Identity Crisis in Gifted Education

I’ve been writing this blog entry in my head for a couple of months now. I’ve been procrastinating on actually writing it for (*checks watch*) the same amount of time. 

But, when I read the clear-eyed reflections of Jonathan Plucker as he shared his thoughts as he steps into the role of President of the Board of Directors of the National Association for Gifted Children, I felt it was the perfect time to finally put my thoughts in writing. In his blog post on the NAGC website, Jonathan talks about the various stakeholders involved in gifted education - parents, students, educators, and academics - and how their roles influence what they are seeking from the gifted education community. He also recognizes that while we all fall under the umbrella of advocates for gifted education, the things we are seeking are not always aligned.

Gifted education is in the middle of an identity crisis. 

I hear it when I talk to people in the field, read messages on social media, and follow the news. As a field of professionals working in gifted education, we ask (and debate) vital questions surrounding gifted education: 

  • Who do we serve? 

  • How do we identify students who need services?

  • What programming meets those needs?

In a world where gifted education is frequently on the chopping block, different stakeholders answer these questions differently. Our core beliefs about giftedness and what gifted students need influence our advocacy efforts. Some of those beliefs also make us vulnerable to those who would get rid of gifted education entirely.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, there are three main identities of gifted education proponents; at times they overlap and other times they are at odds.

Identity #1: “Gifted services should focus on bringing the top learners more challenge because their academic needs won’t be met in the general education classroom.” 

Focusing on high-achieving students seems like the natural landing point for gifted education services. Our schools are institutions of academic learning and some students have already mastered the content available in the classroom. Most everyone, whether they are involved directly in gifted education or not, can agree: Gifted students need more

Of course, the next logical question is about how we identify which kids need more and how we provide that content. Some educators advocate for differentiation within the classroom and enrichment opportunities for all, comparing gifted education services to an RTI model. Many gifted advocates argue these interventions are not enough.

Many advocates argue for using local norms to identify qualifying students for gifted services because in any academic setting there will be a tier of students who are above average compared to their classmates, regardless of how they score on a nationally-normed IQ or achievement test. These students deserve to learn content that is appropriate for their academic level. At NAGC last year, Scott Peters shared this thought during his mini-keynote: “Every student who puts a year into school deserves to get a year out.”

Some believe this argument misses a fundamental part of what giftedness is and dilutes the meaning of the psychological construct of intelligence, which brings us to the next camp of gifted advocates:

Identity #2 “We need gifted education services for high-IQ students because they learn and think differently than their peers.”

Many advocates of gifted education point to the different learning needs related directly to cognitive-ability as measured by IQ, a difference in overall neurological functioning. They believe giftedness is aligned with advanced abstract reasoning and problem-solving, although this may not be directly correlated with classroom achievement. They pick up concepts rapidly but may struggle with asynchronous development that impedes their academic performance. Gifted students need different.

In the varied gifted education settings I taught in over the years, the debate between this belief and the first was ongoing. There is, of course, an overlap in these students - often bright students have both a high-IQ and are advanced academically. But, sometimes you have students who are so-called “high-achieving, but not gifted” or “gifted, but not high-achieving.”

Many gifted programs are highly academic and strongly rely on written and verbal language abilities, so kids who are stronger in areas that aren’t language-based or are twice-exceptional can struggle in these programs. Are gifted programs effectively meeting their needs? And, if they aren’t, do those kids even need gifted services? Which brings us to the next gifted education identity...

Identity #3: “The social and emotional needs of gifted learners can only be met through gifted education programming.” 

Should supporting the psychological well-being of gifted individuals be an explicit goal of gifted education services? Will their emotional development be harmed without gifted education services? Many would say gifted programming should ultimately provide support for the social and emotional needs of gifted kids and many gifted education curricula include social and emotional objectives. Perfectionism! Underachievement! Isolation from peers! Gifted students need support.

There is an entire Pandora’s box of discussion that I’m going to refrain from opening on this topic for the purposes of this blog post, but I will share a comment from a colleague who was frequently flummoxed by the expectation to provide social and emotional lessons through the gifted program where she taught: “I’m not trained to be a counselor. I have no idea how to teach this stuff.” 

If giftedness is a neurological and psychological difference and requires unique support, are gifted education programs the best way to meet those needs? Are the ways we’re identifying students aligned with this program goal?

So, here we are, in the middle of an identity crisis, all of us passionate about the needs we see in gifted students and desperate to fill those needs, and all of us bound by the structure and resources provided by our local and national school systems. Most of us see the value within each of these identities:

  • Do all students deserve to be challenged? YES.

  • Do gifted students learn differently than their classmates? YES.

  • Are there unique social and emotional factors (whether innate or environmental) influencing gifted students? YES.

How do we align our goals and raise our voices together to meet the needs of gifted kids? How do we support every gifted child while working within the constructs of our educational system?

I look forward to continuing to listen and learn from the wide community of gifted education and working collaboratively to help people outside of the field of gifted education understand why services for bright kids are necessary for as many unique needs as there are gifted students.

And to Jonathan Plucker… Good luck with the wrangling.