Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Schooled on Giftedness - An Apology, An Interview, An Alliance

A recent article I wrote on the subject of giftedness caused a rather heated discussion.  The end result of it (understanding and ideas) was very positive, but I wish to apologize all the same to many readers whom I might have offended.  While it did give a great springboard for discussion and learning, my attempt at humor at the beginning of the article obfuscated the message and I felt terrible that I had offended some without intention.  That humbling moment was not in vain, though.  I got to to talk to the fabulous Suki Wessling (after we both put down our dukes) and really enjoyed hearing her perspective.  Suki is a writer and homeschooler and knows a lot about the subject of giftedness.  We decided to do a written conversation on this so that others might understand this topic more.

Suki, you and I agreed that the term giftedness is a woefully inadequate descriptor.  I have never disputed that there are very advanced (gifted) children, but took aim at the lack of clarity and it revealed my general dislike for labels. You call it a different term.  Can you explain what it is and why it is better?

Parents and educators of "gifted" kids often bat around possible terms to replace gifted, which is such a loaded word because it implies a value judgment. As parents of gifted kids can tell you, parenting a gifted child can be very, very difficult, and their prospects for success are not any better, and sometimes worse, than other kids'. The term I prefer is borrowed from someone else: neuro-nontypical. A neuro-typical person is one who fits pretty easily into that nebulous region we call "typical" or "average" as far as their neurology goes (how they learn, behave, feel). A neuro-nontypical person is just different. Really, that term would include autistic people and Down's syndrome kids, and it's definitely not a value judgment. It's just an acknowledgement that when you're talking about educating a human being, a neurologically unusual child, whether learning disabled or "highly enabled," need a different approach.

Aside from the inadequacy of the term "gifted" why do you think there is such alienation and misunderstanding surrounding it?

A few reasons. One is that we live in a society that pretends to understand the value of intellect, but all indicators say that it doesn't value intellect in the least. Just look at our popular entertainment, our most revered public figures, and the relative salaries of intellectuals vs. non-intellectuals if you want proof.

Another reason is that parents are really feeling under the gun to help their children "succeed." We are bombarded with information that makes us anxious: Your child needs to know all his colors and numbers to get into the best preschool; your child needs to start reading in kindergarten to achieve testing goals; your child needs to be top in her class to get into the college you like. So when a parent says the word "gifted," imagine how loaded that is. "My child has a gift; your child is gonna have to work his butt off!" This is not true of most parents of neuro-nontypical kids, yet the word itself implies it.

When I went to the website called "Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted" ( I found a brochure on how to identify a gifted child.  I think that part of the problem in identifying giftedness is that is not very clear.  It includes characteristics like being very curious and observant, strong vocabulary and reasoning, pattern recognition, problem solving, and strong memory.  I realize that there is a matter of degree here, but it is understandable why so many people think there child is gifted.  What is gifted and what is it not?

It depends on the situation. Our public schools use certain measures for gifted programs, so some people would use those definitions. Psychologists who work with gifted children may use others. I think it's important to think of it similar to autism: parents of autistic kids often use the phrase "on the spectrum," meaning that a child is autistic, but is in his own unique place on the spectrum of the disorder. "Gifted" just means "good at something" in its most colloquial use. As a term for diagnosis, it's something you can certainly test: does the child learn in a different, faster way than typical children? Does she have any of the corresponding sensitivities and personality traits? Does he have special schooling needs because of the way he learns?

One reader used "smarter" as a synonym for gifted.  Does that mean smarter in every category?  If we just focused on the pure academics, does that mean a child is smarter in algebra, geometry, zoology, chemistry, writing, reading, geography, etc. or is it in a certain area?

This gets back to that "value judgment" aspect of the word. Frankly, a highly gifted person can be darn stupid in many ways. I remember a friend when I was at Stanford saying, "Why is it all these really smart women we know are so stupid about love?" What she was pointing out is that being good at test-taking, being articulate, good at analysis and dissection -- all those things that got us into Stanford -- have no relationship to good interpersonal skills, good hand-eye coordination, a good sense of humor, or any of the other many traits that we value in human beings.

Gifted people are usually not better at all academic subjects, and the more gifted (i.e. the more removed from the average set of learners out there) a person is, the less likely they seem to have average skills in a wide variety of areas. We all knew the math professor who forgot to wash his clothing, or the really smart 8th-grader who would get hit by balls on the head in P.E. because she was lost in thought, or the kid who hadn't learned to read but had diagrammed the entire New York City subway system inside his English textbook. These are examples of people whose brains were really good at some things, but were not able to function in situations that other people take for granted.

