10/19/2009

Why Gifted Education?

Despite the push to ensure no child is left behind, an unlikely group of students has fallen through the cracks: gifted students. This is only exacerbated by a set of false beliefs that many school administrators and teachers hold: that kids who are born smart will stay that way, no matter how they are educated; that providing a more challenging education to some kids is "elitist" and individual differences should be minimized; and that society's resources should mainly or only be spent on kids who are doing badly in school.

Unfortunately, cognitive science research and research on gifted kids suggests that these beliefs are false. And when we shortchange gifted kids, we shortchange society.

What do we mean by gifted?
The term gifted has been defined many different ways. When people think of gifted children, they variously imagine child prodigies (i.e., Mozart), geniuses who discover or invent things of lasting importance (i.e., Einstein), students in honors classes, or just people who are very good at something. Many gifted programs define them as those with an IQ of 130 or more (or 120 or more combined with evidence of special talent). The Javits Act, which provides grants for education programs for bright kids from low-income families, uses the following definition (as do many other government acts):

"The term gifted and talented student means children and youths who give evidence of higher performance capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools in order to develop such capabilities fully."

Thus, the gifted are a heterogeneous group, but generally, most of them perform at least a year above grade level, have a higher-than-average IQ, and demonstrate any or all of a set of traits commonly associated with high intelligence. These traits, which contribute to the need for a different educational experience even more than intellectual ability level, include a tendency to constantly ask questions, a need to learn and use their brains (though not necessarily for academic subjects), higher-than-average creativity, and perhaps a tendency to nonconformity. They may also care deeply about big philosophical questions like the meaning of life and the reasons why evil exists. They're often deeply concerned about adult issues like protecting the environment or ending hunger, long before their peers consider these questions, and before they themselves are really emotionally ready to confront these problems. Such a symptomatic definition of giftedness amalgamates many commonly-used definitions and clearly identifies a group of children different enough from the norm to "require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools" in order to develop their abilities.

Reason 1: Intelligence doesn't last if you don't use itMany people believe that if children with above-average abilities spend years doing what everyone else is doing, they will still have above-average abilities when they leave school. Or, to put it differently, a 150-IQ kid will stay a 150-IQ kid after 12 years of performing at a 100-IQ level. Sadly, the last 20 years of neuroscience research shows that this is not the case.

Neuroscientists use the phrase “use it or lose it,” meaning that any connections between neurons that are not used regularly are lost. The neurons stop performing the rarely-used function and are used for other purposes. This is why, if you don’t speak a foreign language or practice a musical instrument regularly, you gradually forget how to do these things. Similarly, gifted children’s brains are built on connections between networks of neurons, which they use to make connections between ideas quickly and creatively. If they never use these abilities, they will eventually lose these networks. In short: a gifted kid, if ignored for long enough, stops being a gifted kid. When this happens, we lose everything they have to offer.

Neuroscience has also shown us that once you learn something, you can’t just learn it again. Learning is a process of building new neural conections. In order to learn something again as if for the first time, you would have to undo the brain structures you built while learning the subject in the first place. Both experts on gifted kids and the children themselves agree: they don’t learn better by hearing the same concepts presented over and over again to the rest of the class. They just get bored and tune it out. Meanwhile, their minds have not been engaged, their time has been wasted, and they are one step closer to losing their abilities.

With greater capabilities come greater needs for certain sorts of educational stimulation. We have seen that a certain amount of mental stimulation is required to merely keep the brain ticking over, never mind creating any improvement. Advanced children tend to perform above grade level because their minds work differently: they can sift through a large amount of information, find the relevant facts, and understand the relationships between them, and they can usually do so very quickly. Because they can go through lots of information very quickly, they need nearly constant stimulation just to maintain their current level of ability. They are also capable of, and interested in, going into depth on a subject, especially if it interests them or answers their questions. For example, at home, a child interested in bugs may keep an ant farm, spend hours in the backyard digging up bugs and observing them, check out armloads of books from the library about them, draw them, and talk about them ad nauseum. Such a child may be frustrated and confused by a class that breaks a topic into single facts and dispenses them one at a time. Stephanie Tolan, an expert on the gifted, compared this situation to an elephant being fed grass a blade at a time: “he starves before he realizes anyone is trying to feed him.”

