UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Gifted, talented, & advanced

“Every child is gifted in their own way.”

That was the tagline years ago in a commercial for some cram school, and I’ve never liked it. Beyond the grammatical error and the manipulative advertising, the idea of everyone being gifted is a flawed, disingenuous idea. Obviously all people have individual interests, inclinations, strengths, motivations, even knacks. And many people are quite good at what they do, whatever it is. That said, the average person is, of course, average.

Yet, that poses an important question: Is there something special about the term gifted? I truly believe there is. In fact, there’s something special, unique, unusual, and even extraordinary about many gifted people throughout history. Individuals ranging from Leonard Da Vinci and Michaelangelo to Albert Einstein and Marie Curie to Amadeus Mozart and Misty Copeland to Michael Jordan and Babe Didrickson defy all standards and expectations of achievement. These individuals quite simply have gifts not possessed by most humans.

In the field of education, the term gifted has a unique and significant definition and connotation. Advanced academic learning, acceleration, honors classes, enrichment activities — these are all important in educating children, but they are not necessarily synonymous with or a substitute for giftedness. In most states giftedness, or GT, refers to legally defined exceptionalities that are guaranteed support under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In that regard, all schools should have staff and resources under a gifted title, as opposed to just “advanced academic services,” which is what some school districts shortsightedly call it.

This weekend Colorado hosts the annual conference for NAGC, the National Association for Gifted Children, at the Gaylord Convention Center, where thousands of educators and advocates will meet to address important issues and share ideas. Groups like NAGC and CAGT, Colorado’s gifted education organization, play an important role in maintaining support for gifted students because nationwide many people try to minimize and even eliminate advanced learning. For example, in California new math curriculum guidelines, which are not binding but recommended, actually claim to reject “the cult of giftedness.” And in New York Schools, gifted programs and high achieving magnet schools are facing scrutiny or elimination for being elitist and exclusionary. The Atlantic even recently carried an article entitled “Should Princeton Exist?”

Of course, this is not to say the term gifted is always accurately, appropriately, and equitably applied. White and affluent students are disproportionately identified compared to other demographics, and while the benchmark for gifted identification is supposed to be the 95th percentile, that can lead to nearly all bright hardworking students being labeled gifted. Metrics are tough because in many ways giftedness can be a “know-it-when-you-see-it” quality. Many schools have incredibly smart, high achieving students, but that doesn’t mean they’re gifted. Some achieve through much hard work and access to vast resources. That should be honored, but it’s not always gifted. If someone masters a standard, class, or skill after diligent practice, that’s wonderful. But if someone masters it almost immediately, is that not truly exceptional?

A great example of the distinction I’m getting at can be found by digging into the problematic claims by Malcolm Gladwell in the book The Outliers which popularized, and many say distorted, the ten-thousand-hours-to-mastery theory. While Gladwell’s loose reading and interpretation of data has been exposed as inaccurate by numerous researchers, many still believe it. And that can complicate discussions of giftedness. 

One of the best counterarguments to Gladwell’s disputed claim and to critics of giftedness is David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Achievement. His research spotlights elite athletes who achieved incredible mastery in their field in far less time than ten thousand hours. He also contrasts gifted athletes with the competitors they bested who had accumulated practice in excess of the established norms. In reality, some people master skills and knowledge with hard work and access, and others simply do it naturally in far less time. 

Bill Gates is described in Gladwell’s book as having great access to resources which led to his success. That’s true. But he is also truly gifted. A real genius. The same can be said for someone like Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. To be an NFL quarterback, you have to work pretty hard and be pretty awesome. However, some people exist outside the norms. And some achieve exceptionality beyond just the summation of access and hard work.

Some people are just gifted.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com