Most gifted people have wide areas of strength, though, so it is probably safe to say that a kid gifted in math would do well at everything that takes mathematical skills (including music, which is often tied to mathematical skills).

What about the Theory of Multiple Intelligences?  Beyond academic ability, what about musical, social, athletic, and other skills many of us are blessed with?

Some public school GATE programs take that into account, and include some non-academic areas of giftedness in their programs. The reality is, however, that academic giftedness is that one that causes problems for kids in school. All the other ones you mention are an asset to a student. Yes, a highly social, musical, or athletic child might not be doing great in academics because their passion is taking up so much time, but we don't really see that as so much of a problem. Does anyone know what Barry Bonds' high school grades were?

I think that the theory of multiple intelligences is a great way to integrate all children into a social group, and teach that we should value all children. However, I have seen at least one teacher use it to try to "put the smart kids in their place," which was very destructive. Multiple intelligences should not be used in a school setting to equalize, because we aren't all the same. It is our difference that makes us strong! We are the most highly varied species on the planet, and that is one of our greatest assets. We need to value all the skills that people have. Frankly, even the class clown who disrupts a test with farty sounds is an asset to a classroom, and teachers need to understand that and figure out how to work with it.

We talked a bit about IQ tests.  I don't feel they are a good measurement of a person's needs and abilities and have read a lot of Sir Ken Robinson's views on this subject.  He insists that IQ tests and scores are outdated, flawed, and changing.  Indeed the 100+ year history of the test has had it share of critics, including Alfred Binet, who pioneered the first intelligence scale.  Many critics point out that it is impossible to measure intelligence when we have not even defined it properly.  What are your thoughts on this?

My parents chose not to have their kids' IQ tested, and my husband I have chosen the same route. The number really doesn't matter to us, because we have found ways to create a positive learning environment for our kids: one of them is thriving in a public homeschool program; the other is thriving at a very socially positive and supportive private school.

The value that parents have found in the IQ test, as far as I have heard, is just that it sometimes can point out important things about how a child learns. Sometimes when trying to educate a child who seems ineducable, finding out that he has a top-of-the-charts IQ can help you understand how to reach him. Another value is that a child who has been pegged learning disabled in a school can be tested and be found to be profoundly gifted, which sometimes looks very similar to learning disabled, oddly enough. The number in that case is ammunition the parents can use to get their child the services she needs.

I don't see any value in IQ testing as a matter of course. It just seems weird to pin a number on people and then write them off. Rent the movie Gattaca!

Another point about IQ as it relates to determining giftedness is that the cut-off seems fairly arbitrary.  Who is to say that someone with an IQ of, say 129 is not gifted, but someone with one of 130 is?  It seems to me that the number does not change the fact that you still must meet the individual needs of each student.

Totally arbitrary. You suggested in your post that all kids need IEPs -- I agree with you. That is the beauty of homeschooling and smaller school programs: each child can be given what she needs and what inspires her. Once you get to large public schools, however, that cut-off is sometimes the difference between being stuck in a class that is going to drill the information for The Test yet again for the umpteenth time, and a class that's going to dissect frogs! That's when you get parents tearing their hair out trying to help their child "succeed." And that's when you get parents feeling like they're in battle with each other to get services for their kids. It's similar to the parents of kids in special education who feel they have to justify that their child has an aide when the classroom doesn't have enough money for crayons. If all students' needs were funded, I believe the cut-off would just be an arbitrary place for the school to start to say, "does this child have special needs that we haven't noticed?" Otherwise, yes, it is totally arbitrary and divisive.

In my original post I suggested that rather than focusing on our differences (high or low IQ, learning disabled or gifted) I thought it would be better to focus on meeting every kid right where he is (this was meant to be the main point).  I like the approach of each kid getting an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which are typically given to struggling students.  Why not give each kid one?  Sure, it would not fit with the conventional model found in most schools and it does not do much for standardization, but the fact that we are talking about the challenges of giftedness doesn't speak much for the reality or goal of standardization.  In a Democratic School, students are given far more independence in their learning so that it meets their interests and needs, adding a level of maturity, responsibility, and customization to their education.  (See my post about a school in Denver that does this:
).  What about offering more schools like this?

