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Schools are to Creativity… (Part 2)

16 Jul

…as zoos are to wildness.

I got to visit cheetahs NOT on exhibit at Melbourne zoo–thanks to Jo Freitag

Sometimes in order to see things clearly one has to peel back layers of feeling. My philosophy is that we can’t do anything wrong (as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment) but that we may be able to do things better, and feelings can help us do that by pointing to what isn’t working as well as it could.  Today’s post goes on from the feeling response I wrote yesterday.  Different readers will respond differently, depending on their own feeling layers, of course.

“…As zoos are to wildness.”  That is a critical part of the sentence!  I am not against zoos.  In fact, I spent part of my life wanting to be a zookeeper.  I had our family read aloud the works of Gerald Durrell, whose life, other than writing, was devoted early on to gathering animals for zoos and then to creating an important zoo of his own.  One of the greatest synchronicities of our son’s life happened during his college semester in London when, looking into a bookstore window, he thought he recognized the reflection of the man standing behind him.  He turned and asked the man if he was Gerald Durrell.  When the man said he was, our son enthusiastically shared how important Durrell’s books had been to his childhood.  Durrell invited him to the zoo run by his Wildlife Conservation Trust, and of course he went!

As with schools, there are zoos and zoos.  Fewer and fewer of them are places of imprisonment for their charges or focused solely on putting animals on exhibit for the entertainment of their paying customers. Many do important conservation research.  And there is for the most part a serious effort to provide as natural a habitat for the animals as possible.  Nevertheless, the task of maintaining wildness is difficult to achieve with some species and impossible with many others!

Just so with highly creative kids.  Creativity itself is about not following directions, about finding new ways to do things, new ways to approach things, new ways to put things together or “reconcile the disparate.”  It is an individual thing.  An institution whose job is to educate all kids cannot function without requirements, directions, methods and–yes–coercion.

One of the most difficult half hours of my life was the first time I was asked as a visiting author to interact with a kindergarten class.   I’d written mostly young adult novels at that point and normally visited upper elementary or middle school classes, where I started by getting the kids excited about an idea.  I had literally never been in a room with more than 20 five year olds before that day.  I made the mistake of starting by getting the kids turned on.  Five year olds, of course, pretty much don’t need turning on–chaos ensued. And I never managed to restore even a semblance of order.

Creativity and institutions of any kind don’t go together easily.  At best there may be an uneasy alliance.  Institutions need patterns that creative people break.  Over and over again the “creative genius” who founds an organization of any kind–a company, a school, a theatre company–is replaced once that organization is up and running by someone whose particular skills are suited to  guiding and maintaining rather than inventing.  And it isn’t always that the founder is thrown out–some leave when they discover that keeping the organization running bores them silly and that making things new all the time can be disruptive and threatening to others.  Creativity often looks like destruction, when old forms have to be taken apart to make way for the new.

When that sixth grade teacher who was the nemesis of my life told my mother that I’d never amount to anything because I was “interested in too many things,” she was thinking along conventional lines:  “jack of all trades, master of none.”  The greatest joy of being a writer, of course, is that I get to keep writing different sorts of stories, doing different kinds of research, inventing whole new people and worlds.  One of the things that made me craziest in school was the schedule–same classes same day of the week, week after week after week.  As an adult I would not be able to do a job that involves constant repetition.

So this is the second half of what I wish to say about creativity in schools.  We can’t support it perfectly, but we can keep working to do better. Some schools and some teachers have more success than others in making room for creative kids, but much of the support the kids need may have to come from the fact that–unlike zoo animals–they get to leave the building at the end of the school day.

What I wrote during school was mostly written in the classes I didn’t like under the guise of taking careful notes (the notes my teachers thought accounted for my good grades.)  But most of my writing as a kid was done in trees, under bushes, at home in my room–outside of school and not at anyone’s request.

It is possible for a creative kid to survive even the most coercive school environment with a little help from outside–parents, other kids, adult mentors or just enough time and space to dream, and materials for playing, experiencing and inventing on their own.

But kids whose creativity can be submerged by doing really well at following directions, by a culture that is uncomfortable with rebels, or by a need to protect themselves from the hostile forces often ranged against them, do get hurt.  There is no life without pain; I’m not suggesting there should be.  But often these kids get hurt more deeply, more often and more permanently than necessary.  Coercion can inspire creativity as the creative kid finds ways to rebel against it or work around it.  But coercion can grind down and destroy as well.  These kids need to hear from adults that resistance is not necessarily a sign of poor character!

