I can no longer resist the temptation. It is time to enter the fray, so here is my substantive contribution to the US NAGC Bold Step debate on giftedness as a trait versus talent development through gifted education. My own bold step, if you will.
The title of this post rather gives the game away, telling you broadly what I think.
Some of the more vociferous advocates of trait-based giftedness may choose to abandon it at this point as a consequence. But I hope the vast majority of more open-minded readers will follow the argument to its conclusion before forming an opinion.
What is the Bold Step?
I want to begin by describing in some detail the nexus of ideas that has aroused so much debate within what I might call the gifted and talented community.
It is vital that we are all entirely clear what the Bold Step is, because there has been a tendency – for critics especially – to reinterpret the arguments and to respond in somewhat confrontational terms.
(Because of the potential confusion with the organisation of the same name here in the UK, I will refer to the US operation as US NAGC and the UK equivalent as UK NAGC. And, if you will allow me a momentary aside, isn’t it high time that these two entities formed a mutually beneficial alliance?)
The article in question was released under the name of Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, NAGC’s President. She was drawing on ideas set out in her Presidential Address, given at the NAGC’s 58th Annual Convention, held in New Orleans in November 2011.
It was also published on 18 November on the NAGC US Blog ‘Parenting for High Potential’ which, unlike Compass Points, is fully accessible to those who are not currently US NAGC members.
The article contains highlights from the Address (the original transcript of the Address does not seem to be available online) which I summarise as follows:
- Gifted education has often been marginalised within wider education debate. This despite ‘important and significant research studies’ which have shown that gifted education ‘methods and practices have value…for a broader range of students’. Work on closing achievement gaps is highlighted, but gifted education also provides solutions relevant to:
‘Raising the international standing of our students’ achievement, educating students for creativity and 21st Century skills, and preparing the next generation of innovators, creators and entrepreneurs.’
- A significant cause of this marginalisation is disagreement within the gifted community:
‘Because of conflicts within our field regarding our basic core – ie ‘who are gifted children?’ and ‘what is the goal of gifted education?’’
- There is ‘a huge gulf’ between theory and thinking on one hand and practice in schools on the other (the emphases that follow are mine):
‘Research and theory has been focused on the concept of talent development for almost 30 years, with an emphasis on giftedness as a state one grows into and acquires as a result of learning and achievement; as a domain specific process that occurs differently within areas such as music and mathematics; and as an activity that requires different supports and programs for children at different points in their development. Practice within our field, however, is largely focused on giftedness as a stable trait of the individual that can be identified through testing and identification and is associated with unique personality and psychological characteristics directly as a result of giftedness. As a result, we have programs that are driven by identification methods rather than service models and rightly criticized for focusing on too narrow a group of learners.’
- This gulf must be bridged if ‘gifted education, as a field, is to remain viable’ and impact on education as a whole. The recommended way forward is to adopt talent development as ‘the unifying concept’ of gifted education and ‘the basis for our practice’:
‘To do so would put our field more in line with other areas of psychological research that support our field (e.g. expertise, positive psychology); allow us to engage with others in academic fields that are interested in knowing how to attract and educate talented individuals to their fields (e.g. chemistry, physics); attract more people from fields not currently well represented in NAGC such as the performing arts or even athletics; and most importantly, give us a platform from which to talk to educators about national education problems such as the achievement gap or reforming schools and to demonstrate that our key practices can address these problems because they are applicable to a broader range of students.’
Only this single option is proposed – no alternatives are entertained, or evaluated to determine their respective strengths and weaknesses. That was, on reflection, a significant tactical mistake.
To summarise still further, Olszewski-Kubilius is arguing that practice should follow (some) academic theory in placing talent development centre stage rather than giftedness.
This has created a perceived tension between the respective positions of some academics and some parents which has bedevilled the debate ever since.
It would mean distancing US NAGC from the idea of giftedness as ‘a stable trait…associated with unique personality and psychological characteristics’ and prioritising instead the development of giftedness through learning and achievement and regarding it as domain-specific.
That would be expected to shift emphasis away from identification towards provision – through effective challenge and support for the full range of gifted learners.
These arguments were developed in a further undated statement by Olszewski-Kubilius published on US NAGC’s website called ‘Continuing the Conversation’
She emphasises at the outset that the purpose of the Presidential Address and Compass Points article was to broadcast ‘a call to unity’.
This would suggest that she seriously misjudged the position, since those two interventions had the exactly opposite effect!