I'm all for it! I have spent my kids' school years trying to keep them in programs that suit them. Here in Santa Cruz County (California), we are blessed with a huge population of families who care about education, and thus a higher than average number of special programs, charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling options. As my children age, I start to see their former preschool classmates trickling into these special programs as parents realize their children's needs aren't being met.

My utopic vision of a public education system is this: Each county (or whatever geographic area makes sense in each location) would be one district. The schools would be small and fluid: Some kids would go to the same school every day. Some kids would only go to school certain days and learn independently other days. Some kids would go to different programs at different schools depending on their needs. Some kids would never go to school. All kids would be able to take part in the programs that they enjoy. Testing would happen just a couple of times, perhaps 3rd and 6th grade, just to make sure that nothing is being missed as far as the basic tools of modern life are concerned.

Unlike many homeschoolers, I do believe that there is a real reason for public education, and I do strongly believe that education needs to be compulsory. How you put together an education for a child, however, would be much more fluid than it is now, more focused on what "success" means for each student rather than what "success" means for administrators of a school district.

What are the alternatives for students who are not challenged enough in schools?

That depends on the location. Private schools can often offer more, but that is not necessarily the case. Parents should pay very close attention to the peer group at a private school to make sure it's the right fit for their child, since private schools tend to have a student population that is more narrowly focused and often their educational approach is very specific, such as Montessori.

Some public school GATE programs are run with the child in mind, and really do offer a more appropriate education within the public school system. Some, however, are just geared to pile on more busy work, faster, which doesn't serve most children, gifted or not.

Public charter schools and special programs can sometimes be a great fit for a student who needs more challenging work. It's important to note that "challenging" does NOT mean more busy work! Most kids whose brains function at a higher level tend not to be satisfied with yet another worksheet of math problems that they can do. Instead, they will excel if they are offered experiential programs that incorporate and expand their skills. Find out about local charter schools through your school district office or at

Homeschooling is a very good option for gifted kids who are extremely unusual learners or who have emotional/social difficulties. Homeschooling can happen within all sorts of different programs or outside of programs. In California, any family can set up their own private school and homeschool that way. If families want to be attached to a school, most districts have homeschool programs (either charter schools or special programs). We also have multi-locale charters that families can sign up with if there's no homeschool program near them. (Some of these take kids from a wide geographic area.) To learn more about homeschooling in California, visit the Homeschool Association of California -

Describe the emotional issues of neuro-advanced students.

You mentioned -- I highly recommend that parents of gifted kids go there to get help. Neurologically different kids are usually not just different academically. Common issues that can show up in neuro-nontypical kids include high sensitivities, difficulties with social skills, asynchronous development, behaviors that resemble oppositional disorder, ADHD or bipolar, and more. Often these problems cannot be addressed sufficiently unless the whole child -- including his advanced intellect -- is considered as a package. A significant number of gifted kids are probably given unnecessary drug therapy when a change in learning environment or help with life skills might suffice.

Tracy, thank you so much for responding the way you did to criticism from parents of gifted kids. We need to learn from each other so that we can figure out how to make education better for all kids. I know that the tight budgets and balkanized educational theories make us all defensive, and I appreciate how you are doing your part to break down the barriers. -- Suki Wessling

To read more from Suki, check out her blog at


  1. Thank you for that engaging, well-thought out follow-up interview to your original post.
    My oldest has the more ambiguous characteristics you mentioned that are sometimes used to describe a gifted child-- he has strong verbal skills, good pattern recognition, and he happens to be a good test-taker. He is qualified as 'gifted' as per the DPS testing, although I really just think he's a bright kid that did well on the test.
    My second child is 'different'--his brain is just wired differently than some, and I think he would fall more into the traditional 'gifted' label. He will begin Kindergarten at an experiential learning school next year and has been in Montessori school thus far, and I am interested to see how he will interact in a different educational setting. I look forward to reading more at the website.
    And--Gattaca is one of my favorite movies!