“If I had it to do all over again” (something every single parent can say at some point), I would put supporting creativity way higher up on my list of priorities for any kid who has, in addition to a really fine, really capable intellect, a passionate imagination and a drive toward novelty.  It was the nourishing of imagination that Einstein was talking about when he advocated reading fairy tales as a way to create future scientists.  When he said that creativity was more important than knowledge, it wasn’t that he was dissing knowledge.  But stuffing kids’ minds full of the knowledge we think they should have doesn’t make room for what is likely to be needed in a world we can’t predict that will be the world of their adulthood.

I prefer to look for positive possibilities.  If some kids can nourish their imaginations with computer games (like the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons that briefly took over my son’s life) I say there is hope in that.  But I also hope that anyone who can affect classrooms anywhere will keep in mind the need to provide some open spaces for the growing of imagination.  And I would remind parents to value and trust it as Einstein did.

Schools are to Creativity…

15 Jul

…as Zoos are to Wildness.

This was the title of a talk I first gave before I entered the realm of giftedness.  I’ve used that title many times since.  But this morning, when I had been planning to start preparations for camp (Yunasa begins a week from today and I leave home on Wednesday), I found this article (Why Creative Geniuses Hated School) posted in the FaceBook group, International Gifted Education, and was motivated to write a blog post instead.  If you haven’t already read that article, please, please click the link and read it before going on.  (I’ll wait.)  ***

I’m not writing here to bash schools, though that may seem to be the effect of this post.  I’m writing because it is difficult to know what to do about this problem, and it’s a serious problem that too many people (including myself for a long time) overlook, ignore or just don’t realize or understand.

I don’t claim to be a “creative genius.”  But I was not just a highly gifted kid, I was a highly creative kid.  I didn’t, of course, know this prior to entering school.  I had a vivid and constantly active imagination, but assumed everybody did.  School gave me little to do with that imagination, but then it gave me little to do with the rest of my mind, either, so I guess I just didn’t notice.

In the early days school for me was mostly a place where we kids were asked to do things that didn’t make a lot of sense.  I remember, for instance, cutting out words from a work book and pasting them under a picture–“apple” got pasted under the picture of an apple, “cat” under the picture of a cat.  I couldn’t imagine a reason for doing this, but the teacher wanted us to do it so I did it, along with all the other apparently useless tasks we were given.  And I got stars for doing it.

I was a girl from a family where authority counted, and it was the ’40s.  I pretty much did what I was told and enjoyed the stars.  The stars became S’s (for satisfactory–the only alternative being U’s for unsatisfactory) in grade school and A’s and the occasional B in junior high and high school, then in college and graduate school.

Long after my formal connection with school ended, Jane Piirto asked me to be part of a study she was doing of successful women writers.  The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires about their school experiences, and I did that.  My answers made it clear that not only had I been an excellent student, but I had pretty much loved school.

Years later, when I had become known as an expert in gifted education, I spoke at a conference in Nebraska that was organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of Leta Hollingworth’s death.  During that conference a film about Leta’s life was shown in which a poem of hers was read over suitable nature images–I believe it was titled “The Lone Pine” and she had written it in high school.  During the reading of the poem I began to cry.  The poem was one I certainly could have written at that age myself, about how hard it was to stand out, to stand alone on the top of the hill taking the brunt of the winds instead of standing safely down on the hillside, sheltered amongst the rest of the forest trees.

By the end of the film I had put myself back together, but during the plane ride home from the conference I found myself crying again.  The amount of pain that bubbled up over the rest of that day stunned me.  And when I got back to my computer, I spent six full hours writing, retrieving the “real story” of my school experiences from second grade on.

The protective cocoon of repression had broken as I listened to and identified with the feelings behind Leta’s poem, and I gradually came face to face with what school had really been for me.  In my own life, it hadn’t been other kids who bullied me–the bullies were defensive teachers who humiliated me, including the sixth grade teacher who arranged for the principal to denounce me as a liar and thief to the whole school over the intercom.  I hadn’t managed to repress that singular event–I had just put it down to the teacher’s vindictiveness.  But I had genuinely forgotten the others and the pain they caused.  The cocoon had been largely constructed of all those stars and good grades, the dutiful accomplishments of a bright kid whose schools and family expected her to follow directions, to achieve and excel.  How could I not have loved school when I was so successful at it?  When I filled out those questionnaires, I had genuinely believed my answers.

There were bright spots, of course, and a handful of caring, supportive teachers.  Luckily, I’d had one brilliant teacher at my highly academic school who taught me English all four years of high school, and gave us wonderful  literature to read and had us do free writing known as “journal entries” every single week.  Luckily also, the school had a powerful drama club and I’d done theatre as an extracurricular activity throughout. 

