NAGC week — areas of contention

Now, I did have a bit of a beef with some of Sternberg’s comments. I think the tests he’s developed for helping colleges to get a more diverse student body, and helping students who have different forms of intelligence connect with those colleges rather than being shut out because they don’t do well on the SAT, sound great.

But I am left wondering what bearing they have on giftedness of the kind my child exhibits. Maybe none, and of course that doesn’t make them any less valuable. What I don’t like are some of the comments he made that suggest that his tests do have some implications for how my child should be schooled or raised, because there I don’t really agree.

His examples seemed to set up a false dichotomy between students with strong analytical skills and strong creative skills. Never did he proffer an example of a person who scored highly on a standardized test and was creative or socially skilled. The good test taker invariably turned out to be the dud in college or the workplace, while the poor-to-average test-takers turned out to be the go-getter world-changers. As he said early in his speech, “successful intelligence” requires all three skills, but he spent most of the talk deriding the measurement of analytical ability.

In fact, he said that highly gifted students are discouraged from developing their creativity because it would detract from the things that make them seem highly gifted. Say what? This was followed by the suggestion that those who score well on IQ tests don’t want to give them up because they don’t want to “give up on what it is that makes them special.” As the talk went on he also began to blend together students who do well on standardized tests, students with high grades, and “book memorizers.”

Perhaps given the chance to reflect and rephrase, Sternberg would have said this differently. But I really disliked the “nerd patrol” sterotype of highly gifted robots as a foil to the wonderfully flexible creative people out there who don’t score well on tests. If scoring well on a standardized test is not something to be unduly proud of, surely it is not something about which one ought to be ashamed.

This points to an issue I have with how we often deal with “cultural differences.” When we say that “cognitive competence” is a cultural value for certain groups, the implication seems to be that because it is a cultural value rather than a universal value, it is no value at all. From what I can tell there is a notion out there that our goal ought to be to get outside of culture, which is preposterous. Just as human beings are physical, and not all mind, we are social, whether we like it or not. Respecting cultural differences and erasing them seem to be easily confused, I suspect because we don’t want to accept the extent to which we are creatures of a particular place and space. But I digress . . .

One of Sternberg’s last comments was that his definition of giftedness was that a gifted person is a person “gifted in making a positive difference in the world.” We’re back to everyone being gifted, because in this sense everyone is gifted, just as everyone is gifted because everyone has gifts. This is why “gifted” is such an unfortunate word choice for whatever you want to call these kids who are atypical by a particular, defined group of standards. I stand with Joel McIntosh, who said to me in a separate context, “I don’t care if we call it gerbil.” And we might as well, because if we are reaching the point of saying that “giftedness” equals “having value as a human being,” then we’re not really saying anything. It is an article of my faith, of course, that all human life is equally valuable.

I think it is wonderful to correct unfair means of social stratification, and to broaden the set of skills that we value. But trying to erase all distinctions among people and their abilities is not very helpful for those people trying to navigate the reality that they are in some way significantly different. And as for valuing people according to being gifted in the positive difference they make . . .

Well, in practical terms, almost no one would be gifted under the age of, say 8. (Or, at age 8 and under, everyone would be “potentially gifted,” which is the same thing.) And of course who gets to decide what is a “positive difference”? This is just a feel-good thing to say that has no practical bearing on educational policy or procedure. “Hurray for Everybody! Overcrowded public schools: go forth and provide individualized education for every student in your classrooms without any additional time or money, without any new curriculum, and without any ideas on how to cope with the tremendous disparities in ability and background among students! On your marks, get set, go!” And then we go back to business as usual.

Beyond that, I was troubled by the implication that gifted children owe anybody anything, or at least anything in particular. Brilliant, talented homemakers, women of the “opt-out” revolution: does this sound familiar? Have you ever heard that you are wasting your education/mind/talent at home? Doesn’t it make you want to kick someone’s ass?

On the contrary, we owe gifted children the opportunity to grow and be whatever their “internal compass” (as Karen Isaacson called it) is telling them to be. And that may very well not fit a test-maker’s notion of “successful intelligence.”

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7 Comments

Filed under Gifted Ed, Oh Mother, Our Philosophy (such as it is)

7 responses to “NAGC week — areas of contention

  1. Hey Shaun-
    As you probably know, I’ve followed your blog closely. I’m very curious to peek in on Violet and Victoria. As a public school psychologist, I was excited to hear of your attendance at the recent conference and Sternberg’s presentations. It is interesting stuff and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. I agree with the self-fulfilling prophecy concept and it troubles me as I routinely administer IQ tests – they are my bread and butter. I’m curious to hear what you feel would be an ideal progression through the educational system would be for Violet? What would an ideal outcome be? How would you like to handle college entrance exams, etc.? I have looked into Sternberg’s Rainbow Project and really like what I am seeing.

    Andrea

  2. shaun

    Andrea: I bet you would have gotten a lot more out of the actual talk!

    I do think that the way Sternberg has applied his test to college admissions (he has added his materials as an option on the Tufts appllication) sounds like a great idea, and he reports that they are getting a stronger and more diverse student body as a result.

