on the importance of gifted education
Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Rachel Wong.
A drop of water meets a speck of dust, and together they crystallise as one. As the crystal takes a trip through the atmosphere, the low temperature and high humidity of the air work together to shape it into a figure with six intricate, symmetrical arms. A snowflake is born.
This snowflake may be considered a meme of the millennial generation, to the point where being anything but ordinary makes you conceited, full of yourself, so special.
Thirteen years later, I still find myself doubting whether I fit the label. I am reluctant to use the term “gifted” when talking about myself, and it feels easier to simply ignore the existence of my “gifts.”
From a young age, I was identified as gifted, given a name tag that said “Snowflake,” joining about 2% of the population. Gifted individuals are often characterised as rapid learners with excellent memory and the ability to continuously connect new information with previously acquired nuggets of knowledge. We ask probing questions, often have intense emotional experiences, and march to the beat of our own drums (National Association for Gifted Children, 2017). Psychometrically, we are people who have an IQ score of more than 130, but there are many other factors than IQ that constitute giftedness.
Thirteen years later, I still find myself doubting whether I fit the label. I am reluctant to use the term “gifted” when talking about myself, and it feels easier to simply ignore the existence of my “gifts.” Even the thought of this post being published with my name in the by-line makes me freeze with anxiety about how people might perceive me after reading what I have to say. But as it turns out, many gifted people feel this way, and it’s a product of how society views intelligence. You see, we live in a society that values and fosters gifts – but only a certain kind.
Imagine it’s the national championship 100-metre dash. The sprinters are ready, the starting shot fired, and off they go. Then a group of people stroll onto the track, tell the sprinters to take it down a notch, and ask them why they’re in such a hurry. Some laugh. This would be a ridiculous situation. That group of people would be scolded, accused of holding people back who are far more talented.
But this is exactly what happens in schools all over the country, to kids who are highly intelligent. Only those “sprinters” know better than to scold the “strollers” – because they’d have to claim to be more intelligent than the average person, or even those considered “bright”; and in our society, that feels like a mortal sin.
Why should we teach them more than what’s in the curriculum? It’s pretty elitist to make a program just for gifted kids, isn’t it? Look at these special little snowflakes, asking to be treated differently than everyone else.
Children who have learning disabilities receive a tailored education – they get extra time to learn school material and write tests, extra help from special support teachers, and, in some cases, on-site therapy to aid with their learning and developmental needs. Children who are athletically gifted learn from top-tier coaches and are cheered on regularly from the stands. The artistically and musically gifted are given the freedom to modify their school curricula in order to nurture their abilities, and have a variety of special programs made just for them. Yet when an intellectually gifted child asks for more challenging work, or a different style of teaching, or a curriculum that allows them to explore their interests and let their ideas develop, their needs are dismissed. Why should we teach them more than what’s in the curriculum? It’s pretty elitist to make a program just for gifted kids, isn’t it? Look at these special little snowflakes, asking to be treated differently than everyone else.
But we are different than everyone else, and in a world where room temperature is 21 degrees, we intellectual snowflakes are forced to spend so much time and energy worrying about melting, that we miss out on the opportunity to grow, develop, and put our gifts to good use.
So what does it feel like?
Imagine living in a world that isn’t made for you; in which every learning process in a normal classroom seems to be going in slow motion, full of bottom-up learning and hoops to jump through in the form of seemingly pointless assignments. You silently count to 10 after the teacher asks a question, just to keep things fair, hoping that you’ll be able to keep track of your thoughts as they jump to the next mildly related topic before any of your classmates even raises a hand.
Imagine living in a world that isn’t made for you; in which every learning process in a normal classroom seems to be going in slow motion, full of bottom-up learning and hoops to jump through in the form of seemingly pointless assignments. You silently count to 10 after the teacher asks a question, just to keep things fair, hoping that you’ll be able to keep track of your thoughts as they jump to the next mildly related topic before any of your classmates even raises a hand. When you share the intensity of your experiences and emotions, you bite through the awkwardness of being too intense, too analytical, too serious, too emotional – just too much, because most of the people you talk to experience life through a completely different lens. And when you finally go looking for that “colder” place, an environment more suited to your educational and developmental needs, you’re told there’s no room in the budget for a gifted class (a freezer!). But you’re gifted, right? You’ll be fine.