I majored in creative writing as an undergraduate, writing stories, poetry and plays–and again focused all my non-academic attention on theatre, surviving the “core curriculum” by getting through it as fast as possible and spending most of my time focused on my passions.  But as a graduate student I was not allowed to write a creative thesis (the volume of poetry I’d intended) for my Master’s degree and was required to do a work of literary criticism instead.  When I read today that Einstein had “found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful” for an entire year after forcing himself through his examinations, I was reminded that my Master’s degree in English Literature very nearly stopped me writing entirely.  I have never darkened the door of a school (as a student) again, in spite of pressure to get a doctorate in order to keep a university teaching position.

Over my thirty years in the gifted field I have regularly been called “Dr. Tolan” by people who simply assume that an “expert” must have a doctorate.  And there was a time when a competetive colleague suggested that a “mere children’s book writer” could not possibly have the credentials to function in the academic world.  I’m not against doctorates–most of my closest friends and colleagues have them–but acquiring one can be harmful to imagination and nearly poisonous to creativity!  The words “terminal degree” still make me chuckle.  It could have been that in my life!

This post is not meant as a personal complaint.  I’ve had a wonderful life doing multiple things I love to do.  The main reason for writing here is not because my own creativity was damaged or at least thwarted by school, but because I bought into the education paradigm so thoroughly that I failed to make my own son’s immense creativity the primary focus of our attention when he was growing up.  I was seduced by his amazing mind.  I wrote about that a bit in my “who/what” post in this blog here.  Luckily, he never convinced himself that he loved school, and he wasn’t seduced by the demand for multiple degrees as the only doorway to success or fulfillment.

I was moved to write today because it isn’t only the “creative geniuses” who are hurt by school (and of course because when they’re children we don’t yet know who those geniuses might be.)  It’s all the kids whose innate creativity goes unsupported in school.

How many kids are out there with vivid, passionate, creative imaginations and also extremely able intellects, whose “success” in the academic realm (good grades, high achievement) is masking severe  malnutrition in schools that don’t make their imaginations a priority and their curiosity an organizing factor in their education?  (Especially in this era of high stakes testing!) 

How many kids might one day claim as I did (like kidnap victims exhibiting the “Stockholm syndrome”) that they had loved the schools that nearly destroyed the essence of who they were?  And how many rebellious, angry kids are that way because such a huge piece of who they are is ignored after kindergarten or first grade, as kids’ stuff?

Einstein said that if we want to raise fine scientists we should read them fairy tales.  Given how few schools these days follow that advice, one must hope that computer games are filling some of that need…

“…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…”

20 May

How many of us were told at some point in our lives that we were not living up to our potential

I was.  I was a high achiever in school—mostly A’s, a fantastic (probably intuitive) ability to take tests.  But my potential?  Suppose I got a 98 on a test.  “What happened there?” my father would ask.  Once, the Director of Studies at my high school wrote a note on my report card about the B+ I got in a demanding, college-level biology class.  “For a person of Stephanie’s potential,” her note said, “a B+ is not an acceptable grade.”  There was in my world the idea that there were only two alternatives:  A (better yet A+) and F; perfection or failure.  

It has taken many decades (and some costly therapy) to extricate myself from that mindset.  As Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, says, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” 

Just in the last few weeks, during all this conversation in the “gifted realm” about achievement and eminence (an old conversation that has only taken on this recent intensity because of an effort to make it holy writ instead of a conversation), I have come to see the charge of not living up to one’s potential as a toxin.  These days we worry about toxins in our food, about dangerous drugs, about tainted air and water, but we freely dispense the toxic judgment of unfulfilled potential to ourselves and our children (most especially those labeled as in some way more full of “potential” than others). 

Eleven years ago in an online seminar I was conducting, a mother expressed concern that if her child chose to follow some deep current interest, he might not reach the top of his field.  That was her goal for that child—to reach the top of his field.  I have talked about the cages schools create for cheetahs—think of what a narrow goal it is, what a tight and limited pathway such a goal creates for any person, let alone any child.  How could he even be sure the goal had been attained—isn’t it pretty much always a matter of opinion?  (I can’t help thinking of Edison and Tesla for instance.)  And if he could somehow prove he had reached the top, how long could he stay there?

This toxin is often put out with the best of intentions.  Whether it’s a teacher with a bright student who doesn’t turn in homework, a mother worried that a child isn’t getting the support necessary to develop her unusual intelligence, a politician concerned that we are losing the productivity of our finest minds, or a father furious over his son’s laziness or passion for video games, people seem to think that living up to one’s potential is a good and necessary thing, perhaps the only road to success. 

