The Problem with Gifted Programs

"Gifted" flickr photo by PlusLexia.com shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
 
"Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses." - Marilyn vos Savant


I would like to address my own elephant in the room by sharing that—despite the name of the title in this sectionI am a product of a gifted and talented program that I greatly benefited from.  However, I shouldn't have even been in the program, because there shouldn't have been a program in the first place.  Later in this section, I will tell you why I am not in favor of gifted programs.  But for now, I would like to share with you some of the learning activities and projects I did while I was in the program, as well as some core values of education that my teacher instilled in me.

One day a week, every week, for six years—that's how long I was in a gifted program in my public school district.  In third grade, I took an aptitude test that measured my natural ability of spatial reasoning, creativity, abstract thinking, and conceptual understanding.  Based on my score on this test, I was enrolled in a gifted and talented program that was titled, Focus on Learning for the Academically Gifted (FLAG). The funny thing is, regardless of its title, it wasn't based on academics at all.  It did not take into account a students' grades, or their traditional academic abilities. The program wasn't designed to have these students solve more challenging math problems, read books above their grade level, or take deeper dives within the curriculum.  In fact, there were no grades at all in this program—only meaningful feedback and encouragement. 

Her name is Mrs. Ippolito, or Mrs. Ippy as we liked to call her, because it sounded like the state of Mississippi.  She was my FLAG teacher who completely changed my perception of learning in school, and was by far the best teacher I have ever had.  Mrs. Ippy is a compassionate, creative genius who developed and implemented her own curriculum in a way that was completely foreign to my prior experience in education, and that was entirely absent from the remainder of my experience.  

As far as tests go, there weren't any.  Mrs. Ippy didn't believe in tests, because in her opinion, tests destroyed creativity.  She believed that the purpose of tests is primarily to assess how much information a person can remember.  Instead, she preferred to assign projects that required higher-level thinking skills, because she believed they could more accurately portray students' personality as well as their creativity.  The possibilities were endless in this class and there was rarely a wrong answer to anything. 

The FLAG room was filled with tools and consumables that might look like a modern day makerspace. She even encouraged us to bring in items outside of the classroom for our projects so that we wouldn't be limited to just the materials in the classroom.  The walls and countertops were decorated with artifacts created by current and former FLAG students to serve as a source of ideas that we could integrate into our own projects.  Mrs. Ippy called this "bouncing" off of someone else's idea.  We were taught to take an idea, and expand it, or make it better somehow if we could not come up with any original ideas on our own.  

Spontaneous

Every morning, the first activity we would do is play the game, Spontaneous.  We would position our chairs into a circle around the classroom so that we were all facing each other and eagerly wait for an item to be presented.  Mrs. Ippy would hold up an ordinary object and ask us to come up with a completely different use for it.  She would pass the item to someone who could choose to quickly share a different use, or choose to "pass" if they couldn't think of something quickly enough.  The item would get passed around the circle, sometimes two or three times to really stretch our imagination, and push our thinking.  

The purpose of this game was to be "spontaneous" by activating our divergent thinking skills in order to brainstorm creative ideas and multiple solutions to a problem.  Mrs. Ippy also had other unorthodox methods of getting us to use our divergent thinking skills by teaching us to have fun with our mistakes.  For example, she only provided us with colored pencils, which didn't have erasers.  So, whenever I would draw a picture and make an error, she would encourage me to own this error and creatively weave it into the drawing somehow.  There is a book that was published in 2010 titled, Beautiful Oops that perfectly depicts my experience of turning mistakes into masterpieces. This "Yes, and ... " mentality that is often used in improv classes, also applied to other performing arts and crafts in the classroom such as painting, sculpting, singing, dancing, and building. 

Crack the Case

Another example of how I learned to use divergent thinking skills was with a game we often played called, Crack the Case.  In this game, the teacher would read a card that contained a crime scene with only a few clues.  Our job as the students was to play the role of detectives to determine how the person died by asking yes or no questions.  This was one of my favorite crime scenes that I remember from the game:

A man is lying dead in the middle of a room with 52 bicycles.
How did he die?


The best part about this game was that every crime scene required you to think outside of the box in order to solve it.  For example, (spoiler alert!) in order to crack this case you had to discover that the 52 bicycles referred to a deck of playing cards.  From there, you had to infer that people in the room were playing a poker game and someone cheated, which resulted in the man's death by gunshot.  I absolutely loved playing this game as a kid—for one, it was morbid, and two, it was fun trying to identify and decipher the clever puns and clues that were used in each case. 

Invention Convention

One of the most memorable projects that I did in FLAG was creating an invention.  We had to first do research about inventions that included the history of inventions, famous inventors, and the process of inventing.  Then we were empowered to think of an idea and make it come to life.  At the end of the project, Mrs. Ippy hosted the Invention Convention, which acted as a gallery walk for FLAG students and their families to examine all of the inventions and ask questions to the inventors about their creations.  