Indeed her admission that there has been a mixture of ‘supportive and critical feedback’ rather suggests that it has instead highlighted differences within the gifted and talented community, signally failing to establish broad consensus on a way forward.
The new article begins by repeating the claim that talent development has long been the focus of research (though now the duration of this trend is slightly shorter at ‘over 25 years’).
It is also ‘embodied in [US NAGC’s] current Pre-K Grade 12 Gifted Education Programming Standards’ and ‘reflected in a variety of program models that exist within gifted centers and school districts all across the country’.
This is no doubt a response to the allegation that it is entirely a research construct, beloved of academics but with little practical relevance.
She gives as examples of practical talent development her own Project Excite – supporting ‘talented under-represented minority students to qualify for honors classes in math and science when they enter high school’ – and ‘programs for highly gifted children…who are in the top 1% in terms of their math and/or verbal ability’:
‘Talent development, either as a concept or a practice, does not exclude nor diminish services for gifted children. Rather, talent development expands our services and programming to support a range of high ability learners with different needs.’
This makes the additional point that a talent development approach can serve highly gifted learners as well as those from poor backgrounds with unfulfilled potential. It tackles the argument that a talent development approach deflects attention away from the former to focus predominantly on the latter. We shall return to this question of the relative inclusiveness of a talent development approach.
The second article concludes with reflection on the political realities while continuing to develop the themes already introduced:
- As Javits funding disappears, talent development strategies ‘offer a productive framework for continued support’ in the future. There is a cross-reference to US NAGC’s 2010-2015 Vision and Strategic Framework with the following gloss:
‘NAGC seeks to share programme and service models that will serve all high-potential students who can benefit from our best practices. The goal is achieving an optimal match between the gifted students, their needs and characteristics, and the program and services provided’.
- Such talent development strategies and research studies provide evidence with wider-ranging impact ‘regarding what works to raise achievement and how to better identify hidden talents and potential amongst children’.
- A second cross-reference to NAGC’s own mission statement emphasises that the new positioning is intended as a response to marginalisation:
‘in part, to support and engage in research and development, professional development, advocacy, and collaboration with other organizations and agencies that strive to improve the quality of education for all students’.
- Given the evidence that gifted education research and practice is under-funded and teachers are ill-prepared to support gifted learners, there is a pressing need to strengthen advocacy for gifted education:
‘Talent development conversations give us a bridge to general education that will yield more advocates and supporters in schools and ultimately improve education for gifted learners. With a focus on identifying and nurturing a range of gifted students, including traditionally under-served gifted students, it resonates with policy makers whose support we need to fund gifted programs and services.’
A Third Effort at Clarification
The Olszewski-Kubilius position is further refined in a third contribution, again undated, called ‘Clarifying the Conversation’.
This is framed as a response to
‘The thoughtful conversations taking place in our online communities and on gifted support blogs. We appreciate the spirited discussion that will, invariably, lead to a positive future for our community and the high-ability children we all seek to support.’
The choice of the word ‘invariably’ is curious. It is not immediately obvious why the ‘spirited discussion’ should result in a positive outcome for US NAGC or for the wider gifted education community.
This third piece is oddly drafted throughout. It argues that three different publications ‘have been conflated in what is otherwise a very valuable conversation for our community’.
One of these is the Olszewski-Kubilius Presidential Address and subsequent article.
There is a peculiarly defensive statement of her academic pedigree which seems rather incongruous:
‘NAGC’s President Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, a Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, has been the Director of the Center for Talent Development for 25 years. Paula has published more than 80 articles and book chapters on talent development issues, particularly the effects of accelerated educational programs and the needs of special populations of gifted children. Each year the presidential address is crafted to challenge viewpoints, expand our thinking, and provide a perspective on the field of gifted education, and Paula’s address achieved this.’
It as if the writer feels it necessary to respond to allegations that these opinions emanate from an upstart ‘Johnny-come-lately’ who doesn’t have the first idea of the realities of giftedness and gifted education.
The final sentence might be interpreted as a degree of rowing back, establishing clear blue water between the Bold Step and US NAGC’s official policy. The adoption of the past tense ‘achieved this’ appears to want to put a line under the debate and move on.
