Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?

27 Nov

NAGC 2012

 As George Betts pointed out today or last night on FaceBook, this year’s convention of the National Association for Gifted Children was perhaps the most polarized, fiercely divided convention in recent years.  A year ago the organization’s president, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius gave an address that argued the need for the field to come together under the umbrella of a new and singular definition of giftedness, of a unified concept that could and should direct both educational programming and research—Talent Development.  It is unlikely that she had any idea before she gave that speech advocating unity that it would unleash a firestorm of controversy and develop over the following months a split just about as intense and fraught as the current split between America’s political parties. 

Oddly, my own experience of the convention was extremely positive overall.  Others who share my focus on the internal world of the gifted child, and on the fundamental developmental differences between the gifted and other children, had been stirred up by such an overt challenge to and dismissal of their perspective.  They showed up to any sessions that fit that perspective with an unusual level of passion.  I doubt that in the more than 25 years I’ve been attending and speaking at NAGC I’ve ever experienced more enthusiastic and responsive audiences. 

As usual, the Columbus Group gathered after the convention, to share with each other our experiences over the last year and consider what we as individuals and—now that we’re out in the open—as a group, can and should do going forward.  I arrived home wiped out and faced with only two days to get ready for Thanksgiving.  I’ve been home now for a week, and my mind has been seldom at rest as I’ve pondered my experiences in Denver. 

Patricia Gatto-Walden and I did a presentation this year, titled “What the Kids Want You to Know: It’s My Life.”  A group in the UK 20 years ago took the keynote of the World Conference (a speech focused on gifted education as a way to make the best use of each culture’s natural resource of bright kids to benefit their country) to the kids at summer camps for the gifted and asked for their feedback.  Taking a cue from them, we read aloud the shortened version of Paula’s speech that appeared in Compass Points to our Yunasa campers.  Expecting no more than a handful to show up, we invited anyone who wanted to respond to it to share their thoughts for an hour long session.  So many kids (nearly a third of the campers) were willing to give up regular camp activities for that hour, that we could barely fit them into the room we had available.  They spoke enthusiastically for the full hour and several of them asked afterward that we send them the full text of the Subotnik, Worrell and Olszewski-Kubilius monograph that had formed the foundation for Paula’s speech.  

Few of these kids knew anything about NAGC, and one of the first questions they had was, “Does this organization have kid members?”  

We said it does not.  Quite naturally, the kids thought this was outrageous—“How can it be for gifted kids, then?  Don’t they get it that we have pretty good ideas about what we need?  Do they think we don’t think about education during all the time we’re in school?”  

What shocked me was not their question, but that I had never asked it myself.  I’ve been aware, of course, that schools bring kids to NAGC, most often to perform, sometimes to serve as panel members in a session or two.  But kid members? I hadn’t considered it necessary.  

A Moment in the Wayback Machine 

From the time my five year old son had the “head-on collision” with school that led me to begin learning everything I could learn about gifted kids, I have thought that it isn’t really the existence of kids with unusual intelligence that creates a need for specialized “gifted education,” it’s the way education is structured in this country and in most of the rest of the world.  It’s a factory model created well over a hundred years ago and it has changed only slightly since. Children are treated pretty much as interchangeable cogs (or, with an emphasis on product, as “widgets.”) 

At the very first gifted conference I ever attended a speaker said, “If God had known what schools would be like, He wouldn’t have made kids the way he did.”  I thought it was a clever statement, but its full impact escaped me at the time.  After all, school was school!  I’d known what that meant since my October birthday allowed me to start kindergarten at age four in a system with a December cut-off date.  

In the 1980’s, when I had begun to write and speak about the needs of gifted kids, I said in several talks that if school were done differently, we wouldn’t need the designation “gifted kids.”  

People invariably argued with me, pointing out that gifted kids would still learn faster, more broadly, more deeply, and more connectedly than others and we’d still have to diagnose those learning differences.  I agreed that gifted kids wouldn’t vanish—but that if we found a way to individualize education to meet the needs of every student, doing the same for the gifted would be just part of the deal.  I kept remembering what my son said one year when I asked him after we’d moved—yet again!—whether the kids at his new Quaker school would tease him for wearing Kmart sneakers instead of the currently popular expensive brand.  “Mom!  Nobody teases anybody for being different in a school where everybody’s different!” 

The absolute joy of that school was that the children were treated as individuals.  Yes, they went to classes mostly based on age, but within those classes, probably because of their specifically Quaker focus on that of God in every person, each child was respected for being him or herself.  But it was a small school and “everybody knew” (including me) that the whole country’s public system just couldn’t afford to be run that way. 