During this time in my life, my grandmother had recently suffered from a stroke and could not move the left side of her body very well.  So, I wanted to make an invention that would help her with her recovery.  After a lot of brainstorming and several iterations later, I invented the Handicap Hand Pump.  This was a device that allowed my grandmother to exercise her left hand.  Here's how it worked. My grandmother would step on the foot pump, which forced air through a tube into a balloon that was attached by a clamp to the opposite side of the tube.  My grandmother would hold the balloon in her left hand and when she stepped on the foot pump with her right foot, it would inflate the balloon allowing her left hand to expand. And when she stepped off of the foot pump, the balloon would deflate, allowing her hand to contract. She would repeat this process for as long as she wanted in order to regain strength in her left hand.   

I didn't realize it at the time, but I actually went through the engineering design process in order to create my invention.  I recognized a problem for a client, asked a question, conducted research, came up with multiple solutions, narrowed down my solutions, created my solution, iterated my solution, and received meaningful feedback from my client.  I will never forget how grateful my grandmother was to receive this gift.  In fact, she used it all the time. And while it never actually helped her to regain strength in her hand, it certainly left a mark on her heart.

 
The Problem with Gifted Programs

As you can probably tell by now, I had a phenomenal learning experience in the FLAG program.  I learned the value of my own strengths and talents, the importance of creativity and divergent thinking, and the recognition of multiple solutions to a problem.  The issue I have with this is that all students in my school should have been able to share this same learning experience with me.  The FLAG program shouldn't have been a program at all.  Instead of a program, it should have been a pedagogy that was intentionally integrated into the curriculum in every grade, in every class, for every student. 

Another problem with this pull-out style program was the fact that I had to miss an entire day of school every week for six years.  Let's chew on that for a minute.  That means from grades 3 through 8, not only was I socially ostracized, but I missed an average of 20% of the instruction that I was supposed to receive.  What's more, I had to make up all of the classwork that I had missed in the form of homework that had to be turned in at the end of each week.  When I was in 8th grade, it got to the point where I was missing so much instruction that I was actually falling behind in math.  Because I was in a gifted program and was tagged with the "smart" label, I was devastated and embarrassed that I wasn't able to keep up with my other "smart" friends in math class.  Finally, I ended up making the difficult decision to exit the FLAG program, because I felt like I wasn't receiving enough instruction and support in class.  I was able to bring my grade up in math, but I felt the long-lasting effect of having gaps in my learning.

If we take the idea of labeling kids as "smart" even further, we begin to see the potential problems that can develop later on down the road. In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell sheds light on the term relative deprivation—where we compare ourselves to those in the same situation.  A person experiences relative deprivation when they believe they aren't measuring up to the people around them. In other words, it is a feeling we get that is dependent on our perspective, context, and performance in a particular category.  For example, many parents feel relative deprivation when they see all of the amazing things their friends—and usually other influencers—are doing on social media with their kids.  In this situation, parents might feel like they aren't good parents because they aren't cooking lavish meals or throwing extravagant birthday parties.  

In the context of education, this is called the "Big Fish-Little Pond Effect" that was first introduced by the psychologist Herbert Marsh.  Gladwell describes this effect when he writes, "The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.  Students who would be at the top of their class at a good school can easily fall to the bottom of a really good school."  Gladwell goes on to explain that students in an elite school—except, perhaps, those at the very top of the class—are going to face a burden that they would not face in a less competitive atmosphere" (Gladwell, 2013).  The reason for this is simply due to the natural bell curve that is created when students are ranked by their academic performance. 

For example, a student at Harvard—or any other Ivy League School—is pitted against the top academic performers in the country, which means that it becomes extremely difficult to rank in the top percentile in their graduating class.  Whereas, this same student might have a better chance of success at a college or university that isn't as prestigious, simply because there would be less competition.  Gladwell also points out the emotional and psychological impact that this effect has on students when he writes, “How you feel about your abilities—your academic ‘self-concept’—in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks.  It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence” (Gladwell, 2013).  This just goes to show that your perceived performance as a student compared to those around you can create a negative self-image, which can lead to a lack of motivation to learn. 

Needless to say that based on the fact that only a select group of students could participate in FLAG, as well as the harmful impacts I suffered from being pulled out of the regular classroom, I am not a fan of gifted programs.  Instead, I believe that this type of learning experience—one that fosters creativity, design, and problem-solving—should be integrated into the classroom so that every child has the the same access to educational equity in an inclusionary setting.

