Someone is gifted, or they’re not, we often read. You can’t be gifted one year at school, and not the next. It’s not about achievement, it’s about who you are. Gifted people, you see, have different neurological wiring. They are “hard-wired” to be gifted.
But is that the only way we can look at this thing? There are people working in cognitive science who are not so sure. And if, indeed, all or most cognitive gifts have a biological basis, does that mean they will always be expressed? I’m not certain. And here is a small part of why:
I seem to be hard-wired for height. Most of my family are tall. People who know me often describe me as a tall person. My height can be measured, and I am definitely above average in height. But I don’t feel tall. There are two reasons for this. One is that I ended up being the shortest person in my family of origin. Being the shortie in the family nest is the major reason for feeling non-tall from my point of view, but a tall family is a skewed sample group, and you’ll have spotted that. To be more objective though, for about two years, I was also the shortest person in my class at school. So, if I really am hard-wired for height, I haven’t always expressed it.
In terms of differentiation, do you think I should have worn tall clothes during my short years?
Some kids with a genetic predisposition to giftedness are going to shine some years, and not others. They are still themselves. They still have the same genes. But even if they really are hard-wired for giftedness, they may not be in a position to respond to curriculum differentiated for the gifted during every single year of their schooling. However, some kid who was “above average” in the past may now be ready to respond to the opportunity presented by a curriculum differentiated for the gifted and talented. Is that so terrible? Or will we label the other kid “just a high achiever”, and make the gifted world into yet another place where it is not OK to achieve?
In the current debate about whether “talent development” is a useful concept for the gifted, there is one thing that really bugs me. It is the concern expressed by advocates for gifted children that those who are “just high achievers” will take the gifted kids’ places, and the gifted kids will be ignored. In my experience, many kids labeled “just high achievers” are every bit as gifted as the children who are identified. They have not been identified for one of the following reasons:
- Their parents couldn’t afford the test, or the programe that the test would lead to.
- Their parents or teachers felt that humility was more important than differentiation.
- Their parents or teachers weren’t interested in giftedness.
- Their teacher noticed the loud quirky kids who were gifted, but not the quiet, diligent ones who were also gifted.
- They weren’t children who reminded a gatekeeper, who had been personally identified as gifted, of him or herself as a child. They had a different personality, a different home life, or a different ethnicity.
Let’s include these children who are “just high achievers” among the gifted, please. If it’s any comfort, they mightn’t make the cut every year either, whether they are hard-wired for giftedness or not.
Giftedness is culturally defined, and what it means changes over time. It has an arbitrary cutoff point across a distribution that follows a normal curve. It can be measured in many different ways. Someone will always just miss out and, because our selection criteria are imperfect, the child left out may deserve to be in more than some who made the cut. I’d rather spend my life looking for more kids to include than more kids to exclude, whatever their wiring.