The two publications on the other side of the stretch of clear blue water are:
- ‘Redefining Giftedness for a New Century: Shifting the Paradigm’ a position paper adopted by the US NAGC Board of Directors in March 2010, some 18 months prior to the Bold Step. This ‘reflects the official position taken by the NAGC’ (so implicitly trumps any statements by the NAGC President);
- A research paper produced by Olszewski-Kubilius with Subotnik and Worrell called Rethinking Giftedness & Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science which was published in January 2011, almost exactly mid-way between the position paper and the Bold Step. The gloss on this is also rather strange:
‘It reflects content, language, and format that customary [sic] for academics who achieve full professor positions at top universities. While the authors’ are active members of NAGC, the article does not reflect the position of the organization.’
The second part of this is admirably clear, but what does the first part mean? Is it suggesting that full professors at top universities write material that is irrelevant or, alternatively, that lesser NAGC members are incapable of understanding such material, which is simply beyond them? It seems rather insulting to one group or the other and serves no useful purpose.
Redefining Giftedness for a New Century
The NAGC position paper defines gifted learners as:
- the top 10% of achievers and
- those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude
in one or more domains.
The exact text is:
‘Those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).’
It advocates a lifelong talent development model, but doesn’t develop the adult component of this. It also suggests that younger gifted learners may be identified through achievement or aptitude, but that achievement becomes the more prevalent identifier as learners reach adolescence:
‘The development of ability or talent is a lifelong process. It can be evident in young children as exceptional performance on tests and/or other measures of ability or as a rapid rate of learning, compared to other students of the same age, or in actual achievement in a domain. As individuals mature through childhood to adolescence, however, achievement and high levels of motivation in the domain become the primary characteristics of their giftedness. Various factors can either enhance or inhibit the development and expression of abilities.’
Educators must provide gifted learners with:
‘Differentiated educational experiences, both of a general nature and, increasingly over time, targeting those domains in which they demonstrate the capacity for high levels of performance. Such differentiated educational experiences consist of adjustments in the level, depth, and pacing of curriculum and outside-of-school programs to match their current levels of achievement and learning rates. Marked differences among gifted learners sometimes require additional and unusual interventions. Additional support services include more comprehensive assessment, counseling, parent education, and specially designed programs, including those typically afforded older students.’
Some learners may underachieve for a variety of reasons:
‘due to environmental circumstances such as limited opportunities to learn as a result of poverty, discrimination, or cultural barriers; due to physical or learning disabilities; or due to motivational or emotional problems. Identification of these students will need to emphasize aptitude rather than relying only on demonstrated achievement. Such students will need challenging programs and additional support services if they are to develop their ability and realize optimal levels of performance.’
It is implied – though not stated explicitly – that gifted learners of school age can become gifted adults with the right support and the right personal skills and capabilities:
‘As individuals transition to appropriate higher education and specialized training, and eventually to independence, they will profit from targeted guidance and support. Continuing high levels of exceptional adult performance will require, in addition to advanced knowledge and skills, high levels of motivation, perseverance, and creative problem-solving. Exceptionally capable adults are among those most likely to contribute to the advancement of a society and its scientific, humanistic, and social goals’.
The position paper culminates with a warning to education policy-makers that:
‘The gifted persons described here will comprise a large proportion of the leadership of the next generation in the arts, sciences, letters, politics, etc. If we provide this group with a mediocre education we doom ourselves to a mediocre society a generation forward. Educators know how to provide an excellent education for these students, but it will not happen by accident or benign neglect…A moral society must care for and enhance the development of all of its citizens. Specific investment in the gifted is an important way to build a society that can help solve the society’s needs with creative innovations and organizations.’
From a personal perspective, I find it hard to object to any of this statement, which seems to me to explain, rather clearly and succinctly, what gifted education is all about. I might quibble about the 10% figure, but it is a minor concern.
But the statement certainly does not satisfy all those who would prefer a trait theory of giftedness to be foregrounded – and one even complains bitterly about its prolixity, as we shall see later.
Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education
It would not be appropriate – nor is there space in this post – to give a full treatment of the paper by Olszewski-Kubilius, Subotnik and Worrell, so I will draw solely on the core definitions.
The paper proposes the following definition of giftedness, which is broadly in line with the NAGC’s, but not entirely so (my emphases are designed to highlight the subtle distinctions):
‘Giftedness is the manifestation of performance or production that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to that of other high-functioning individuals in that domain. Further, giftedness can be viewed as developmental, in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable; in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness; and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted. Psychosocial variables play an essential role in the manifestation of giftedness at every developmental stage. Both cognitive and psychosocial variables are malleable and need to be deliberately cultivated.’
