Needs versus Merit in Selection for Gifted Programmes

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?

Kid flexing muscles.

Should we let kids compete to show their physical and intellectual “muscles”, or should we assess potential to determine their needs?
Image CC BY-NC-ND Brian Auer.

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.

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About Mary St George

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

11 Responses to Needs versus Merit in Selection for Gifted Programmes

  1. joshshaine says:

    From Douglas Eby (and, more to the point, Dr. Deirdre Lovecky):
    One of the defining characteristics of giftedness is entelechy, a term derived from the Greek word for “having a goal.” As described by psychologist Deirdre Lovecky, “entelechy is a particular type of motivation, need for self-determination, and an inner strength and vital force directing life and growth to become all one is capable of being.

    “Gifted people with entelechy are often attractive to others who feel drawn to their openness and to their dreams and visions. Being near someone with this trait gives others hope and determination to achieve their own self-actualization.”

    Your example of the top 80% athlete who pours everything into their preferred sport is set up to make your answer before your question is asked: “player of the week more often than not.” The kid is already competing – if s/he’s “player of the week more often than not,” then there is a good chance that one of two things is happening: the coach is doing a terrible job with the rest of the team of this kid was mis-appraised in the initial testing.

    The truth of the matter, from a strictly sports perspective, is that those kids do sometimes get a chance at the next level, but not all the time. They are often overmatched and the coaches’ experiences make them very wary, because a kid who is competitive because of hard work often has a more than hard time when the competition goes to the next level.

    This is partially because at the high school level, a sports team may be the top 1% of players in a sport, but at college it becomes the top 0.1 % or even 0.01%. The back-ups there are often the stars at other high schools – kids who worked as hard as your 80% kid, but with 95th percentile ability or even 98th.

    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.

    “Kind thought?” Kindness has nothing to do with it, as far as I have ever been able to tell! It is about meeting the kids’ needs and trying to give them the opportunities they need to grow.

    It is no more a kindness than an inhaler for an asthmatic or music lessons for Mozart.

    We *have* programs (in the U.S., at least), that are competition-based for admission and from which underachievers are generally excluded. At a minimum, they are called competitive colleges. The bulk of our educational system – and yours, too, I believe – is based on competition. From secondary school on, academics, athletics, music, art, and theater are all competitive for resources and access to programs.

    …we must not overlook the opportunities to discover, motivate and challenge gifted children that a broader range of selection processes and programmes can provide.

    Taking in a student who is hard-working, but who does not have the conceptual grasp of concepts regardless of how well s/he does the problems slows down the class. It undermines the less proficient hard worker, rather than rewarding them, while taking away from the other students.

    No, we must not overlook those possibilities.

    Neither may we create false opportunities.

    • I agree with Josh. Too often I’ve seen gifted classes slowed down because hardworking mid-high students are included. Gifted but lazy and hard-working but not gifted are not the same and don’t have the same needs.

      One of the purposes of gifted education should be presenting gifted learners with a sufficient challenge that requires them to study, work hard, and overcome obstacles. That should increase the pace and rigor to where a mid-high student simply can’t keep up. If mid-high students can keep up, the gifted students are still learning that brains alone are sufficient for success, which is a horrible lesson to teach a child because eventually talent alone doesn’t suffice and the child is unprepared for the hard work needed.

      With my gifted girls, I stress the need to work hard too. Hard work + talent >> hard work or talent. And while a class where either hard work or talent is required for entry would be better than what they currently have, it would not be ideal.

      I do agree with the author that we need to recognize and support the hard work certain students put in, but conflating the two probably isn’t the best approach.

      I’ve enjoyed reading Creating Curriculum posts. Thanks for blogging about these important issues!

  2. Josh, I may be wrong, but would guess that the experiences and discussions you and I are having right now about gifted education represent quite different positions on the needs versus merit spectrum, and that we’re both seeking to even them up and add a bit of fairness into the system.