When that school ran out of grade levels for my accelerated son, I briefly considered homeschooling, because we lived in Norfolk, VA, the only city in the USA where at that time homeschooling was legal. I’d been reading John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling and conversing with him by mail for a couple of years by then, loving his ideas and the freedom they provided for the kids. He didn’t focus on gifted kids–just kids.  A friend of mine had illegally homeschooled her son back in Ohio (which had necessitated “hiding” him in the house all day every day) and insisted that it was the only way to individualize sufficiently to truly meet the needs of an exceptionally gifted child.  But it was not in the cards for my family—I didn’t have the necessary patience and my extraverted son was horrified at the whole idea and refused even to consider it. 

What Do We Mean by Child? 

As I’ve thought about how the two sides in the current definition argument might possibly come together, it has occurred to me that maybe gifted isn’t the problem word.  The problem word is child.  Why does NAGC not have child members, when its stated mission is to serve children?  Because today children are still defined by the field of education not as young individual human beings with individual needs and minds and drives and lives, but as a class of beings in need of being taught by adults what they presumably will need to know when they become adults.  

There is an extent to which that definition makes sense, of course.  Children have a lot to learn and there’s a long period of dependency during which they need to be sheltered, touched and held and cared for, fed and dressed.  Human children need to interact with other humans (though not exclusively with adults) to learn language. Much of what they learn begins with observation and imitation. And of course there are all those tricky things like silverware to handle, stairs to navigate, windows not to fall out of, streets to cross. Plus there are reading, writing and arithmetic, which many of them will first be exposed to in school.  

But what we believe about children has changed. There was a time when a child was thought to be an empty vessel, waiting for adults to fill it up with information.  (Just last year I saw a YouTube about educational reform that actually still said this!)  Science long ago showed that belief to be in error.  Human children are learning creatures determined to explore and manipulate their environment, to test and try, to build and tear down, to question and experiment and interact with whatever other living creatures they encounter—all of which can be classed as “play” in the early years.  And today in any household with technology, they mostly find a way either to use that technology on their own or get someone to show them how. 

The sooner we put them in “school” where the primary activities are to sit still, be quiet, listen, wait for and then follow directions, answer questions “correctly,” and judge themselves in terms of how other children are doing at these tasks, the sooner we begin to limit their natural modes of learning. Instead of play that expands their experience and mastery, learning becomes what they do (or rather what they are directed to do) in school.  There is very little difference in what they are directed to do, one student to another, and little if any concern about individual interests or personal choice.  Natural learning gives way to coercion, solitary activity directed toward a predetermined goal, and a teacher’s external validation or criticism of their efforts. 

(One could ask oneself just what sort of adult life these “lessons” are designed to prepare them for.  Factories, yes.  But factories are either in other countries now or use a lot of robots.  Schools should not be in the business of programming human robots!) 

Meantime, as the Yunasa campers told us last summer, the adults don’t ask them what they need or listen to them when they express their needs anyway.  

And What Do We Mean by School? 

Like it or not, times have changed! How often have you heard one adult say to another, who is struggling with some aspect of current technology, “what you need is a ten year old.” When my now nine year old grandson was two, he was already more adept at using his father’s computer to find what he wanted to interact with on the internet than I was.  Now he scoffs at my efforts to learn something new on my “too smart” phone.  It isn’t only theory that tells us that learners can be teachers and teachers learners.  It is our everyday lives. And there is a tsunami of information available to and through the new technologies that kids are more adept at finding than many of us. 

It is long past time to give up schools or redefine them as learning communities, where it is not just age that creates groups, but interests (passions), knowledge, experience and needs.  In such learning communities there could be webs rather than boxes–language, math, history, geography, art, meant to be dealt with separately in small blocks of time–webs that could interweave what is known in service of creating something new, or helping the learner to grasp new information and move into and understand greater complexity.  And children need to have a voice in how such learning communities would or could operate; because children are unhampered by the structures and restrictions of prior experience; they lack our long memory of “how it has always been” that would hold them back from imagining how it could be.  

Our gifted kids, so very interested in learning, so passionate about exploration, could genuinely help to lead the way.  One of their major differences (at least until we squash it out of them with work sheets and grades and gold stars and tests, grade point averages, boundaries and limitations) is their rage to learn and understand, and to do something with meaning.  Those same kids who discovered at two how to find what they wanted on a computer screen, have ideas about how learning can happen, progress and change.  And how the technology so many of them love and the games so many of them play, could enhance learning for themselves and other kids. They could work with adults who are willing to collaborate on finding the best ways forward rather than determining and dictating those ways! 