There is no explicit reference here to 10% per domain and the relationship between potential and achievement (and ultimately eminence) is seen in sequential and developmental terms.
The authors comment:
‘Our goal here is to provide a definition that is useful across all domains of endeavor and acknowledges several perspectives about giftedness on which there is a fairly broad scientific consensus: Giftedness (a) reflects the values of society; (b) is typically manifested in actual outcomes, especially in adulthood; (c) is domain specific; (d) is the result of the coalescing of biological, pedagogical, psychological, and psychosocial factors; and (e) is relative not just to the ordinary (e.g., a child with above-average art ability compared to peers) but to the extraordinary (e.g., an artist who revolutionizes a field of art).’
The paper defines the two different perspectives – trait-based giftedness and talent development through gifted education – in terms of their expected outcomes.
It argues that, for proponents of giftedness, the expected outcome must be self-actualisation, whereas for supporters of talent development it must be eminence (though the structure of the final sentence contains a beguiling hint that there may be other alternative formulations):
‘If one accepts the view of giftedness as a hereditary characteristic, it follows that the field simply needs to learn how to reliably identify it. A contrasting view associates giftedness with accomplishment…From this perspective, what determines whether individuals are gifted or not is not who they are but what they do. From this point of view, it really does not matter how high an individual’s IQ is if that person never makes a substantive and substantial contribution to some field of endeavor. Given that most contributions are made by adults and there is a growing literature on the importance of talent development, one can argue that giftedness in children is probably best described as potential. This suggests that to maintain the label of “gifted” in adolescence and adulthood requires turning potential into outstanding accomplishments…This debate can be formulated in terms of at least two rival views of what gifted education should lead to: self-actualization versus eminence.’
Whereas the NAGC paper allows for the possibility that pre-adolescent and post-adolescent gifted learners may demonstrate either achievement or potential, albeit with one more dominant and then the other, here pre-adolescent learners are assumed only to demonstrate potential, while achievement is associated exclusively with adolescents and adults and, in the latter case at least, this is characterised as ‘eminence’.
The ‘self-actualisation’ outcome is associated with the idea that the gifted child is emotionally different:
‘Success, from this perspective, is based on gifted children maximizing the development of this emotionally different psyche. Although this view of giftedness is still prevalent in many quarters, there is little empirical support for viewing gifted people as qualitatively different.’
Contrastingly, eminence is described in the following terms:
‘Gifted children need to become eminent producers to be labeled gifted as adults, and…society has a right to expect outcomes from its investment in developing children’s gifts. To accomplish the goal of producing eminent adults, society will actually have to invest in developing children’s gifts by studying talent in various domains, assessing the benefits and costs of early specialization, ensuring apprenticeships and mentorships, and supporting psychosocial-skill development. The premise here is that gifted education should have a specific goal. In this case, the goal is to develop the talents of children and youth at the upper ends of the distribution in all fields of endeavor to maximize those individuals’ lifetime contributions to society. The talent-development goal does not mean that self-actualization is not important; rather, the suggestion is that self-actualization should not be the explicit goal of gifted-education programs. In any case, longitudinal studies… make it clear that outstanding accomplishment in the domain of their talent is an important part of the self-actualization of gifted adults.
So this paper is clearly supportive of talent development – and rather dismissive of some of the principles of trait-based giftedness – on the basis of the limited empirical evidence there is for some of those principles – but it also tethers talent development exclusively to the achievement of adult eminence (and trait-based giftedness exclusively to ‘self-actualisation’.
Opposition to the Bold Step
Several critiques of the Bold Step position have appeared in the six months or so since it was published, some of them rather dismissive, others contributing thoughtful reflections to a complex debate.
But I want to single out two more recent contributions, each offering a developed argument for the counter-positions they advocate.
Bold Steps: Best Taken on New Paths
The first ‘Bold Steps: Best Taken on New Paths’ is by Wenda Sheard, who sits on the Board of UK NAGC. It was published in an edition of the Newsletter produced by US NAGC’s Conceptual Foundations Network.
She begins by questioning whether she and Olszewski-Kubilius share a common understanding of the field that NAGC inhabits.
She highlights the distinction between the academics prayed in aid of the Olszewski-Kubilius position and:
‘the psychologists, counselors, therapists, parents, teachers, and administrators who together comprise the bulk of NAGC membership in the United States. Bold Step proponents think NAGC is one field, and that field is their field. NAGC is neither one field, nor their field.
