Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Teacher Magaret De Jesus shows Grade 12 biology students Chris Chung, Leila Meema-Coleman and Clinton D'Silva, how to use some equipment for an experiment at the Ontario Science Centre Science School in Toronto. The small school, takes on 30 dedicated students to learn about science. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Teacher Magaret De Jesus shows Grade 12 biology students Chris Chung, Leila Meema-Coleman and Clinton D'Silva, how to use some equipment for an experiment at the Ontario Science Centre Science School in Toronto. The small school, takes on 30 dedicated students to learn about science. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

'Gifted' - what is it good for? Add to ...

After a couple of days at Westmount, by contrast, "[Avalon]said, 'Mom, I've met my people.' She found her tribe."

Still, once a child's in a targeted program or school, it's not all smooth sailing. A few more uncomfortable truths may have to be addressed - such as the fear of having the gifted label slip away.

"Gifted kids will often experience their giftedness as a big bag full of expectations. So there's some anxiety about being able to live up to those expectations," says Mr. Curties.

To help deal with such non-academic problems, Westmount teachers are now launching a pilot version of an "affective" (emotional) curriculum in their middle school.

For instance, teachers will lead kids into "supported failure" by asking them open-ended questions - such as whether euthanasia is ever justified - so that they can experience the frightening truth that there's not always a correct answer.

Skeptics to the left of them, budget-cutters to the right

Other critics, however, are calling into question the wisdom of bestowing the gifted label at all.

Dr. Dweck, the Stanford researcher, is known for her recent work distinguishing what she calls the "fixed" mindset from a "growth" mindset.

She has found that children who are designated bright after an IQ test are then less likely to try potentially difficult tests; over time, they often fail to match their original scores. Kids praised for their effort, not their smarts - those with a "growth" mindset - were able to improve their scores by 30 per cent.

Dr. Dweck believes being labelled gifted has the same effect, and many in the gifted-education community have embraced her perspective.

She is addressing a conference of the National Association for Gifted Children on Saturday in Atlanta, where she plans to outline the tension between the lingering attachment to the IQ test and the growing evidence that labels, however positive, hurt both the anointed and those left behind.

"Do we want to be remembered as people who categorized and labelled children," she says, "or as people who helped all children fulfill their potential?"

Eminent zoologist and author Desmond Morris recently stepped into the debate with his new book, Child: How Children Think, Learn and Grow in the Early Years - a look at human development from 2 to 5 in the same spirit as the author's famous The Naked Ape. It includes a chapter called, "The Dilemma of the Gifted Child."

"By all means, let that child develop. Don't hold it back," he says by phone. "But on the other hand don't make it feel too special. If you do, it's going to develop into being too odd. Into a kind of freak."

Meanwhile, the place of gifted education relative to the mainstream is very much in flux. On one hand, it has influenced the current thinking on how all students should be taught.

At the Atlanta conference on Saturday, gifted-education expert Joe Renzulli's talk will lob out this challenge: Now that general education has appropriated techniques such as creative problem-solving, thinking skills and problem-based learning, what's left?

"We used to think these were the province of gifted education, but now all kids should develop them," says Dr. Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talent at the University of Connecticut.

"So if they've stolen our thunder, what should we be doing to justify a separate expenditure of teacher training, research and things like that?"

On the other hand, Joanne Foster, who teaches at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, says the field is full of new ideas about how gifted children learn, but the implementation is spotty.

"The biggest problem is lack of appropriate teacher training," says Dr. Foster. She leads the sole OISE course on the subject. It is optional, and there are currently only 30 students in it.

The question is especially pressing because, bureaucratically, most gifted programs are housed in the special-needs departments of school boards. This sets them up to compete for funding with other kinds of special education.

Under current economic stresses, many people in gifted education say their best intentions are hampered by reduced funding and a patchwork approach that can vary even between schools in the same board or district. Their programs are made extra-vulnerable by the popular perception of giftedness as a lucky bonus, not a potential handicap.

Many critics also point out that the socio-economic status of the families of gifted learners is disproportionately high.

School boards across the country have responded by developing initiatives to raise the profiles of visible-minority, second-language students and recent immigrants in the gifted population, believing that giftedness occurs in about 2 per cent of the population, period. Still the stereotype persists.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @traleepearce

 

Top stories

Most popular video »

Highlights

Most Popular Stories