Teachers who love their profession and have passion for their subject matter could, in learning communities, be freed to practice that profession instead of struggling to prepare a broad spectrum of kids in a narrow age range to succeed on standardized tests that really can’t measure either student learning or teacher competence. 

We can’t have what we can’t first envision.  And we are in a deep and dreadful rut.  I started a Face Book page ( last November in hopes that those who visited it could begin thinking in new ways and sharing their visions about how education could happen if we began over again without schools.  We didn’t get far.  FB pages aren’t that great for collaborative thinking—everything gets pushed down the page and disappears. But that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t be taking place. 

We have to find a way to make things work better.  I would welcome the best ideas of the Talent Development folk, but I would want them to acknowledge the existence of kids whose inner experience of the world really is different from the beginning.    It isn’t just our field that’s in crisis and conflict.  Our whole world is at stake.  Pretty much really!  New thinking, new ideas and new partnerships are essential as everything continues to change at warp speed. Let us outsource factory schools to some other planet so that we don’t have to find ways to keep squeezing human children into boxes designed for widgets or robots.

I end all my talks with the following quotation, meant for every human, child or adult, because we need to know that we are not interchangeable!

“You are not accidental.  Existence needs you.  Without you something would be missing from existence, and no one could replace it.”  –Osho

Found this on A Space for Learning, 11-12-12

20 Responses to “Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?”

  1. giftedinwisconsin November 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Reblogged this on Gifted in Wisconsin and commented:
    Gifted In Wisconsin’s first ever Reblog… This is too good not to share! WordPress blog, “The Deep End”, by Stephanie Tolan, November 27 2012, “Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?”

    • Kevin Gray November 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

      “They could work with adults who are willing to collaborate on finding the best ways forward rather than determining and dictating those ways!”
      Our leaders, elected and de facto, have spent so many years convincing us education can/should be simple, clear, and unambiguous in both outcomes and methods that I wonder if young educators who embrace complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity will last long enough to realize the wisdom of that which they embrace. Or, to find positions in which their compassion, curiosity, and creativity are recognized and rewarded as much as their basic competence. Thanks for your thoughts and impressions. I was unable to attend NAGC this year, and benefit all the more from the accounts of those who did. Thank you for taking the time in this busy season to share yours! Much appreciated.

  2. Crystal November 28, 2012 at 12:08 am #

    You were kind enough to email my daughter earlier this year when she was struggling with her “cheetah” identity. Thank you for the insight you continue to provide, its like a window into a better, possible world. Incidently, my daughter (8) was horrified to discover that she is too young to legally have an opinion, most especially when she found out that it didn’t even matter if she was in the right. Regardless of her age, I imagine that belonging to an organization that was advocating for children like her would be far more satisfying then watching it all like a spectator.

  3. Elizabeth Rubenstein November 28, 2012 at 1:36 am #

    check out our new school in San Francisco: striving to be a learning community!

    • Stef December 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      Have enjoyed reading the posts on the site, Elizabeth. It looks like the very sort of thing I was imagining!

  4. karen isaacson November 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Stephanie, I loved this to tears. Thank you.

  5. Laura Lynn Walsh November 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Your comment about Facebook being a push down environment got me to thinking about another computer term that might work better. In computerized sorting, there are several methods of getting the highest values to the top. One is called the “bubble up” method. This method for sorting ideas might work similarly to the comments section of a course I was just taking with Coursera. People could vote to “like” certain posts and comments. Those posts and comments with the most “like”s would be listed first in the discussions. This might simply lead to stagnation, except that new comments were listed in a different section. Each individual discussion could have a “bubble up” structure and the number of discussions wasn’t visibly limited. Amazon uses a similar tactic for reviews. Reviews with the most likes appear earlier in the lists of reviews. They used to have a “most important negative” review, too. I am not sure if that is still used, but I found it very helpful. Interesting to contemplate what might work and not work about different structures.

    • Stef December 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

      Thanks, Laura. Back when I started the Deep End Facebook page, I contemplated doing a group instead, but I wanted it to be open (those advising had suggested a closed group). I was new to Facebook and had thought it might work more like another interactive internet platform I was used to. I would start such a group now, but I don’t have time to manage it. Maybe someone else will do that. I think there’s a need to open-ended discussion and group-visioning of new ways.

  6. Karen Kraeger (@kakraeger) November 29, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    I too was moved to tears! Thank you for an insightful and inspiring piece! You have given me great food for thought as I move forward on my dissertation topic: Future Directions for Gifted Education.

    I plan to keep your post, to cite you later in my research. Your ideas are visionary!

    Thank you for sharing this with your community of readers!