The NAGC I know and appreciate has a long history of involvement by teachers, parents, psychologists, counselors, and school administrators directly involved in meeting the social, emotional, and academic needs of gifted children. Consider for a moment our name—National Association of Gifted Children. In my opinion, our primary “field” should be gifted children, not their education, not their talent development, and not their future worth to society.’
The argument that the one uniting focus of all US NAGC members has to be the children who are referenced in the organisation’s title is well-made, but the logic is strained with the suggestion that certain categories of gifted children may be excluded under the Bold Step approach.
Sheard argues that:
- Many members have joined US NAGC to help children ‘exhibiting traits of giftedness’, so insistence on a definition that assumes giftedness is ‘a state one grows into and acquires as a result of learning and achievement’ will likely cause many to leave.
- An unremitting focus on talent development will replace one form of elitism with another since there is a risk that if NAGC chooses to ‘value achievement in lieu of ability and potential’ it might ‘ignore groups of children who most need our help’, because those who have not achieved their potential ‘need even greater levels of support’. These include twice-exceptional learners who cannot reach the ‘achievement standards’ proposed by US NAGC.
- UK NAGC in the UK uses the term ‘high learning potential’ to:
‘Challenge common misconceptions surrounding giftedness. Since I joined the UK’s NAGC board in 2010, I have heard no controversy over the use of the term in publications and conversations.’
She refers to a recent UK publication on gifted young offenders in which
‘We reaffirmed our belief that not all gifted children who need our support are high achievers’.
Sheard concedes that perfect implementation of the Bold Step proposal would overcome the concerns she has already expressed (though she doesn’t explain why that would be the case). This serves rather to undermine her previous arguments than support them.
She suggests that the Bold Step ‘lacks implementation reality’, but this is essentially the same argument packaged in a slightly different manner:
‘How many of us — especially those of us who spend many hours each day raising, teaching, and counseling gifted children – have energy to devote to a cause so removed from the one we thought NAGC to be? How many of us will realize that if NAGC takes the Bold Step towards non-marginalization, NAGC will no longer adequately represent our children in the margins?’
The proposed approach will compromise US NAGC’s core mission to ‘serve the diverse needs of gifted children’.
Sheard expresses support for much of the content of the longer article ‘Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education’ but hopes that:
‘They proceed in a venue other than NAGC, and… without destroying what many have worked so hard to achieve within NAGC…. Provided they don’t hijack the term “gifted children” and don’t deny the reality that some children are born with higher ranges of intelligence that [sic] other children.
In my opinion, the proposed Bold Step will be most successful if taken elsewhere than inside NAGC. If taken inside NAGC, the Bold Step will result in a fractured organization unable to meet its mission.’
There is consistent evidence of a confusion between favouring particular conceptions of giftedness and excluding some kinds of gifted children which permeates the whole article. Whereas the former may be perfectly justified as a criticism, I am not sure that the latter bears close scrutiny. I will return to this below.
A Defining Moment
Delisle takes a somewhat different tack, though he begins by nailing his colours firmly to the mast, referring to:
‘The situation of gifted children seeking outlets for their innate abilities to see more vivid hues, to hear more subtle sounds, and to experience life in a higher key than others. These inborn traits of gifted children—as natural to them as their eye color—are what make a gifted child…well, gifted.’
But then he conflates the Bold Step article with the US NAGC position paper, criticising the definition within the latter.
He complains that the definition is too long, but it also has practical limitations because:
‘It is her [Paula O-K’s] contention—and the underpinning of this new definition—that giftedness is not a set of personal, innate traits but rather, the expression of particular talents in music, math or any other ‘structured area of activity’ referred to in the definition.
I find this approach to giftedness both utilitarian and selfish. By making the main job of gifted child educators to be talent developers, we are likely to put ourselves out of business—after all, aren’t all teachers developers of their students’ talents? Our field’s uniqueness lies not in the curriculum we offer our students nor the educational methods we use to develop their talents; rather, our field’s focus since it began a century ago has been to recognize the unique cognitive and affective facets of a gifted child’s life and then finesse school experiences to enhance these traits. By removing these cognitive and psychological aspects from the core of our definition, we are neglecting the very reasons our field of study came to exist initially. That is both shortsighted and rude.’