Here’s the thing.  None of us lives up to our potential!  We all use only bits and pieces of our minds.  Even if we were to leave out the distinction between mind and brain, we know that the potential of the human brain is vastly complex and no matter how fervently we study it, its capacities continually astonish us.  

Savants have been the source of many surprises, of course.  From “Rain Man’s” ability to instantly tell how many toothpicks spilled out of a box, to Leslie Lemke’s ability to play full length classical piano pieces after a single hearing, to Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to fly over a cityscape and then draw what he’s seen in excruciating detail and perfect scale, the things savants can do confound us and send us searching for explanations of how certain brain deficits might result in extreme surpluses of one kind or another.  Still, the very fact that any human can do these things means that such a potential exists (one way or another) in the human brain. 

There are a great many mental capacities that most of us would consider “impossible” that are not only possible to some individuals but may be available to anyone open to experiencing them.  There are people who are able to read with their hands rather than their eyes, for instance.  I first encountered this phenomenon in a woman with extreme intuitive capacities, who was also dyslexic.  So difficult had reading been for her as a child that she was driven to find an alternative to using her vision in order to access the information on a written page.  She discovered that she could “download” what was on the page by running her hands over it.  

I know of at least two people who have conducted experiments to test for this ability with young children, who report that this is not a rare phenomenon—just one that our current theories of brain and mind can’t explain.  The younger the child (therefore the less caught in our ideas of what is and is not possible) the more likely that child is to be able to acquire information from a printed page this way—both photographs and words.  Says one of those experimenters, “We could probably all do this, but nobody ever told us we can, so we have never tried.”  The other has found that some adults can do it as well, but with considerably greater difficulty.  (I can’t, of course, give you citations from peer-reviewed scientific journals for these experiments—they are not the sorts of experiments scientific journals are interested in publishing.  At least not yet.) 

It has been suggested that the more we study the brain the less we understand consciousness.   

You don’t have to be willing to allow nonrational mysteries like reading with the hands into your own world view to be aware of the extraordinary reach of human mental processing.  We can recognize the kids we’re calling mermaids here by the “impossible” things they do within the range of the rational.  What kind of brain/mind does it take for a six month old to begin speaking in full (if short and perhaps not perfectly pronounced) sentences?  Most child-development experts would say that couldn’t be done because a child of that age does not have a brain developed enough to begin using verbal language.  But there are children who do it.  Forty years ago parents did not think of teaching their infants sign language so that they could communicate before developing the ability to speak.  But the success of this (now not at  all uncommon) practice has shown us that infant brain/minds are far more attuned to and able to process language than previously thought. 

Julian Stanley famously said that the “mathematically precocious” kids he brought into SMPY could learn algebra in from 0 to 15 hrs.  Zero hours?  Really?  Yes.  There are children who seem to come with algebra “pre-loaded” into their mental systems.  Just as there are those who seem almost to “recognize” languages that no one in their world uses, so that they can learn or teach themselves those languages with lightning speed.  How is this possible?  The very easy answer is that we don’t know.  The list goes on and on.  The abilities shown by prodigies are very little different from savant capacities, though the prodigy does not have countervailing deficits. 

Finally, of course, there is the problem of “multi-potentiality.”  Being able to do many things doesn’t necessarily mean we will or even should do them all.  A person with vast, varied, complex and extraordinary capacities may not want to follow some of them.  And if she does have a passion for all of them, may find it hard to choose a direction in life.  Under the pressure of their diversity she might take a side trail that leads away from any of them, or she could bounce from one to the other and piece together a patchwork of a life path that looks nothing like success from the outside.  And then there’s the impact of life itself.  It can be very, very tough.  There is no way to know how much of “recognized intellectual potential” might have to go into just figuring out how to survive.  

And finally, where do the concepts of personal fulfillment, joy, peace, happiness or the ability to come to the end of one’s life free from the misery of a long trail of regrets come into this conversation?  Let’s just get over this potential thing.  Potential is unlimited.  A single human life is not.

In Memoriam

12 May

Yesterday when I posted on my wall the news that Annemarie Roeper had passed away, I meant to come to The Deep End and post a remembrance.  As it turned out, a combination of feeling it much more intensely than I’d expected and having very little sleep the night before, pretty much wiped me out for the rest of the day. I was having a bit of difficulty imagining the world without her.

Here is what I posted on FaceBook, a message that came pretty much on its own very soon after I got the news:  She has left us, today, and the world is a bit emptier without her physical presence. She will be greatly missed, but her work has reached so many of us, helped so many kids, enriched the lives of so many families that an important part of her remains with all of us she touched. And the writings she has left behind will go on touching lives! Travel gently, dear friend, and enjoy the light! 