    I’d agree that the kid I described may well have been poorly assessed in the first instance, as most of our assessments of giftedness are imperfect. That is why we need a range of assessment options – sometimes for the same programme, but sometimes for different programmes. However, even when we are pretty confident that our assessment has been multidimensional and thorough, children’s relative strengths can change over time. Renzulli, Sternberg and Gagné all allow for this in their models. Although their wording is different, each of them is saying that a high level of natural ability (but not necessarily an exceptionally high level, hence my 80th centile) plus other factors (such as Renzulli’s creativity and task commitment, Sternberg’s creativity and practicality, or Gagné’s motivation, volition and self-management) lead to excellence.

    I really do think it is unkind to remove opportunities to compete, in case children don’t succeed. That is deficit theorising in the classroom, and we know that holds children back. Some kids thrive on competition, and they are not always the ones who we expect to. Many of our primary schools here in New Zealand currently undervalue competition, and this is an issue, we are told, in educating boys, especially. I think the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards a balance between competition and co-operation, and I am trying to give it another nudge towards the neutral position.

    I am not advocating moving children into gifted programmes on the basis of hard work alone. However, I feel that when entelechy, task commitment, or romance with the discipline – call it what you will – brings a child’s achievement (including relevant conceptual understandings) up to or above the level of the children we have identified through standardised tests, we must see this child as gifted too. This child has something special that our tests have not revealed. Let’s not exclude the child because the test is imperfect.

    • joshshaine says:

      when entelechy, task commitment, or romance with the discipline – call it what you will – brings a child’s achievement (including relevant conceptual understandings) up to or above the level of the children we have identified through standardised tests, we must see this child as gifted too. This child has something special that our tests have not revealed.

      Finding unrecognized gifts is very different from what Joe Renzulli talks about – his focus on “creating giftedness” coupled with programmatic design that excludes underachievers with regularity drives me up the wall and has for a long time. I think he is the only one who explicitly says “above average ability” and “above average task commitment” are sufficient (along with “above average creativity”) to “create” giftedness.

  3. Josh and Joshua,

    You are both expressing view points that seem connected with whole class teaching – something that is very rare here. It is simply not possible for a child’s ability to slow the whole class down in most New Zealand schools, because the whole class will not be working on the same things. A child’s behaviour can disrupt a whole class, and that is an entirely different matter.

    I would also emphasize that I am talking about identifying additional children who really are functioning at or above the level of those selected by standardised testing. I often hear that these children are “just high achievers” or “just teacher pleasers”, when I really think that if we were sincere in our interest in assisting all gifted children to become the best they can be, we wouldn’t draw these distinctions.

    • We also have “differentiation” and “workshops” for reading, writing, and math in our district for elementary schools, so kids are supposed to be working on different things at their own levels. What actually happens is the teachers still teach to the low-average level and kids that get it quicker are ignored, told to read a book, or given a meaningless “challenge packet” to work on. A student may be given a higher level book selection for reading or spelling words at his level, but everyone still learns punctuation at the same time and a student that could breeze through two years of math is still paced at the same classroom pace.

      I agree that something should be done for the hard-working students. It drives me up the wall when we work to make sure our kids do assignments but then the teachers review the assignments in class for the kids who didn’t do them at home. Hard-working kids are being punished for doing their homework. There is a disincentive for parents to be involved because it can be wasted time.

      It is unfair to the teachers to put all the hard-workers in one room and all the slackers in another. It is unfair to the hard-workers to have to repeat material so the slackers can catch up.

      I don’t know what the ideal solution is to help hard-workers, but lumping them with gifted students isn’t it for either group.

    • joshshaine says:

      It is simply not possible for a child’s ability to slow the whole class down in most New Zealand schools, because the whole class will not be working on the same things.

      I apologize, Mary. I am working with a sample size of 2 students and 1 teacher, spread out over years and different parts of NZ. The students’ experiences flavor my reactions to what you are saying because they would disagree with you – their whole classes worked on one thing and they were slowed down, if I have understood them correctly. The teacher’s description of standard practice in the schools she’s worked in line up with that, as well.

      I know that 3 is not enough for me to base a description of “How New Zealand classrooms work” upon, but it is sufficient for me to be uncomfortable with your broad description, too.

      “Just high achievers” is a diminishing comment – there is no “just” about it. Hard work is valuable and to be appreciated and supported. However, “this is a student who works very hard, but does not grasp the concepts” is a very different situation than “this is a student whom our identification methods missed, but who seems to grasp the concepts,” regardless of how we missed the student. In the former situation, I would not include the student in the advanced work and in the latter, I would.