Well yes, all teachers are the developers of their students’ talents – and, in a context where gifted learners are integrated into mainstream schools, all teachers must be equipped to support gifted learners.
This objection can only come from an old-school advocate of separate ‘pull-out’ provision for gifted learners provided entirely by trained specialist teachers.
The decision to build a definition around talent development rather than traits seems to me a reasonable and defensible choice that does not deserve to be bad-mouthed as ‘utilitarian’, ‘selfish’, ‘shortsighted’ or ‘rude’. It is only a definition, after all.
Somewhat inconsistently, he quotes some other earlier definitions of giftedness, then admits that one’s choice of definition is irrelevant, then says what matters is that NAGC’s approach ignores the ‘entire body of literature’ that defines gifted learners from a psychological rather than an educational perspective.
But then he moves on to attack the domain-specific nature of NAGC’s definition:
‘An overall ability to think in deeper or more complex ways apart from a specific domain does not constitute giftedness. Using this new NAGC view, giftedness lies in something you do as opposed to being someone you are. In this new world of domain-specific giftedness, then, people are gifted only part of the time—the times when they are “acting” that way.’
This is rather convoluted but it is a fair point that, under US NAGC’s definition, giftedness is not a universally applicable state of being, but depends entirely on potential or achievement in specific domains. It is conceivable that some will be able to demonstrate this across many domains; perhaps unlikely that they can do so across all.
To take a crude example, a chess prodigy need not also be an elite athlete, or vice versa. But the chess prodigy is still a chess prodigy, even when competing in an athletic event – and vice-versa of course!
‘A child with a measured IQ of 145 is qualitatively different from his or her classmates whose IQs hover near 100. For NAGC to adopt a definition of giftedness that dismisses and ignores the reality of innate intellectual differences in deference to a performance-based definition shows me that the Association itself—The National Association for Gifted Children– has become an anachronism. Let’s just rename the Organization for what it truly is: “The National Association for Talent Development” and dismiss giftedness altogether.’
This takes us back to a narrow conception of giftedness based exclusively on IQ scores which many in the field would regard as antediluvian. But I don’t think it is necessarily the case that NAGC’s definition ‘ignores the reality of innate intellectual differences’ – it chooses to reflect them through the lens of domain-specific ability.
The second part of this quotation is also logically shaky. After all, US NAGC is not the National Association of Trait-Based Giftedness. It is simply offering a somewhat broader definition of gifted children than Delisle would prefer.
The article concludes with an expression of concern that there has been no consultation over this change of tack – by which he means the NAGC’s definition (which is two years old) rather than the Bold Step.
What Are We to Make of All This?
Though these two critiques are very different in some respects, they are alike in one particular – they both see schism as the logical outcome of the Bold Step proposition.
They both want to return to a world in which trait-based giftedness is the defining feature of the US NAGC approach, replacing the new emphasis on talent development. For they see the two as fundamentally irreconcilable positions.
But it is too late to stuff the talent development geni back into its bottle, and they are wrong not to contemplate a negotiated way forward that reflects their views alongside those advocated in the entirely separate documents produced by Olzsewski-Kubilius and the NAGC Board of Directors.
That is both disappointing and a failure of imagination. I am not sure that US NAGC or Olszewski-Kubilius herself see these distinctions in such sharp terms. They believe they are being inclusive of all gifted learners, though they too have been remiss in failing to explore the definitional middle ground.
A Broad Church
The nature of this disagreement between advocates of very different positions on giftedness and gifted education is the perfect illustration of how broad a church there is within the field – and how little real effort has been devoted to building consensus up to now.
I drew attention to this fact in my very first post on this blog, in May 2010, almost exactly two years ago. Little has changed since.
The post is called ‘What are the Key Issues in Global Gifted Education?’
The basic premiss is that one can categorise members of the gifted community according to where they sit on each of three related polarities:
- Nature versus Nurture: where one extreme is represented by those who believe that giftedness is predominantly inherited (a trait); the other by those who maintain that it is predominantly achieved through effort (typically exerted in a specific domain and an educational setting).
- Excellence versus Equity: with one pole representing those who see gifted education as a meritocratic business concerned with achieving the highest possible standards – the other representing those who highlight the identification and fulfilment of untapped potential and the overcoming of barriers to do so.
- Special Needs versus Personalisation: the former focused on the idea of giftedness as a special need and gifted learners as being different, with unique social and emotional needs; the latter regarding gifted education as one wing of universal personalisation to meet individual learning needs, with gifted learners regarded as no different to their peers.