  7. George Peternel November 30, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    I’d like to think that talent development is what its all about, not getting all caught up in whether or not a child is gifted before labelling him/her as such and thereby distinctly different from his/her peers. Brilliance of all kinds, and not just the brilliance of kids whose scores put them above a certain percentile on tests that are estimations, not the final word, needs to be developed and nurtured.

    • giftedinwisconsin December 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

      While all talent, and all children, need nuturing, some of us are dedicated especially to the Gifted.

      This does not take away from other children, any more than a group dedicated to helping those with junvenile diabetes takes away from those with pediatric cancer.

      We are a diverse society. Positive advocacy for each cause helps to build a strong and supportive culture.

      Have a bright day!

    • Stef December 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

      I would agree, George, that all kinds of brilliance deserve to be nurtured. But that includes the unusual ways of processing that show up in children we identify as gifted–processing that is more contextual than talents. Talents may be an integral part of giftedness or may exist as separate abilities from the holistic differences in awareness that has been called giftedness. Talent development and gifted education are both of great value.

  8. Karen Goss December 3, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    I had the great pleasure of hearing Dr. Gatto-Walden speak (twice!) at the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented conference last week & she focused on your camp/study/kid responses – I could have listened to her all day!!
    Following the conference, I had a lengthy conversation with my daughter (age 13, identifed as gifted while in kindergarten) about what I experienced/learned at the conference and she voiced the same question as the camp kids – are there sessions there for kids? She was amazed (dare I say distressed) that kids weren’t part of the conference (with the exception of those who presented posters adjacent to the exhibit hall)……as such, my goal is to get kid sessions added (at the very least) to TAGT parent conferences scheduled around our state this coming spring.
    Thank you for putting in writing many of the same thoughts that have been circulating through my head this weekend! As another commentor said, your post will be very beneficial in my dissertation research – my focus is on Honors education at the post-secondary level, were, sadly, gifted students seem to be part of an underserved population.

  9. Melody Reveal December 3, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

    Wow. Really, wow! It’s refreshing to see the depth of passion in educating and inspiring our gifted youth. As we all know, most are capable of having original thoughts, which lead to better ideas which in turn we all benefit from for the betterment of our world. She truly is a visionary who is spot on in what education for our future leaders and “game plan” changers need. There are tons of brilliant kids with Edison, Steve Jobs and Einstein potential. We need to feed their minds and who better to figure out how to do that than FROM the brilliant quirky minds themselves? Awesome article. Thanks- I’m reposting!

  10. Kasmira December 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Excellent, very well written article!
    My son is a sophomore at a brand new charter high school that started this year in San Jose Ca.
    I am always looking for articles to share with his teachers & administrators!
    Thank you & I look forward to reading more!

  11. jkotinek February 20, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    There is so much that is *right on point* in this article that I don’t know where to start. I’m so happy that the “Honors Education” group on Facebook shared it and that I saw it.

    First, I understand and appreciate the need for a different word than “gifted,” especially since it gives a lot of people a way to dismiss gifted persons’ needs because they’ll take care of themselves. My skin crawled to read that “Talent Development” was what was suggested, though, because it seems to dehumanize the person in favor of what they might be developed into…or what they will offer to society.

    While I try to avoid deficit models whenever possible, Michael Rios’ characterization of giftedness as “asynchronous development syndrome” (Understanding Our Gifted, 1999) is probably the best example I’ve seen of creating a term that understands giftedness as psychological difference (ala the Columbus Group definition) and communicates that the difference doesn’t necessarily make the person better.

    I also love the idea of reinforcing the idea that learning ought to be a lifelong endeavor. I work in a university environment and feel like I’m fighting a losing battle sometimes to encourage us to operate as a learning organization. Learning is messy sometimes and doesn’t necessarily fit a business model.

    Kudos, as well, to the young person who advocated for membership in NAGC. While we’re asking questions about re-definition, how about an NAGP: National Association of Gifted Persons? Focusing on giftedness in children plays into a talent development paradigm where the push is to focus resources on developing a person’s potential in enough time that they can make significant contributions to society. Broadening the scope of the organization would not, I hope, diminish the need for developmentally-appropriate education at all levels, but it might create some room for more research and understanding of giftedness as a lifelong phenomenon, which seems likely if it truly is a psychological difference.

    • Stef February 24, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

      Hi, jkotinek!

      If you get a chance, you might like to read Off the Charts!, the new book (mentioned elsewhere on this blog) from the Columbus Group. Though the secondary title includes “children,” it is quite clear that giftedness is not just in children. Lifelong learning and lifelong differential processing are both important. One does which ALL schools could operate as “learning organizations,” in which learning occurs at all levels and moving in all directions. Education should never be thought of as a one-way street!

      • jkotinek May 16, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

        Thank you! I’ll check it out. – Jon

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