  2. how come "gifted" has no tie to Happiness? or the ability for future Happiness? Isn't that really the goal in life

  3. This follow up is really great. I think it shows how our minds can be opened if we're willing. I have an HG (highly gifted) child who also managed to get suspended from kindergarten three times, if that tells you anything. This same child who could do jigsaw puzzles at three, figured out multiplication on his own, and seemed almost to just understand phonics without ever being taught cannot grasp that it's not okay to talk over other people and often misses the social cues that seem so automatic to the rest of us. For me, education in this area was forced by necessity. It is really good to see that someone in the general public can be educated on this subject just by curiosity. I really commend you, Tracy, on the way you handled the situation. As much as we would love IEPs for every child, I doubt it would happen. However, I would like to see a step-in-the-right-direction change in public education. If a child like mine must remain in public education from necessity (mine isn't as I found another way, but not all can) then that child SHOULD have an IEP, not just to help him, but also because his issues can be disruptive to the normal learners in the class. If schools recognize that fact, we'll get a little closer to a better education system.

  4. One of my readers wrote: I strongly believe that the term "gifted" is overused and discriminatory. In Nutureshock, they reveal that the majority of children "identified" as "gifted" from infanthood to Kindergarten are no different from any other child by the 3rd grade, but there typically aren't exit-processes or re-qualification for gifted programs, so the lucky few who test highly early-on get access to more resources through H.S. Unfair. Suki Wessling's points on neuro-nontypical are important, but don't apply to the vast majority of programs for children labeled as "gifted" as they exist today.

  5. That was what I was trying to get at in the first article I wrote, though the reader says it much more to the point. I think if we do away with most of the labeling and testing nonesense and just give a kid WHATEVER he needs, it would be healthier and more equitable.

  6. This great conversation has made me think how cool it is when we change our stance from a "statement" to a dialogue, an invitation to explore and progress together. Having any sort of impact on education will require that we come together to form a critical mass (all of all of us!), and will only really work if we move ahead learning from each other. Come to think of it (and I'm not being coy, i'm really just coming to think of it), that's what good education really is, isn't it?

  7. I just re-visited the site and read my last comment - it was not meant to be a criticism! As you know, Tracy, the whole idea of process is fermenting in me right now - how mistakes are mis-takes (half steps), all a part of the process. I'm seeing that i have a natural inclination to make "statements" of fact that would be best put as something more fluid, a part of my process of learning. Does anyone else experience this as a challenge? I think the underlying concept is an important one in education, and one i think is generally not acknowledged or supported.

  8. Mary-Helen, it didn't seem like a criticism. I agree that the more effective way to learn is to ask questions, not make statements. This applies to adults as well as children.

  9. As the mom of a possibly gifted, definitely neuro nontypical young man and someone who was a little disappointed by your previous post, I must say I truly respect your ability to take an honest look at the feedback you received and engage Suki in this extremely well thought-out dialogue. Thank you and well done Tracy!

  10. Thanks, Suji. Though, I still feel a little misunderstood. I never said there is no such thing as giftedness. I know it when I see it, but there is significant confusion at the lower grades for truly neuro nontypical versus normal pacing differences, socio-economic advantages, good pre-schools giving a head start, parental involvement, etc. It is possible that when others talk negatively about giftedness, they are also talking of that. Who knows - I can only speak for myself. I know that there are many parents who take issue with the latter category getting a lot of extra attention and resources without truly needing them. The IEP idea was my notion of a way to skip the labeling and get to the heart of need of each kid in a positive way. But I should stop repeating myself!

    Well, I never would have met Suki, learned as much, or created so much dialogue without the first writing, so there is beauty in our mistakes. Putting down defenses can serve me an others pretty well. Thanks, Suji.

  11. I'm pleased I found your site with its exchange of ideas, open to others' perspectives.
    I'd like to share a couple of points about labels that will be statements which may help others with questions to understand some of the differences mentioned in your blog.
    Membership in Mensa has a single requirement--98th percentile score on any of several standardized IQ tests, which have been devised by dedicated professionals. Some people claim the IQ score just shows that members know how to take the tests. Another way to look at it is that Mensa members have the kinds of minds that are revealed by the tests.
    The same might be said for other methods of identifying the different ways people think and behave.
    Second, the idea of an IEP for each student would be ideal if it could be reasonably managed. Currently, governmental rules about IEPs demand such extensive record-keeping that it's impractical for a single teacher to apply to every student in a classroom, especially if it's inclusive, with students with a wide range of abilities. One teacher in a classroom of 25-30 students cannot possibly do it all. Thus, people who want the IEPs would do well to work toward creating an environment in which they can be implemented. Some possibilities are to increase faculty, staff, and volunteers; decrease classroom size; and change college training and other professional development for teachers.
    Finally, thank you for publishing your dialogue. As you wrote, "Putting down defenses can serve" all of us well.