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.

Stacy Hunt's article is a sad example of this. With the sole exception of her complaint about the term itself, she is wrong on every single point she makes - wrong in fact and wrong in interpretation. I don't for one minute question her sincerity, but speaking from the rather more informed point of view of someone who has worked in the field for thirty years, dealing with some hundreds of individual gifted children and their parents and many hundreds of teachers and continually throughout this time keeping in touch with the ongoing and massive research on this issue internationally, I am compelled to point out, not only the inaccuracy of her comments, but also the damage such unenlightened attitudes can cause for children who are in this position, not through any choice of their own or of their parents, but through the accident of genetics.

Firstly, Stacy Hunt quotes an allegedly gifted young man - self-identified, she says - who didn't know how to get on with people and ultimately lost his job because of this, despite being very competent. She blames this on his having acquired the label "gifted". It actually demonstrates the exact opposite. Her young man is a classic example of what can happen when a gifted child is not identified and then also given appropriate developmental support. Giftedness involves very, very significant differences in how a child develops from infancy onwards and in how that child responds to and interprets experience. It is absolutely not about merely doing things earlier or more quickly than other children - in that sense, the title of the otherwise excellent ODT article was unfortunate.

Young children begin to learn how to relate to others from their earliest interactions with other children. When they want to play with the same toys, enjoy the same kinds of games, find the same sorts of things funny, etc, they start to learn about sharing, about how to join in activities, about making conversation with others, about interpreting responses from others, and so on. A young gifted child, however, may have a vocabulary that so far outstrips other children that he or she might as well be talking another language - I recall a kindergarten teacher who was asked by a thoughtful four-year-old to explain the difference between eternity and infinity.

Young gifted children already have a much longer attention span (sometimes noticeable within days of birth) and so want to continue with activities long after other children have lost interest. Young gifted children already typically invent highly complex games with lots of rules which simply bore other children. Young gifted children already have a much more intense response to experience and a much more sensitive awareness of emotional issues, and so we can find them becoming worried and upset about matters that often don't occur to other children - why do people die, for example, pursued in some depth.

How can such a child learn to relate to others when he or she has so little in common with every other child he or she is meeting? If this essential early grounding doesn't happen, the gifted child is disadvantaged right from the start in developing social skills. And if it is further reinforced by school experience, the gifted child can - and all too often does - develop a very negative, unhappy self concept.This is one of the major reasons why we give gifted children an opportunity to work with other gifted children like themselves - an opportunity that almost every other child going to school has automatically as of right, but which can be denied throughout the whole of a gifted child's schooling. And does it make a difference? Yes it does.

If Stacy Hunt consulted the research, she would find vast quantities of research affirming this, and that is supported by the work that has been done here in New Zealand. In the One Day School programme, for example, which has now helped some thousands of gifted children, evaluations repeatedly showed that children were happier, more settled in themselves, finding out at last how to relate to others in a group, and, often, coping better with regular school. I can certainly recall some dramatic changes in children as their previously damaged self esteem began to heal.

Essentially, as one girl at a residential seminar for gifted adolescent writers put it, "For the first time in my life, I feel normal." What a revealing statement about all her school experience to date. Certainly such grouping is not the whole answer by itself. Regular school programmes also need to be flexible enough to accommodate the different learning responses of the more able child. Grouping itself has to be done with both knowledge and sensitivity, and while our teacher training largely omits the gifted field, we will continue to have some efforts at this which are well meant but poorly handled, just as we have well-meant but inadequate differentiation in some regular classroom programmes, none at all in many others, and instances of so-called gifted programmes being used to promote a school's image rather to meet the child's needs.

This, I would suggest, is where Stacy Hunt's unease may be justified. As a nation we do not yet do well by our gifted children. Nevertheless, the evidence about the need for appropriate provision for these children, including some grouping, is rock solid and substantial. In short, it is a major error to confuse the label with the condition. It is not the label which causes problems - rather the reverse. A label identifies a diagnosis of a specific condition so that appropriate treatment can be put in place. Without that diagnosis, we don't know what's causing difficulties or how to help.