      Then again, my preferred scenario has multi-age classrooms (4-6 grades spanned) and no particular set ‘end of curriculum,’ but a continuous progression. One moves up a level in the material one is working in as one completes the material, rather than based on a school year or calendar year or “promotion” period. So… as students are ready for material, through demonstrated capability, they get the material.

      I think this simultaneously avoids institutionalized competition while providing a ready outlet for those with competitive juices. At the same time, one hopes to reduce (if not eliminate) the twin stigmata of skipping or being held back.

      • Apology accepted, no problems at all. It is through these attempts to construct understanding together by debating what seems to merit “robust discussion” that we deepen our understanding of each other’s practice, of our own, and of further possibilities in practice. I value the time you put into your comments, and the thinking you make me do!

        You question the broadness of my statement that less able students cannot hold a whole class back, and that is probably fair. There are certainly classes where the most able cannot readily be challenged within their regular classes without supplementary input, or services like the ones I work for would not be valued. However, most teachers here feel that managing behaviour impacts on the depth of thinking they can draw out of able students far more than the ability range in our classrooms. After all, we have always had a large number of small schools that required multi-level teaching – last year’s Schools Directory listed 806 schools with 100 enrolled students or fewer (although some of the lowest stats are probably data entry errors by the looks of things) – so our teachers are trained with the strong possibility of teaching mixed ages, as well as the certainty of teaching mixed abilities.

        A handful of struggling students really shouldn’t be able to hold a whole class back here. However, a deficit viewpoint from the teacher can, the non-identification of gifted students can, and an overwhelming number of struggling students can.

        I also feel that teacher fatigue is a very real issue in terms of meeting the full range of educational needs in our classrooms. Many of the right pedagogical skills are there. Most of the right attitudes and intentions are there. However, teacher workloads continue to grow, and teachers can be left feeling disheartened that they cannot live up the their own ideals. We, the teachers, have fought for the professional autonomy to exhaust ourselves with creating situationally relevant curriculum (and/or reinventing the wheel depending how cynical one feels on the day). Throw in a few curriculum changes and then some testing regimes with their roots in different educational paradigms from those underlying the loose curriculum which currently guides our practice, and reasons for teacher fatigue become even more apparent. It will be interesting to see where we proceed to from here, and how that impacts on our ability to meet the needs of students. I suspect we’ll be making different mistakes, but also celebrating different successes, a few years down the line.