Gifted children often know when their needs are not being met. Many report feeling like they are "turning stupid" or their brains are "shutting off,” sometimes while attending excellent schools.

Reason 2: Without some sort of intervention, gifted kids are likely to lose their abilities in school
Experts on gifted children estimate that for the typical gifted child, 50% of time spent in class is wasted. For “highly gifted” children of 160 or higher IQ, it may be as high as 90%.

How can so much of a child’s time possibly be wasted? Imagine a seven year old who can read at a high school level. This child also ponders questions like “what happens to us after we die” and “can my baby sister think if she doesn’t have words yet?” At home, he reads “The Dinosaur Heresies,” a book written for adults that argues that dinosaurs were actually warm-blooded, asking his parents for help with words and concepts he doesn’t understand. Although there’s a lot in this book he doesn’t understand, he’s learning facts about evolution he wouldn’t otherwise learn until middle or high school. He’s also getting a sense of the geological time scale, which is invaluable for taking a historical perspective—something high school and college graduates have been demonstrated to have trouble doing. He’s also learning by example how a good argument is structured. At school, the same child spends his time on phonics, readers, and the like. Observing a child like this, it becomes more intelligible how 90% of a child’s time could be wasted in the classroom. Furthermore, one can see how even a “good” public school simply will not meet this child’s needs. No matter how well-resourced the school, how skilled the teachers, or how small the classes, a first grade class teaching phonics and basic reading skills will not help a child who can read books for adults with decent comprehension—a fundamental disconnect.

In short: All the funding and skilled teachers in the world won’t make Dick and Jane appropriate for a child who can read books for adults with decent comprehension. Such a child would learn more than he would in school just by going to the library and reading whatever adult books he likes all day.

While this child represents the extreme range among gifted children, his case illustrates the problems faced to a lesser degree by many children.

Children lose their abilities if they can’t use them, and they can’t use them between 50 and 90% of the time. We should not be surprised, then, if many of our gifted kids simply stop being gifted.

Reason 3: Society has a responsibility to gifted kids too, and can benefit from educating them properly
Society has a responsibility to provide all children with an appropriate education, one that fully develops their capabilities so children can use them to improve society. This imperative is reason for making sure that disadvantaged kids don't get left behind, but it's also reason to make sure that gifted kids develop 100% of their capacities, not just the (at most) 60-75% teachers can help them develop without paying much attention.

Furthermore, society has an interest in developing the abilities of highly smart and talented kids, too. Not only the cliched "next Einsteins" but many of the next inventors, statesmen, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, engineers and yes, teachers and reformers, will come from their ranks.

Reason 4: We're creating a new "achievement gap"
While trying to close the achievement gap for underachieving students, public schools have actually created a new and equally unconscionable gap. At present, most gifted kids can only develop their talents by going to private schools, which are too expensive and far-away for many families, or by homeschooling, which is almost impossible for single-parent families or families with two full-time breadwinners. Thus, gifted kids from wealthy white families have the opportunity to develop their talents while those from poor minority families stagnate and eventually lose theirs. Not only does society lose talented people, but minority groups lose exemplars who could lead them to success and true equal opportunity.

How Big a Problem is There?

Nationwide, low-achieving students get more attention than gifted ones. According to a report on High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind by Ann Duffett, Steve Farkas, and Tom Loveless, “low achieving students receive dramatically more attention from teachers. Asked ‘Who is most likely to get one on one attention from teachers?’ 81 percent of teachers named ‘struggling students’ while only 5 percent named ‘advanced students.’” (The report compared the performance of the 10th and 90th percentile on the NAEP from 2000-2007).

The fact that a perception is widespread does not make it true. Despite what many parents, teachers and administrators may believe, most school districts do not, in fact, meet the needs of gifted students.