These are of course the extreme positions – individual beliefs will tend towards one or the other but may be more or less pronounced.
My post argues that members of the gifted community typically favour one side or the other across all three sets of polarities. So nature, excellence and special needs tend to go together, as do nurture, equity and personalisation. It is comparatively rare to find people with a ‘spiky profile’.
It notes that:
- There has been a shift in recent years, away from the first of these sets and towards the second, as our conceptions of giftedness have grown relatively broader (or as more members of the community have broadened their conceptions).
- The higher the level of giftedness being addressed (or, more accurately, the more rarified one’s definition of a gifted learner), the more likely one is to favour the nature, excellence and special needs perspective.
‘Any community of G&T educators needs to understand these tensions, so as to accommodate the very different perspectives that may be held by its members.’
In my view, the US NAGC working paper and the subsequent Bold Step proposal mark a desire to shift the organisation further across towards the nurture, equity and personalisation agenda and – as such – are consistent with a broader shift in that direction across the gifted community.
The opposition to this shift is primarily amongst those who favour the nature, excellence and special needs polarities, either because of their beliefs about the nature of giftedness or because they are focused primarily on the needs of highly and profoundly gifted individuals, or both.
An Aside about Elitism
Wenda Sheard makes an effort to embrace the equity position, arguing that US NAGC – in its efforts to avoid one kind of elitism – is guilty of another. But her argument rests on the idea that US NAGC is dismissive of unfulfilled potential.
As we have seen, in ‘Continuing the Conversation’ Olszewski-Kubilius is explicit that her formulation includes support for disadvantaged minority ethnic – and therefore underachieving – gifted learners. The same logic extends it to the disadvantaged populations that Sheard mentions.
We have also seen – from Deslisle’s counterblast – that the US NAGC working paper is at pains to include potential in its definition (though this is expressed in terms of ‘aptitude’ and ‘ability’) alongside high achievement:
‘Those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement.’
And, thirdly, we have seen that the longer academic paper goes so far as to appropriate the concept of ‘potential’ to cover the entirety of pre-adolescent gifted education:
‘Given that most contributions are made by adults and there is a growing literature on the importance of talent development, one can argue that giftedness in children is probably best described as potential. This suggests that to maintain the label of “gifted” in adolescence and adulthood requires turning potential into outstanding accomplishments…’
There are no firm grounds for assuming that US NAGC is setting to one side the needs of any group of disadvantaged gifted learners – indeed their definition is much more accommodating to these groups than a narrower definition of trait-based giftedness would be.
Both Sheard and Deslisle risk the charge of elitism being levelled at their own positions. It could reasonably be supposed that they represent the interests of highly and profoundly gifted children who may be more likely to be seen as having a generic gifted ‘trait’ that identifies as a special need.
They take care to avoid this trap, but such a position is more overt in the wider criticism fielded by US NAGC. One gets the distinct sense that some advocates for this relatively small group are unhappy that NAGC is now focused on over 10% of learners in each domain.
No doubt they worry that their specific concerns – which are often about the sheer inability of the education system to cope with their children’s needs – will be set aside in the pursuit of improved achievement at the top end, much of it focused on narrowing the gap between attainers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Where Do I Stand?
It will come as no surprise that I am largely sympathetic towards the position advanced by Olzsewski-Kubilius and I have already admitted that I have few difficulties with the US NAGC Position Paper that has become associated with it.
I personally prefer an approach that
- Focuses on gifted education rather than giftedness
- Adopts a broad and catholic definition of gifted learners
- Recognises high achievement and unfulfilled potential as equally within scope of that definition
- Accepts that giftedness is domain-specific
I also understand the pragmatic advantages in focussing NAGC on a much wider range of learners and on the practicalities of personalisation in mainstream education settings. I can see that such positioning will enable it to engage more easily with and influence wider educational interests, so gaining significantly more traction and leverage.
For a big part of the problem with the gifted field has been its silo mentality and the associated unwillingness of the wider education lobby to engage with it – rightly diagnosed as marginalisation by Olszewski-Kubilius.
Perhaps perversely, the only element I have difficulty with has not been raised by Sheard or Delisle (though it does feature within the post on Gas Station Without Pumps).