Take for example a child who has a severe allergic reaction to bee stings. Everyone who deals with that child has to know that crucial fact about that child and how to deal with it. Would we refuse to put that label on the child's file in case it led to, let us say, over-protectiveness or some other unhelpful attitude? Or take shortsightedness: no-one wants to inflict wearing glasses on a small child: there are inevitable limitations on some activities from having to wear them and a child may well be teased. But should that stop us from identifying the child's need for help with vision and giving them the "label" of shortsightedness? Giftedness is similarly a condition which has far-reaching implications for the child's developmental needs and mental, social and emotional well-being.

Thus Stacy Hunt's young man seems most likely to be a young man whose giftedness was either not identified or not adequately provided for, not just with advanced learning opportunities, but with the support of the whole child - perhaps he didn't get the "label" or the "instructions" implicit in such a label were inadequately followed through. Thus it also follows that we need, as a country, to have an education system whose teachers do know how to recognise and nurture exceptional potential, not just in academic learning, but in every field. We need to know how to recognise and support intelligent, creative and compassionate minds in business, in science, in the arts, in politics, in community relations, in education itself.

We do it extremely well in sport, create extensive training programmes and give vast sums of money to this without a blink of an eye. A fraction of that support would change the lives of so many children in this country - for the whole of their lives, not just five or ten years on the sports field. Stacy Hunt also claims that all is really needed to achieve is hard work and intrinsic motivation. She admits intrinsic motivation can't be taught, but asserts that anyone can achieve to a high level of skill if they persist. So, if I will only practise long enough and am sufficiently motivated, I'll definitely eventually be an opera singer of the calibre of Kiri Te Kanawa, a cellist as able as Yo Yo Ma, a scientist as brilliant as Ernest Rutherford?

Well, it's certainly true that sustained endeavour is necessary for achievement, even for geniuses. The pianist Paderewski wrote, "Before I was a genius, I was a drudge"; Einstein similarly but more famously wrote, "Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration". What Stacy Hunt is entirely overlooking is the "10% inspiration". That doesn't - can't - come from hard work, no matter how committed you are. No amount of practice will ever turn me into a Kiri, as my friends and relations will assuredly attest. The difference between a skilled performance and a gifted performance is immeasurable by tangible means, but absolute, and real.

Incidentally, we may not be able to teach intrinsic motivation, but it is hugely relevant to this discussion to realise that good teaching can ignite and inspire such motivation; poor teaching - unimaginative learning programmes, repetitive exercises, dismissive responses to questioning minds, and so forth - can savagely undermine and suppress motivation, sometimes forever. There is so much more one could say about this, but I want to close with this.Those who pronounce judgement on matters when they do not know what they are talking about may justifiably be called arrogant, whatever the issue. When such arrogance results in denial of a child's fundamental needs as a developing human being, then it may lead to what can equally justifiably be called child abuse. I have seen too many hurt and bewildered gifted children, lost within our system, their potential negated, their selves limited and sometimes damaged beyond complete repair, to hold back from naming this for what it is.

Stacy Hunt and others who hold similar views need urgently to discover the reality of life for the gifted child and to stop undermining the work of those who seek to give those children what is surely the birthright of all New Zealand children - equity of opportunity in their education and development.

Rosemary Cathcart - Director, REACH Education; previously director George Parkyn National Centre for Gifted Education; foundation Board member, giftEDnz; Honorary Life Member, NZ Assn for Gifted Children, etc.


Stacy Hunt is male.

Whatever you call them

Special needs would be a good term for those currently called gifted.  It has been captured for the "below the norm" abilities group which muddies the meaning of both "special" and "needs".  What is OK about any children deliberately being denied the opportunity to rech their potential?  Thank you Rosemary Cathcart for a compassionate response to the opinion piece by Stacy Hunt, which I felt showed an unpleasant anti-tall-poppy attitude.