For those of you who might not have seen the Roeper School website’s obituary, you can find it here. 

Today I want to make an important connection between what Annemarie stood for (truly seeing each child, respecting each child, and teaching not just for the mind but for the soul of each child) and what I wrote in “What Is Our Field?” and “Who or What?” 

If it were standard throughout NAGC and in the schools of America to see education the way Annemarie did, I would not be so distressed by the organization’s nearly sole focus on education.  Roeper School was not standard even before it was designated a school for gifted children.  The philosophy brought to its founding was child-centered.  The whole child was the focus and children were always to be accorded the respect due to any human being.  Annemarie, throughout her life, was an educator focused on the who not the what.  Children were not, to her, cogs in a machine.  They were never interchangeable widgets in a system meant to bring them into compliance with regulations and expectations imposed from outside. 

She was a role model for all of us—parents, counselors and educators.  We would do well, as we make a decision for or about a child, to ask ourselves “what would Annemarie do?” and then try our best to answer that question.  Nobody can get it right all the time, but putting that question into our decision-making process could give us an important perspective.

What Is Our Field?

10 May

As I was re-reading Jim DeLisle’s response to NAGC’s “bold move” this morning, it occurred to me that the way I and others often refer to the “field” we identify with is wrong.  I went back over some recent writing of my own and discovered that even though I myself spent only five years of my life as an educator (teaching composition to first and second year college students), I had often identified myself with the field of gifted education.  Certainly, appropriate education for gifted kids is important to me.  It’s a huge part of their lives and an area in which very few of their needs are met.  But one of the main reasons so many of us feel so strongly that the National Association for Gifted Children has recently gone astray, is not just a semantic and conceptual argument about giftedness vs. talent.  The organization seems to have come to believe that its mission is to represent not children, but education and perhaps educators.  The justification for switching terms and concepts appears to be a desire to hold onto a place in American education. 

When my son first heard about the “bold move” introduced last November, he said, “Taking away the word ‘gifted’ would be like the NAACP becoming the National Association for the Advancement of People.  Sort of loses the point!” 

But what is our point?  Who is the focus of our mission?  Notice how that would change, for instance, if instead of being the National Association for Gifted Children, that organization became the National Association for Talent Development.  Do you notice that instead of being focused on people it would become focused on an educational strategy?  (Not who but what.) Now look at the words I took a few minutes ago from the NAGC website:  “What binds us together is our common interest in the education and talent development of gifted learners in any setting.”  Not “our common interest in gifted children,” or “our common interest in the needs of gifted children,” but our common interest in education, and not of “gifted children,” but “gifted learners.” 

As for the words “in any setting”—they don’t seem to be backed up by either focus or action.  NAGC has shown very little interest in the “education and talent development of gifted learners in the home.”  Homeschoolers get scant attention from the organization which, like most educational institutions, seems to be defensive about the overwhelming rise in the numbers of families choosing to bring their children’s learning home.  As Wenda Sheard, a board member of NAGC’s British counterpart pointed out recently here, our country’s organization shows little to no interest in gifted children in jails.  And NAGC would appear to have little outreach to private education in general.  Its attention goes mostly to learners in public schools.

But mainly, its focus now is education, education, education.  Not kids, kids, kids.  Nor people, people, people. 

When NAGC writes “what binds us together,” we might ask for a definition of us.  Surely that must mean its members.  It seems to me, from more than 25 years of going to NAGC’s national convention, and more than 30 as a consultant about the needs of the gifted, we who are (or have been) members are a diverse lot. 

I guess, because of my own history, I’d start with parents (and some grandparents).  NAGC has never, in my acquaintance with it, made parents a priority constituency, though it is parents who are responsible (biologically and otherwise) for the existence of gifted kids in the first place.  They are the ones 24/7 on the front lines of trying to meet the needs of their children—not just educational needs, but social, psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical.  So even if they are a membership minority, they are absolutely critical to the population NAGC came into existence to serve. And they tend to need all the help they can get. 

There are, of course, teachers.  They, like parents, are on the front lines day after day, faced with the incredibly difficult task of trying to meet the learning needs of gifted students in classrooms of wildly diverse learners with wildly diverse needs.  In addition—nowadays—they are held accountable for all their students’ scores on standardized tests invented by people with little or no understanding of what today’s classrooms are like, and no apparent expertise in test creation.  The craze for standardized testing is not a pedagogical issue, it is a political one, whose ramifications are most felt at the teachers’ level. 

