Like it or lump it, there is more than one way to define giftedness, and more than one philosophy about how giftedness should be addressed. One school of thought holds that gifted individuals “just are” gifted, always and forever, and therefore that other people “just aren’t”. The gifted people have brains that are hard-wired differently, giving rise to special educational needs related to their hard-wired potential. A picture of a brain scan often accompanies these arguments, although a different pattern of brain use only suggests a different brain roughly to the same extent that a different dance routine suggests a different body – and brains, like bodies, change as a result of use. There is an element of truth in the viewpoint that there are some lifelong differences between our most gifted people and those close to the norm. However, I think a view of giftedness based exclusively on needs related to fixed potential has limitations. Allow me to illustrate with a sports anology.
Let’s imagine that at age six, kids can take a standardised test to see whether they are sporty or not. The top 5% of children tested will be deemed sporty, through and through, and will have the right to be in top teams every year at any school they attend. Because they are hard-wired for sport and have a need for sporting challenge, they must be in top teams even if they live on fizzy drinks and hot chips, and spend their leisure hours in sedentary pursuits in front of a screen. If they are delayed in their social development to the extent that team skills, fair play, and respect for the referee are not in their repertoire, they will still need to develop these skills within top teams. They should not be sent off for foul play, because this would reduce the opportunities for their needs to be met. Would this path always maximise potential, or would some of these kids try harder if they had to earn some of their sporting opportunities?
Now imagine child who scored on the 80th centile on the same standardised test at age 6, but who was passionate about sport, played for hours every day, became a valued and reliable team player, and was player of the week more often than not. Would this child be allowed to compete his or her way into the top team, or would he or she be dismissed as not really needing to be there?
Sporting selection is traditionally merit based and, probably because of this, we tend to feel that our sporting heroes have earned their success. However, we are wary of letting kids compete their way into gifted and talented programmes using merit based selections. Selection for gifted programmes, at its best, uses a variety of measures, but we are cautious not to make our selections too strongly achievement based in case we exclude kids who need to be in, but who are currently underachieving. This is a kind thought, at least on the surface.
The kids we worry most about excluding are twice exceptional children – those with great strengths alongside significant areas of difficulty. It is felt that these kids cannot compete their way into programmes, so competition is avoided. However, there are individual differences in the extent to which competition is motivating. A large number of twice exceptional students who I have taught are strongly motivated by competition, pulling out all the stops to prove to themselves that sometimes they really do have what it takes to win despite their struggles. Let’s not rob twice exceptional children of competitive opportunities to demonstrate what they can achieve. Sometimes they astound us, and themselves!
There are also concerns that merit based selection risks including kids who are achieving because of hard work rather than because of “hard wiring”. These kids will supposedly fall by the wayside when the genuinely gifted kids get their educational needs met and show their true potential. Sometimes this is true, but often the disposition towards learning that has generated the hard work and subsequent achievement is a gift in itself that will stay with the child and should not be overlooked.
I do believe there is a place for programmes that are expressly needs based and which maximise discovered potential regardless of present performance – programmes that equip even fizz-drinking couch potatoes (and their equivalents in other domains) with the motivation and strategies to meet suitable challenges. However, I also think there is a place for merit based programmes that children must compete their way into, and that no child should be excluded from that opportunity to compete. Ideally, both of these approaches would be available in every school and community, to complement programmes with the broad mixture of identification and selection measures that we usually think of when we consider best practice in gifted and talented education. Realistically, all of these programme options could not be offered simultaneously in smaller schools, but we must not overlook the opportunities to discover, motivate and challenge gifted children that a broader range of selection processes and programmes can provide.