'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.

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