Some of “us” are school administrators, whose job is to oversee the whole educational enterprise, from curriculum, to teacher development and retention, to curriculum.  Oh yes, and probably discipline, fundraising, building maintenance and transportation.  (To say nothing of paperwork.) 

Another part of “us” would be counselors, psychologists, therapists, whose mission is to help the children cope with all the incredible complexity of their lives and beingness.  Their focus must be on social, emotional, psychological development in areas far beyond “learning” and education.  

Then, of course, there are the academics.  Their interest is naturally in theory and research.  They develop theories and definitions and test them out with research studies.  They write and speak, publish and edit, and share their work teaching teachers or would-be teachers. 

Graduate students are also part of “us,” learning from the academics.  Some are already teaching, gaining degrees to solidify or enhance their teaching positions, and some are on their way to becoming the next generation of academics. 

And then there are non-affiliated folk like me, with experience in one or several of the above groups, who hang around to share what we have learned just because we care. 

So what, in the final analysis, do we truly have in common?  What most binds us together?  I should think it is our interest in and concern for gifted kids (and maybe gifted people in general), however that came about.  And education is only one part of that. 

All day I’ve been thinking about what “our field” might be more accurately called. I tried gifted conservation, gifted nurturance, gifted support, gifted beingness, and many more.  Finally I arrived, ironically enough, at gifted development, just as Linda Silverman came to that when naming her Center.  Unlike talent development, gifted development is about the people.  Gifted children.  Gifted adolescents.  Gifted adults.  Gifted elders.  All of those are living human beings with some fundamental differences from the norm and some fundamental challenges finding a place for themselves in the world.  Development, like learning, is a lifelong endeavor. 

So, wherever NAGC chooses as an organization to go, my own focus will remain where my heart lies—in the field (I’ll think of it full of grasses and wildflowers, stretching out toward the horizon) of gifted development.

What’s in a Name?

30 Apr

I don’t have a passionate interest in the subject of what to call unusually intelligent people.  Our current term is gifted, which isn’t particularly descriptive or precise, but has been in use long enough that its general meaning is pretty well understood.  Because that meaning is general we’ve developed the descriptors of highly, exceptionally and profoundly to help pin down the degree of difference between the gifted and those whose intelligence falls toward the center of the bell curve.  The term, with or without added descriptors, has long been criticized by a great many people and is being challenged with special vehemence at the moment.  We are told that we need to change it.

Here’s what I think now and what I’ve always said:  it isn’t the word we choose, the name we give it, that creates the problem.  It’s the phenomenon of unusual intelligence itself.  As Linda Silverman has said, there’s a threat standard in science fiction novels—that there might be a more intelligent life form out there somewhere heading our way.  The trouble is, of course, a more intelligent life form  is already here—the people we call gifted.  When faced with this idea there may be some fear, but there’s also a sense of injustice.  It just doesn’t seem fair that some people should be more intelligent than others.

What other names might we give this phenomenon? 

The word genius used to be used for both children and adults who exhibited extreme intelligence.  (Think Genetic Studies of Genius, Terman’s classic longitudinal study of children who scored highly on IQ tests.) The term was discarded because it was argued that genius is a word that signifies great achievement, only appropriate for someone like Newton, Sheakespeare, Einstein or—among the few women it was used for—Madame Curie. 

Smart is another term that, like gifted, is so general as to need descriptors for differentiation. The excellent blog Wicked Smart gives us one with a Maine twang.  But smart is used so casually that it doesn’t seem to capture everything we’re trying to convey.  And now that phones are called smart, it seems unlikely that we’d want to go back to using the word for extremely intelligent people. 

Talented makes me, at least, think of the ability to tap dance or play the cello—a narrow, inborn knack for accomplishing something specific.  It just doesn’t equate with unusually intelligent.

I’m rather fond of bright, myself, and I actually use it quite a lot.  Super bright works nicely to suggest somebody pretty far out on the tail of the curve. 

Some people like high IQ.  That seems to me to focus entirely on a test—and in this era where changes to the tests have left us unable to distinguish clearly at both the left and right sides of the curve, a test score is hard to count on.  Just as thermometers that only register temperature up to 103 degrees couldn’t alert us to life-threatening high fevers, new IQ tests don’t allow the possibility of the sorts of children Leta Hollingworth wrote about in her book about children “Over 180 IQ.”

High potential suggests that the difference in the person’s ability to learn and process information is only potential rather than here-and-now actual (think baby cheetah as potential cheetah).  For an unusually intelligent person achievement might be potential, but intelligence isn’t!  (Have a conversation with a profoundly gifted six year old, and you’ll know what you’re hearing is not a matter of mere potential.) 