    I also think that these ideas could apply to younger kids, particularly kids whose strengths are not being identified by traditional means. That is, I like Sternberg’s idea of capitalizing on strengths in education by identifying a wider variety of strengths.

    As for Violet — I really don’t know what the ideal would be. For her early elementary years it would have to be something so individualized that I’m not sure it would be possible for any institution to provide it. She is so asynchronous in her learning and development, but as time passes she gets better in dealing with it. As she gets older, her ideal education will depend very much on her temperment and interests. She is not a particularly serious student at this age, which is fine with me. She may never become a serious student. It’s hard to be specific, but if she returns to the educational system before college I think it would be best for her to be at a level where she goes to a different teacher for every subject. The one-group-of-kids-all-day thing is not a good fit, and being the one weirdo who travels among kids who stay in the same classroom all day was really not a good fit.

    A few years from now I can imagine some combination of traditional classes in particular subjects at a local school, independent study with a mentor, online classes, and home education. I spoke with a woman at the conference whose son was doing something like that, though he was officially categorized as a public school student.

    What makes it hard now is that she is still so little! She loves the show Super Why for reasons I can’t even imagine, and she loves Arthur and Flower Fairies. It is hard to give up the opportunity for her to do junior high level work while still playing like a 3rd grader at home. I am an advocate of grade acceleration, but I am uneasy thinking of Violet with 12-year-olds, knowing that, with her personality, she would want to copy every teenybopper thing they do.

    I guess my number one concern with Violet has always been how I can help her feel comfortable with herself while also acknowledging her reality — she feels really different, and she doesn’t like it. The “nerd patrol” stereotype has not passed her by. Dealing with the academic stuff is secondary to the emotional part. Honestly, I don’t think I do a very good job, but with homeschooling I think she gets to work with that problem in a gentler way, at an easier pace, which is appropriate for a younger child.

  3. Thank you for this post, Shaun. I actually went to some sites yesterday to read more about his ideas, and to be honest I was disappointed. He was talking about different kinds of intelligence and I don’t think that’s so very helpful when it comes to giftedness. I wish there was a clearer message that giftedness is not about having a “type of intelligence” which may or may not be limited to intellectual IQ. It is about having a different way of operating, and that usually encompasses mental, physical and psychological systems.

    I’m not saying all gifted children are globally gifted. I’m saying their internal systems seem to be different from the norm, and that is why you get so many gifted children with environmental sensitivities, so many who are brilliant at sport, and so on.

    For me, I would love to see tests that acknowledge the different ways gifted children, especially those with very high IQs, approach problems. It seems crazy to give standardised tests to a population that is by definition not standardised in their ways of thinking and problem-solving. I know there is no other option, but I personally believe a combination of test-taking and assessment by a psychologist who really understands the highly gifted would be the way to go. Too expensive though, I know. And you wouldnt get a nice neat number. But that way they wouldn’t be limited by “the proper answer”, they could take into account the originality of thought and the complexity of processing that are the hallmarks of the gifted.

    I’m not interested in whether someone is creatively gifted or socially gifted. That’s a whole different ballgame to having a child with a very high IQ. And it blurs the issue in what I consider to be a damaging way.

  4. I think this is some of what I was trying to get at when I posted a while ago about “giftedness”. It seems that the goals of folks that are defining it and developing tests and so on are significantly different from the goals we might want. If the goal for our kids is to help them become the best person they can be, then we need ways of identifying how they learn and how we can best work with them to help them develop.

    But the perspective you describe is more one of how do we fit people into a given system. I have the same disconnect talking to my in-laws. they are so immersed in identities as teachers in a particular school system (even though they are retired) that they can’t think about education in any other way. I suspect Stermburg is in the same kind of place.

    Doesn’t help you work out how best to nurture your child. Though from what I can see in your musings on the blog, you are doing a pretty good job of working out what she needs and then finding ways of getting that for her.

    I’d love to hear about all the helpful things you learned at the conference, even if those were over coffee with someone bitching about the problems with the official sessions 🙂

  5. I would have been pretty upset with that speech. And he was the keynote speaker at a gifted conference? Did he talk at all about EG – PG kids? It sounds like he has a very narrow experience with gifted kids (as we know them) and more of an ax to grind against testing than anything helpful to say about our children.

  6. shaun

    My time-line of the speech was kind of like this

    1. This guy is funny, and he has some interesting stories.
    2. His work sounds interesting.
    3. Mmm, I like some of what he’s saying, but why is he so negative about analytical intelligence?
    4. Whoa! Did I hear that right?! That is really unhelpful to me.

    Jove: I think your description–fitting people into systems (even a good system!) or predicting that fit–sounds accurate.

    OK, so I’ll bring on the useful stuff next!

  7. Catana

    I discovered your blog just recently, and am impressed not only with the quality of the posts but of the commenters. I’ve long had a quarrel with Sternberg as being another of those experts who like to develop new boxes and then find ways of putting people into them. He’s not alone in creating false dichotomies, and the analytical/creative dichotomy is one that particularly irks me. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but my impression is, from years of reading the literature, that most of these categories and dichotomies come from people who are not particularly creative themselves, and who have no experience of either being highly gifted or having children who are highly gifted. They look on from the outside and presume to know what’s going on inside.

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