That is the assumption – not within the Bold Step article, though possibly implicit within the NAGC Position Paper and certainly explicit in the longer academic paper – that the purpose of gifted education is adult eminence:
‘Gifted children need to become eminent producers to be labeled gifted as adults, and…society has a right to expect outcomes from its investment in developing children’s gifts. To accomplish the goal of producing eminent adults, society will actually have to invest in developing children’s… The premise [sic] here is that gifted education should have a specific goal. In this case, the goal is to develop the talents of children and youth at the upper ends of the distribution in all fields of endeavor to maximize those individuals’ lifetime contributions to society.’
And that the only alternative to this is ‘self-actualisation’:
‘Success, from this perspective, is based on gifted children maximizing the development of this emotionally different psyche. Although this view of giftedness is still prevalent in many quarters, there is little empirical support for viewing gifted people as qualitatively different.’
I have no argument with the notion that gifted education has an economic value and benefit, though that can be measured quite easily through the rate of return on the qualifications they achieve, so need not depend on achieving a position of eminence (which is itself rather hard to define in a meaningfully consistent manner).
I oppose the pursuit of eminence on two more fundamental grounds:
- First, there is no reason whatsoever why the end of gifted education should not be to enable each gifted learner to achieve as highly as possible in areas of strength as well as areas of weakness while they remain in education and before they attain adulthood. This can be measured by success in end of school examinations or other performance assessments, or through progression on to higher education. There is no need to make a connection between gifted education and adult eminence – the outcomes of the education process are a valid end in themselves.
- Second, the idea of adult eminence as the end of gifted education rests on a set of false assumptions about typical progression routes for gifted learners. We know that very few outstandingly gifted learners go on to demonstrate any kind of eminence as gifted adults. Moreover, it is rare for a learner to continue to develop his or her area of greatest strength in his or her career as an adult. That may be true of a few musicians perhaps, a few creative artists, maybe a few chess players. Just occasionally, an exceptional childhood mathematician continues to demonstrate the same outstanding ability as an adult. But most gifted learners move into higher education courses that do not match exactly their areas of greatest domain-specific strength – and few will pursue a career that relates directly to their domain(s) of giftedness. In a nutshell, the concept of gifted education as the pursuit of adult eminence is at odds with the reality of the adult lives of gifted learners.
The Way Forward
Leaving aside my personal opinions on these matters of detail, my fundamental point is the one expressed in my first blog post – that we must collectively aim for a consensual position that all can embrace.
Because there are such different positions within the field, we must recognise this diversity as a strength, or it will become a weakness. We must avoid if at all possible narrow definitions that alienate some parts of the gifted community.
If the Bold Step is to be criticised, it is on those grounds. For it is clear from the critical response that US NAGC has not yet hit on a formulation that all its members can support.
The main criticism to lay at Olszewski-Kubilius’s door is that she is forcing the very fragmentation that causes the marginalisation of which she complains.
That basic understanding – that diversity can be a strength – underpins the development of the GT Voice network in the UK. I believe US NAGC must move in a similar direction, taking care not to alienate those who appreciate and understand the broad direction of travel that Olszewski-Kubilius is advocating (quite rightly in my view).
The same debate is surfacing within UK NAGC – and exactly the same rule applies.
We must shift the remit of both organisations in such a fashion that they accommodate talent development through gifted education, and position us more centre-stage as far as the wider education lobby is concerned.
But we must not do so at the expense of those who are, first and foremost, concerned with the social and emotional traits of giftedness (no matter how much some of us would like to do so).
We need to find a formulation that draws people together under a common cause. I can describe its broad nature though the words I use may not be quite right for some.
We must sidestep these arguments about the nature of giftedness, committing together to meet the full range of needs of all children and young people who fall – at any stage – within the upper end of the ability range, whether they are
- high achieving or demonstrating untapped potential
- demonstrating traits of generic giftedness or showing promise in a specific domain
- advantaged or disadvantaged (through any number of causes) and so struggling to overcome those obstacles to achieve their potential.
Some might complain that this potentially extends the remit to include all children and young people.
While I do not personally subscribe to that view, I do believe that the gifted and talented community should be broad enough to accommodate those who do so, just as it should accommodate those who believe that none of us is truly gifted, and all points in between.
For we are a broad alliance of common interests – we are not required to worship at the same altar (or any altar for that matter) nor must we share exactly the same beliefs.
So if I were counselling Paula Olszewski-Kubilius I would suggest she begins a rapprochement on those terms, before positions become even more entrenched.