society from myself.

It is naïve of Ms Hunt to suggest that we all have the same kind of opportunities and it is ‘up to us to make a go of it'. It is also presumptuous to assume that students do not have an opportunity to nominate themselves in many gifted programmes around the country. Would she also suggest those students with reading difficulties nominate themselves for remedial reading or ESL students only attend classes if they think they need it. Perhaps her time would be better spent getting acquainted with the reasons behind these programmes.


Elite is OK for sports

I pity the gifted children who are trapped among the average fulltime.  They cannot help being better at many things, any more than other children can help being slow to learn - and I have yet to see a plea to ignore the needs of those students.  Why is it OK for children who show aptitude in sports to be given extra coaching and the opportunity to train and compete with those who are of similar ability, but not those whose excellence is academic, musical, artistic?  

Can you imagine the mind-numbing frustration of never being able to stretch one's mind, bounce ideas around with others who understand what one is "on about"?  If not, think about battery hens who cannot move or exercise the way normal birds do, and try to remember going for a walk with someone who is very slow. How wearying it is having to hold your own pace back to match theirs.  That is what gifted children experience every day at school, do not begrudge them the small amount of time they are allowed to stretch and socialise on their own level.

Early retirement for parents of gifted

Our boy is a great singer. He's coming up to 9. When he gets a record in the Top Twenty Pops, we'll live off the royalties.

The gifted label misunderstood

If you believe the amazing things that make a child gifted are in the "so what" catagory, you do not have one of these children.

If you believe that a teacher, and especially a parent should not be allowed to recognise a child as gifted based on certain behaviour since birth, you do not have one of these children.

If you think that by calling these children or their programme anything but gifted will release the parental "jealousy" factor because these rare few are getting something most kids are not getting, you do not have one of these children. 

The simple fact is that academically talented children are not necessarily gifted children. And, it doesn't matter what you call them. Some kids are smarter than others. Some kids are extraordinarily high in mental ability. Some are off the charts. Call them anything you want. But there will always be that "all kids are gifted" mass of parents that will try to fight these few kids getting what they need. 

And those of us who have been advocating for better education for these kids - myself almost 25 years are thrilled this discussion has finally started. Last thing these kids need is to have the discussion stifled.

Diane Scanlon