Enrichment for Everyone

The reason why I was selected into the program in the first place, was because the FLAG program valued the innate capacity in students to think abstractly and creatively.  At an early age, I had what is commonly referred to as aptitude, or a raw potential, that allowed me to excel in this type of thinking. I believe that everyone has different aptitudes—special talents and strengths that they are naturally born with. However, I also believe that these skills, or any other skills for that matter, can be cultivated in every student. This idea is what Howard Gardner pioneered as the Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  

In his theory, Gardner claims that people are not born with all of the intelligence they will ever have in life, and that it can be acquired over time.  In fact, Gardner proposes that there are eight different types of intelligences that can be learned consisting of: Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist (Marenus, 2020).  These intelligences can be interpreted as ability, or skills that require a considerable amount of education and apprenticeship to develop (Robinson and Aronica, 2014).  

What this means is that all students can enhance their ability to learn new knowledge and skills in order to excel in one or more of these intelligences.  This idea helped me to realize that everyone is smart in their own way.  For example, some people can be music smart, body smart, or people smart, just to name a few.  There are so many different types of intelligences that we as human beings possess, and one type of smart is not necessarily better than the rest. Everyone has different strengths, which is why teams are often more successful than individuals. This is what helps to make the world go around—people who specialize in particular talents and skills to provide goods and services that we all need in order to live a healthy, balanced life.  And that is why I believe that we need to provide our students with the opportunity, conditions, and instruction that is needed to help them develop these abilities.

Students come into school each day equipped with different abilities, aptitudes, backgrounds, experiences, and interests. In their book, Finding your Element, Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica believe “We all learn best in different ways, and your own learning style can strongly affect what you think your aptitudes are." If we were to take the idea of the FLAG program, and immerse it into the regular classroom, then we would be providing all students with an opportunity to not only explore their aptitudes, but to also build capacity in their ability to learn new skills.  

For example, just because someone might not have an aptitude in, let's say, musical intelligence, doesn't mean that they can't enhance their musical ability by working hard to improve their skills.  On the other hand, students may not even know what all their aptitudes are because they might have never called on some of them. Whether they discover them depends to some extent on opportunity (Robinson and Aronica, 2014).  For these reasons, I think it is important that we create classroom environments that provide all students with the time, space, and support that is needed to discover their aptitudes, as well as develop their abilities.  

In more traditional classroom settings, these opportunities come in the form of extension or enrichment activities. While extensions can be a useful instructional practice, they typically reward students who finish their work early, or who need more of a challenge in the lesson. And from my experience, extensions usually allow for high order thinking skills, creativity, and autonomy to demonstrate their learning and understanding of the material.  Therefore, I am suggesting that we provide every student with these types of extension activities. But they shouldn't be extensions, they should be the learning tasks for everyone. 

Remediation needs a Revolution

Let me start by saying that remediation can be a highly effective instructional strategy.  It can be particularly effective in areas such as math and linguistics where achievement in foundational skills is necessary before students can advance in curriculum.  However, a major problem with remediation is that it usually dedicates a ton of time to improving weaknesses, as opposed to creating time to explore and leverage strengths. What generally happens is we end up postponing more challenging and interesting work (often in the form of extensions) until we believe that the basics have been mastered.  And by focusing only on low-level basics, we deprive students of a meaningful or motivating context for learning and practicing higher order thinking processes (Hammond, 2015). 

What's worse, sometimes remediation can take up so much time that students have to receive after school help, or they have to give up time during the school day in the form of recess, lunch, or even other classes. For example, “One of the consequences of this preoccupation is that schools typically give low status to so-called nonacademic work, including the visual and performing arts, physical education, and practical and ‘vocational’ programs. The result is that very many students, even those who are good at academic work, never discover the real range of their aptitudes, especially if they lie in these other, neglected areas” (Robinson and Aronica, 2014). 

What if we were to reimagine what remediation looks like so that students could receive the additional support that they need, without missing opportunities to pursue their talents and strengths?  What might that look like?  How might we design instructional practices for students who have not been able to thrive in the conventional classroom? Philippe Ernewein, director of education at Denver Academy asks students, "What do you take joy in doing or find easy to do? How do you prefer to learn? Then we build around those skills,” (Hansen, 2022). In other words, it starts with learning about every child's interests, talents, and preferences in order to leverage their individual strengths for learning, as opposed to just focusing on eliminating their weaknesses.  Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica call this practice, "Finding your Element."

Finding your Element, as they say, involves understanding the powers and passions that you were born with as part of your unique biological inheritance (Robinson and Aronica, 2014).  By helping students to find their element, we can support them in using their element not only to pursue their talents, but to also improve their weaknesses. Ulcca Hansen, who is a parent, author, and former educator shares her ideas on how to encourage children to learn and thrive, despite a system that is often measuring them differently. To help students who have learning differences such as lower working memory, executive functioning skills, or attention, Hansen recommends reducing the number of things they need to do at one time.  This can help these students to focus on a single task so that they remember information long enough to develop deeper understanding.  If a child struggles with reading, Hansen suggests reminding them that what matters most is that they gain new information and ideas, as well as helping them find tools that can support them.  For example, she advises having students listen to audio while looking at text to make connections between sounds and written words, use video to introduce new material before moving onto to written materials, or introduce visual organizers, which are ways to gather and organize information graphically (Hansen, 2022). 