I was lucky enough to go to a high school with a gifted program, where a third of my peers were gifted. I view those four years as one of the most valuable opportunities I have ever had. Most of the teachers were on board with differentiated education and took into account that we generally needed much fewer repetitions, less structure, more space to think outside the box, and challenging schoolwork that had a point…and that along with our giftedness, came a handful of (sometimes troublesome) quirks that were unique to each student.
More importantly, we needed each other. We needed to see that there were others just like us, enthusiastic to pursue interests beyond the depth of the typical student. We needed to know that we weren’t the only ones with ambitions to be a musician, a physicist, a restaurant owner, and a teacher – all at the same time. We needed peers who would keep us on our toes, challenge our thoughts, and stop us from holding ourselves back. And we needed to know that others were facing the same problems; that we weren’t weird, or insane, or faking. We needed the opportunity to relate.
Unfortunately, gifted programming is not available everywhere. In the Netherlands, only 20 to 25% of secondary schools have policies concerning high-ability students, and very few schools make the distinction between high-ability and gifted. The Dutch government’s objectives include plans for specialised education for the top 15-20% best-performing students (de Boer et al., 2013), but gifted students are not necessarily the best performers (a topic for another time), and there is a stark difference in the educational needs of the gifted (2% of the population) and the 15-20% top performers.
I mean, you’re already a snowflake in a world where everyone wants to be one. You have it all. How dare you ask to be put in a freezer on top of the “gift” you’ve been given?
Somewhere along the way, policy-makers decided that we weren’t important enough for special attention. Despite the large body of research showing evidence of our brains firing differently, our asynchronous development, our sensory sensitivity, and our emotional needs (O’Boyle et al., 1995; Silverman, 1997; Gere et al., 2009; Peterson, 2009), society has somehow agreed that we should just suck it up. Because we can. Because we’re gifted.
And when you grow up in a world that largely denies the special needs of gifted people, you start questioning it too. I mean, you’re already a snowflake in a world where everyone wants to be one. You have it all. How dare you ask to be put in a freezer on top of the “gift” you’ve been given?
By no means do I wish to come across as whiney. I have a lot of privilege from the hand I’ve been dealt, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Yet in my mind, there is something very wrong when I feel extremely lucky for receiving the education I got, while it would be appalling for people with other special needs to be deprived of an appropriate education. Over the years, I’ve found a way to optimise my environment and direct my own learning, hopping through the hoops of the system along the way. And society has certainly come a long way in making efforts to foster the gifted in their development.
But what would happen if young people with high intelligence were cheered on, instead of being asked to slow down? What if we appreciated intelligence the way we appreciate artistic or athletic talents? What would happen if we just let the “sprinters” run; if we let the snowflakes have their freezer?
Note: Image by Aaron Burden, licensed by CC0
Common Characteristics of Gifted Individuals | National Association for Gifted Children. (2017). Nagc.org. Retrieved 9 June 2017, from https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/my-child-gifted/common-characteristics-gifted-individuals
De Boer, G. C., Minnaert, A. E., & Kamphof, G. (2013). Gifted education in the Netherlands. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 36(1), 133-150.
Gere, D. R., Capps, S. C., Mitchell, D. W., & Grubbs, E. (2009). Sensory sensitivities of gifted children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(3), 288-295.
O’Boyle, M., Benbow, C., & Alexander, J. (1995). Sex differences, hemispheric laterality, and associated brain activity in the intellectually gifted. Developmental Neuropsychology, 11(4), 415-443. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/87565649509540630
Peterson, J. S. (2009). Myth 17: Gifted and talented individuals do not have unique social and emotional needs. Gifted Child Quarterly, 53(4), 280-282.
Silverman, L. K. (1997). The construct of asynchronous development. Peabody Journal of Education, 72(3-4), 36-58.