  4. Cathy says:

    If I may leave my experience as a former student, gifted, now adult… I’m French, but I lived in the States for three years, where I attended high school. My parents have always Iet me think by myself, not forcing me to follow in their path. That’s a great freedom. I was rather good in class, but the teachers didn’t recognize at the time that I needed more stimulation, and more freedom. I was “different”, but didn’t know why. I was appreciated by my teachers because I was working, having good grades and asking questions. But I wasn’t happy with my schoolmates, because I was thinking on an “adult level”, the other kids were not interesting, because they were picking on me ! That was before going to the states, and finding a freedom in high school, choosing many subjects of interest (Astronomy, meteorology, Physics, then Advanced Placement Physics), all that along with my studying in french. I wasn’t full time in high school, but sufficiently to become bilingual in a few months. My lowest grade then was around 70/100, at the beginning. 6 months later, they never went below 90. In the third year, as a junior, I went into school full time. My challenge was to pass senior english class, and the required classes to graduate, my French studies allowing me to complete the curriculum ! And I graduated at 16 ! Back home, because I didn’t work “as much” in my french study in that last year, they almost made me re-do my junior year ! I stood up for myself, and convinced the principal to let me into senior year. Their very rigid and theoratical way in their teaching, the repeatitiveness, was boring for me. My grades were terrible in the first three months as I adapted back to their mode of study, but as I knew my worth, I endured it, and increased the levels of my grades steadily. I passed my exams (the baccalauréat), stressed out, no honors, but I got it as pride wanted it, and to get into French university. My goal had been set during high school. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but how ? I wanted to retrieve the practical approach of US teaching, so I chose an institute that could lead me to the desired diploma, except for the cost… I went during a year, but I couldn’t afford it, so I went to university and, because my grades and the courses taken were similar, they accepted the first year as equivalent, and I went directly into second year at the French university (there, I met “intelligent” people). As there were so many courses to take, with many options, I thrived during my higher studies, as I learned how to persevere in face of difficulty. And as I got higher and higher in my degrees, I begun meeting people of the same caliber, and making friends. And, in the end, achived my academic goal to become an aerospace engineer. My testimony here is not to judge my country’s educative system. It’s to show that gifted children will thrive in any given educative system if, at an early age, they’re allowed to dream, and as they become teenagers, the dream becomes a goal. If their parents, and the teachers feed the dreams, and accept the goal as possible, then the kid will do whatever is thinkable to achieve that goal. Gifted children are extremely resourceful. He/She will learn how to persevere in face of difficulties, those will be challenges to be met. When a task is not easy, a gifted child or adult may refrain from doing it if he/she hasn’t learned the value of effort and perseverance. As “everything” is easy for a gifted child, he/she has a need to be confronted early to challenges, to learn how to work for a period of time, and on subjects not of their liking. Not everything in life is “easy” and “quick”, even for gifted adults. Some tasks are long and dreary… Sometimes, it’s the people they work with that are not as quick as they are… And they need to understand that. The tasks may not be especially difficult, or mentally challenging. It’s the process that takes time ! That’s extremely frustrating, especially for a gifted adult ! If a gifted child is prepared for these, it will be less frustrating than learning it as an adult. The process of learning effort is necessary for all children. However, as gifted children usually are good at academic work, they need a special kind of attention so that they have challenges to make them work their mental skills… and their physical skills, and their social skills. I’ve seen it in the US, the “bright kids” are involved in mental exercises mostly, and they neglect their physical fitness. That’s what’ I’ve learned also from my schooling. I never was very good at sports, so my parents and doctor would very usually discourage me from physical education… Nowadays, sports are well recognized as a tool for social integration… And I enjoy a good physical exercise ! I feel all the better in my body, and in my mind ! ( Mens Sana in corpore sano, that saying is SO true !) And it’s actually good for mentally gifted kids to learn that they’re not good in everything they do, that they need to work it up. It’s also a way of learning social skills, that people are different and the same, and that they’re not “a breed apart”. That’s been my problem for such a long time… Thinking I’m so different that I can’t be accepted as I am… We’re different yet the same. That’s the message for everyone to learn, and the gifted kids, too. Try not to make that giftedness so much a big difference. They can’t live in a society where they don’t have a place, since they think they’re different from all the others… How can they fit in ? We’re all different by some aspects, yet the same in so many other aspects…

    • Cathy, thank you for sharing your story and your perspectives. I also had part of my schooling in a different country, so I am always fascinated to hear how this has worked out for others. It sounds as though you and I both found it intellectually freeing to be abroad and somewhat difficult and restrictive coming home. I think my own international schooling experience was part of my learning that people are “different and the same”.

      • Cathy says:

        Giftedness may be a blessing allowing us to get out of the mold more easily than others. So when you do get out of it, you cannot fit back into it. At least, that’s part of my experience growing up… I can not go back to what I was a few years back. And having a vision where I take the best of all countries I’ve been to, it’s not easy or even possible to settle back with just the vision of my home country. Some people have never traveled the world, or even got out of their town or village. If they’re happy like this, why not ? But I won’t expect them to understand me… I can reach out and understand them, it’s part of my adaptability, but the other way around may not possible, as they are not used to thinking out of the box they’re in. The same can be said for parents and children as they grow up and think up their own ideas and opinions. Parents may not be able to understand their children if they don’t keep up with the change, and accept it as part of life. It may be why some parents get hit a bit harder by the “teenage crisis”. It may also explain why some people actually do their own teenage crisis later on, depending on their environment. It may be why some couples actually separate, because they thought they knew each other, and instead of seeing the change in both of them they were stuck on their fisrt vision, and drifted apart until they didn’t know each other anymore. Open-mindedness, attentivenes toward other people, that’s what allows people to adapt to change, whether it’s a change in space (other country, other neighborhood), or in time (growing up, aging).

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