Hard-wired for Height

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?

Enormously oversized socks, hanging of the end of someone's feet.

Differentiation must be a good fit for current needs.
Image CC-BY-NC-SA Amber Lynn Lane.

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.

About Mary St George

I teach in gifted education, both online and face-to-face.
This entry was posted in education, gifted, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hard-wired for Height

  1. Josh Shaine says:

    Hi Mary –

    Some thoughts/reactions:

    There are lots of ways for potential height to not be achieved, accepting the premise of “hard-wired for height.” Malnutrition, illness, and drugs (such as nicotine) can all limit one’s growth. (There is also the possibility that you got a different gene distribution and were not, in fact, hard-wired for height.)

    So, too, one’s intellectual, emotional, sensual, imaginational, or psychomotor potential. Drugs can do it as can illness. Lack of stimulation will impact some of those. Mistreatment in a host of ways can reduce a child’s access to the potential.

    But all things being equal, we have good reason to expect a person to gain close to their likely genetic height. This is far less certain for a gifted kid. Their “nutrition” is far less easily sussed, it seems.

    The notion that giftedness is culturally defined is one I find increasingly less viable. As we look at the brain science, nascent field though it is, we see clear distinctions in how different kinds of brains work – how they use glucose, how bilateralism manifests, and other areas. However, despite the addition of new definitions of giftedness, the overwhelming majority of the time, the kids we are talking about as gifted would have been the kids Whipple was talking about when the term shifted to Gifted from Supernormal.

    I am not worried about “high achievers.” The common chart that shows “bright vs. gifted” is less than useless from my perspective –> it is actively misleading, too often. What I am worried about in the talent development argument is an incessant beat about EMINENCE as an appropriate primary goal for our children.

    You talk about making the cut one year and not the next and, while I grant that is a not uncommon happenstance, it is one of the backward items of the failed gifted programs of which Dr. Borland wrote. Children should not “fail to make the cut” in a program that is actually serving gifted kids.

    Ideally, I am not actually in favor of a term. I am in favor of fully individualized education – a personally tailored instructional system. Unfortunately, while I love science fiction and fantasy, that is not the world I actually live in, so we are not going to see that degree of tailoring in my lifetime or even that of my titular grandchildren.

    Differentiation is observed more in the breach than practice. And the best practices for gifted children include many practices that do not work for other children, contrary to much of what I read (and for all that I might wish it were otherwise).

    Inclusion is a lovely notion, but it has proven repeatedly to serve as a retardant for some. I don’t believe IQ testing should be the only mechanism for access. Nor do I believe parent nomination should be enough for entrance, though it ought to be enough to force a reexamination. “Preponderance of evidence” tends to be where I am left.

    That and a gifted program that is designed for the kind of gifted kids one has set out to identify!

    • Thanks, Josh, for a lengthy and considered comment. I think we agree on many things.

      Like you, I find that a programme differentiated for the gifted just doesn’t work in a regular classroom. The kids in the gifted programme do need something in common, and it must relate in some way to giftedness and to the kind of curriculum on offer. When I speak of inclusion, I am speaking of including the children who are the best fit at the time, with performance (“just high achievers”) being an allowable criterion for selection alongside IQ tests, curiosity, intensity, and other flavours of the month for identifying gifted kids. The talent development debate seems to be generating a backlash against performance as a means of assessment, and that concerns me.

      Like you, I would be very concerned if gifted education were to become so restricted as to only include truly eminent children. I think there need to be programmes this narrow from time to time, as the path of eminence is a lonely one, and these kids must benefit from finding others like themselves. However, I would see that as part of a smorgasbord of approaches, that would hopefully cater for at least “the top 5%” by whatever assortment of criteria a school or organisation found the most valuable and manageable at the time.

      I do still think giftedness is culturally defined though, despite my love of applied neurology. And, while I’d love for all the gifted kids to be in all the gifted programmes all the time, as long as our identification techniques are imperfect, kids relative abilities (like the simplified analogy of their relative heights) are going to appear to change over time. In some schools, this is going to mean kids move in and out of gifted programmes the way other kids move in and out the top sports teams from year to year, even if we’d really like the GATE classroom to have elastic walls. While this doesn’t seem ideal, I’ve actually seen children choose to have a spell from a gifted programme, then choose to come back, and seem to benefit from both decisions.

      • Josh Shaine says:

        Just a couple responses:
        Yes, to have only the truly eminent be served would be a mistake. As surely, though, is a focus which says eminence is THE goal of the program. It is that I meant to be addressing, for all that the other is true as well.

        There is a difference between “achievement is not a means of assessment,” which is what I think you are saying you hear, and “having achievement be the primary qualification,” which is what I think I am hearing. The suggestion has been made that “there are no gifted children, only gifted behavior,” but I don’t believe I have heard a counter of “there is no achievement good enough to qualify for entrance in the absence of other markers” in these discussions (even though I have seen them aplenty in rigid school systems’ rules.
        It sounds to me as if our experiences with high school sports teams are markedly different. Very few sports teams have kids who go off for a year and then come back the following year – and of those, fewer still are because the player wasn’t qualified in the intervening year!

        There should be an assumption that a kid who qualified in year 1 has not magically lost his giftedness in year 2 and regained it in year 3! This does not preclude the choice by a kid to take a term or a year away… but that is totally different than being told “Sorry, kid! It looks like you were only gifted in your Freshman year…”

        As for relative abilities… an appropriately supported child whose vocabulary or math skills are amazing at age 7 is not going to ‘fall back into the pack’ aptitudinally the same ways that the early height leaders do. I haven’t seen support for it in the literature nor in practice. Yes, a few others may catch up, but in the sense that they, too, have forged ahead rather than the other having ceased developing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s