High ability doesn’t work for me because ability, like talent, is an undifferentiated term with no particular connection to intelligence.  A high ability to knit, a high ability to steer a speeding ATV, a high ability to walk a tight rope—none of these assumes a high ability to think critically, conceptualize, make connections, or come up with new and useful ideas (all of which are aspects of high level intelligence), though of course they wouldn’t rule out such intelligence.  

XIP (extra intelligent/intense person) is a term invented byWillem Kuipers in his excellent book, Enjoying The Gift of Being Uncommon.  I rather like that, because at least it’s clear and specific.  Also, it has no previously established connotations or emotional baggage.

Can it go unnamed?

When and where I grew up the term gifted wasn’t in use.  But that doesn’t mean that adults had no names for me.  Annoying was one.  Quick was another.  Loud was another (related to my intensities)—and (because I was a girl) bossy. There were no gifted programs in my school.  My pull-out program was being sent out of class to run the ditto machine, to carry notes to the office, to help another student with our spelling list, or to do any other small task that would get me out of the teacher’s way for a while.  It seemed that nobody was interested in allowing me, much less encouraging me, to learn more!  Not being labeled gifted didn’t mean that I wasn’t recognized as “brighter than the average bear” even without an IQ test.  It did mean that I was not given any sort of explanation for my differences.

A few teachers liked my unusual intelligence; most very obviously did not!  But I myself was only being who I was and never could quite understand why the majority of my teachers (and a few kids) seemed to automatically dislike me.  (The truth is, where those anti-Stephanie teachers were concerned, I pretty much automatically disliked them!  It could be a chicken-egg question, but I think their dislike came first.) 

I had no real understanding of how different my mind was until long after my son (who had obvious difficulty fitting in school) was tested and termed exceptionally gifted, leading me to study everything I could find about human intelligence.  In my generation not understanding our extraordinary intelligence wasn’t unusual.  As a dear (and incredibly successful) friend of mine said when I told her she had been a gifted child, “Oh, no—I wasn’t gifted, I was just weird.”

Of course, whatever you call them, kids do now and always did exist whose developmental trajectory is far outside the norms and who don’t, therefore, fit the world constructed for children in a culture based on those norms.  If they were not required to live in that world and expected to fit, there would be less need to categorize and label them.  But it would still be important to understand their ways of learning in order to provide them with the challenging education they need.  It seems to me it is also important to give them a way to understand the reasons they feel and are treated as different.

It was the fact that my differences were never explained to me that led me to explain to my son that his differences had to do with unusual intelligence.  The psychologist who tested him suggested I use a magnifying glass/microscope/electron microscope analogy to explain why he saw things differently from his classmates.  That explanation worked well when he was five because it didn’t suggest that either his perspective or theirs was wrong.  Different instruments provide different views.  Later, it was important to talk with him about why, in order to give him something to actually learn in school, we were offering him the opportunity to skip two grades. 

Here’s the tricky and surprising thing:  the very fact that my son’s differences were explained to him has led him to back away from explaining these same issues to his own sons. It would seem that my son suspects that knowing he was different all his life is a big part of what made him feel different. 

I, of course, wanted him to know that his differences could be seen in a positive light because I’d interpreted my own as negative—as was true of my husband, his father—who always assumed that his one (wonderful) year in a pilot program for unusually intelligent children (he had to get there by himself on a trolley) was really a special class for bad kids.  (my husband corrects me:  unruly kids.)  He had gotten the highest IQ score of any child in his school district’s history and his parents had been warned not to tell him he was unusually bright.

Whatever our personal experiences have been we have no way to compare them to what we did not experience.  The same range and intensity of pain may therefore be blamed on fully opposite causes—as in being told or not being told.  Parents who really want to keep their children from pain (often the pain they experienced themselves) tend to purposely make different choices than their own parents did—only to have their children blame those choices later for causing pain.  Seriously frustrating! 

As I said in my article, “You Can’t Do it Wrong,” even when we parents are trying our very best to do it right, we can’t guarantee that our decisions won’t harm our kids in some way.  So we might as well give ourselves a break, do the best we can, and act as if we can’t do it wrong.

So—back to gifted.  What are the objections to this term?

It suggests, many people complain, that these children have an extra something that they didn’t earn.  But of course the fundamental truth is that they do.  When I was a child I had done nothing whatsoever to earn my prodigious memory, my ability to grasp concepts on first hearing, my emotional intensity, my powerful imagination, or my ability to learn to read on my own—any more than I earned my green eyes and blond hair.  They just were.

When I do an author visit to a school and children ask me when I started writing, I tell them I was born a writer.  Everything necessary to doing this thing I do was there from the start.  Of course, many things (internally and externally) came together after that to turn those innate qualities into a career. 