Perhaps the most inspiring suggestion that Hansen offers is to create learner profiles to explore how your students are smart, instead of whether they are smart.  Hansen goes on to say that in a conventional classroom, grades are often used to measure a student's intelligence.  What she recommends doing instead, is to have conversations with your students and reflect on what works for them, what they like, and what felt hard for them in order to discuss how they might use this information to approach school differently (Hansen, 2022).  

Alternative Instructional Practices

In my experience, I have found that project-based learning is a highly effective way to encourage students to leverage their interests and talents to demonstrate their learning and understanding of content and skills.  In project-based learning, students use inquiry to identify a problem, ask a question, perform active research, document their learning, and present their solutions in authentic and meaningful ways.  Students also typically work in collaborative teams which helps them to utilize each other's strengths throughout the project.  

When students present their solutions, they have agency over creating a product or performance to communicate their findings.  Some students might choose to build a model to include in their presentation, whereas other students might choose to create a video or produce a song.  Throughout the process, students receive feedback from other teams, as well as the teacher, and frequently reflect on their progress. Students that require more support are provided with appropriate scaffolds to meet their individual learning needs.  This allows for natural differentiation to occur in the classroom, while holding the same high expectations for every student as they collaboratively work on the same learning task. 

I have also found that digital portfolios are an excellent way for students to demonstrate their learning and understanding. Other forms of assessments such as exit passes, quizzes, and tests have their place in the classroom, but should not be the only method for measuring student achievement.  Digital portfolios allow students to not only document their progress, but to showcase a selection of their work that is most meaningful to them.  

When students create a digital portfolio, they are required to reflect on each entry.  This reflection could be in the form of a written or typed document, a recorded audio file, or even a recorded video of themselves. Each reflection usually includes what the students learned, what they found to be challenging, and how they could improve in the future.  The showcase section of the portfolio highlights different artifacts that students have created such as digital media, recorded performances, and photos of physical products. Students are also required to reflect on why they chose their selections to be featured in their showcase, and why it is meaningful to them.  And by the end of each school year students, teachers, and parents will be able to see the progress that was made, as well as the individual strengths and talents that were displayed.

Final Thoughts

In this section, I have identified a major problem in our education system—students receiving inequitable learning experiences based on their academic strengths and weaknesses.  I recognize that each classroom in each school has unique needs and challenges that require custom solutions.  While I intentionally do not offer a solution to this problem, I hope that I have given you things to consider as you work to find a solution in your own classroom or school community that provides students with an equal opportunity to explore their aptitudes, and improve their abilities.

One of my biggest takeaways from the FLAG program was learning that there is always more than one way to solve a problem.  Based on my experience, I agree with Martinez and Stager when they talk about the importance of creative, divergent thinking in the classroom.  In their book, Invent to Learn they write, "When we acknowledge that there may be many right answers to a question, it gives children permission to feel safe while thinking and problem solving, not just when they answer correctly.  When we honor different kinds of learning styles it becomes acceptable to solve problems without fear” (Martinez, et al, 2013).  

I love this quote because I feel like it encapsulates my learning experience in the FLAG program.  I have learned that students of all ability levels need equitable access to conditions and methods that are most conducive to learning.  And I have learned that all students can benefit from instructional strategies that allow for creativity and the opportunity to develop the gifts that make them unique and valuable.  Therefore, I encourage you to create lessons that champion multiple learning styles so that students can build their confidence and competencies to become a better learner. 


References
  1. Annie Murphy Paul. “The Real Learning Curve.” Time, Time, 12 Oct. 2011, https://ideas.time.com/2011/10/12/the-science-of-how-we-learn/#ixzz1cl1QGIPI. 
  2. Hansen, Ulcca Joshi. “Perspective | How Parents Can Help Kids Redefine What It Means to Be Smart.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Feb. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2022/02/11/parents-children-redefine-smart/. 
  3. Robinson, Ken, and Lou Aronica. Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life. Penguin Books, 2014.
  4. Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and Rules for Facing Giants. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2013. 
  5. Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. California, Corwin, 2015.
  6. Marenus, Michele. “Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” Https://Www.simplypsychology.org/Multiple-Intelligences.html, 9 June. 2020, https://www.simplypsychology.org/multiple-intelligences.html#:~:text=To%20broaden%20this%20notion%20of,Interpersonal%2C%20Intrapersonal%2C%20and%20Naturalist. 
  7. Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press

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