Giftedness, contrary to a current argument being made by many in the gifted ed field, is not synonymous with achievement.  It may or may not lead a kid to do well on school tasks or an adult to fame, fortune or culturally recognized success.  Many factors affect its expression!

Then there is the sense of injustice around some folks getting more gifts than others. I know of some families with two children who give an unbirthday present to the one who is chafing at a sister’s or brother’s cake and pile of presents, in an effort to reduce that sense of unfairness.  Using the terms gifts and gifted for differences that already make people uncomfortable does hook into some extra emotional baggage.  But it doesn’t seem likely to me that changing the word would make much difference, given the underlying discomfort with unusual intelligence itself.

Most of the objections to the term are actually objections to the way gifted education has been implemented (failing to find, identify and serve minority children for instance, or failing to differentiate programs to meet the needs of children with different abilities) or to the ongoing conflicts about how to define intelligence itself.  

There’s also the suggestion that identifying and labeling kids creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it would be better just to give every child a sense that his or her mind is extremely capable and not separate out some kids whose minds are said to be more capable.  It makes enormous sense to tell every child that his or her mind is extremely capable—because it is pretty much true.  Humans are learning animals capable of amazing feats of mind.  I do believe that the stories we tell are the stories we live, so I’m aware there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

But this argument has the unfortunate side-effect in a one-size-fits-all version of education, of holding the brightest kids back so the others won’t feel bad.  I’m told there’s a tee-shirt with a quote of mine that says that no one has the moral right to do that.  But until we fully differentiate, that’s what happens.

Mary St. George wrote a blog post recently  about this whole subject of terminology and named her post “The Gifted Label.”  It’s well worth reading, and suggests that terms teachers (and others, presumably) are comfortable with are better than terms that bring negative baggage.  But the word label is another conflict-ridden term.  People complain about labeling children because they assume that labels are external tags that have little to do with the individual realities of the children themselves. 

I like the idea of diagnosing unusual intelligence, just as a doctor needs to make a diagnosis in order to determine a treatment regimen.  Equal treatment of unequals is easily understood as a violation of individual rights when it comes to medicine.  If fifty people are treated for the common cold when one of them actually has pneumonia, it’s clear that the one with pneumonia is not receiving proper care. 

But diagnosis still involves naming or labeling.  Cold.  Pneumonia. We use language both to help us understand and to communicate with each other. Sometimes the words we choose can get in the way of both purposes.  But whatever the limits of language, we’re pretty much stuck with it, so we do the best we can.

The biggest problem?

When it comes right down to it, the biggest problem we face handling the issue of people with unusual to extreme intelligence may be that we value intelligence (and ourselves) so very highly.  Many people automatically consider greater intelligence to be what separates us from the “lesser animals” with whom we share the planet. Though the more we learn about the intelligence of other species, the less we can depend on that line of separation, it is still a big part of the cultural story that is accepted in our society. 

If greater intelligence makes us “better” than other animals, then it would follow that greater intelligence would make one person better than another.  That betterness is  given an extra dimension when we add the idea that gifted people have great potential for moral development.  It was partly to counter the sense of giftedness meaning specifically kinder, gentler, more loving and moral sorts of better that I did a talk at the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted once about the Unabomber, whose unusual intelligence and thought processes led him to the conclusion that it was okay to murder or maim some people as part of his plan to save the planet.  My point at the time was that head without heart is dangerous.  But there was little doubt that the Unabomber was gifted.

Much of the resentment people feel about this whole issue comes from a sense that recognizing unusual intelligence means affirming that those who have it have more value in the world.  That’s the reason I came up with the cheetah metaphor—to take this whole issue out of the human realm for a moment so we could get away from the idea that gifted means better.  People readily understand that cheetahs and lions have different needs and a different place to fill in the web of life.  There is no automatic assumption that one species is better than the other.

Often when I tell people that in addition to writing novels for kids and young adults, I’m a consultant on the needs of highly to profoundly gifted children, I can read their discomfort on their faces.  Elitist that discomfort says.  As if they think that caring about that particular population means I don’t care about anyone else.  Jane Goodall, on the other hand, is generally given the right to focus her whole life’s attention on chimpanzees without being accused of not caring about other animals. 

We could certainly change the word we use, but we can’t change the underlying stories and beliefs of a whole culture or alleviate the strains and pains of human experience.  My own personal belief is that every single person on the planet has a right to be here and a place in the story.  But I don’t have the time, the energy or the capacity to focus my attention on all of them at once!  So I focus on the needs of mermaids or cheetahs, aka the highly to profoundly gifted.