As I see it, there are three sets of issues with the ‘G’ word:
- Terminological – the term carries with it associations that make some advocates uncomfortable and predispose others to resist such advocacy.
- Definitional – there are many different ways to define the term and the subset of the population to which it can be applied; there is much disagreement about this, even amongst advocates.
- Labelling – the application of the term to individuals can have unintended negative consequences, for them and for others.
We need shared terminology to communicate effectively about this topic. A huge range of alternatives is available: able, more able, highly able, most able, talented, asynchronous, high potential, high learning potential… and so on.
These terms – the ‘g’ word in particular – are often qualified by an adjective – profoundly, highly, exceptionally – which adds a further layer of complexity. Then there is the vexed question of dual and multiple exceptionality…
Those of us who are native English speakers conveniently forget that there are also numerous terms available in other languages: surdoue, hochbegabung, hochbegaabte, altas capacidades, superdotados, altas habilidades, evnerik and many, many more!
Each of these terms has its own good and bad points, its positive and negative associations.
The ‘g’ word has a long history, is part of the lingua franca and is still most widely used. But its long ascendancy has garnered a richer mix of associations than some of the alternatives.
The negative associations can be unhelpful to those seeking to persuade others to respond positively and effectively to the needs of these children and young people. Some advocates feel uncomfortable using the term and this hampers effective communication, both within the community and outside it.
Some react negatively to its exclusive, elitist connotations; on the other hand, it can be used in a positive way to boost confidence and self-esteem.
But, ultimately, the term we use is less significant than the way in which we define it. There may be some vague generic distaste for the ‘g’ word, but logic should dictate that most reactions will depend predominantly on the meaning that is applied to the term.
My very first blog post drew attention to the very different ways in which this topic is approached around the world. I identified three key polarities:
- Nature versus nurture – the perceived predominance of inherited disposition over effort and practice, or vice versa.
- Excellence versus equity – whether priority is given to raising absolute standards and meritocracy or narrowing excellence gaps and social mobility.
- Special needs versus personalisation – whether the condition or state defined by the term should be addressed educationally as a special need, or through mainstream provision via differentiation and tailored support.
These definitional positions may be associated with the perceived pitch or incidence of the ‘g’ condition. When those at the extreme of the distribution are under discussion, or the condition is perceived to be extremely rare, a nature-excellence-special needs perspective is more likely to predominate. A broader conceptualisation pushes one towards the nurture-equity-personalisation nexus.
Those with a more inclusive notion of ‘g’-ness – who do not distinguish between ‘bright’ and ‘g’, include all high attainers amongst the latter and are focused on the belief that ‘g’-ness is evenly distributed in the population by gender, ethnic and socio-economic background – are much more likely to hold the latter perspective, or at least tend towards it.
There are also differences according to whether the focus is the condition itself – ‘g’-ness – or schooling for the learners to whom the term is applied – ‘g’ education. In the first case, nature, excellence and special needs tend to predominate; in the second the reverse is true. This can compromise interaction between parents and educators.
In my experience, if the ‘g’ word is qualified by a careful definition that takes account of these three polarities, a mature discussion about needs and how best to meet them is much more likely to occur.
In the absence of a shared definition, the associations of the term will likely predominate unchecked. Effective communication will be impossible; common ground cannot be established; the needs that the advocate is pressing will remain unfulfilled. That is in no-one’s best interests, least of all those who are ‘g’.
When the ‘g’ word is applied to an individual, it is likely to influence how that individual perceives himself and how others perceive him.
Labelling is normally regarded as negative, because it implies a fixed and immutable state and may subject the bearers of the label to impossibly high expectations, whether of behaviour or achievement, that they cannot always fulfil.
Those who do not carry the label may see themselves as second class citizens, become demotivated and much less likely to succeed.
But, as noted above, it is also possible to use the ‘g’ label to confer much-needed status and attention on those who do not possess the former or receive enough of the latter. This can boost confidence and self-esteem, making the owners of the label more likely to conform to the expectations that it carries.
This is particularly valuable for those who strive to promote equity and narrow excellence gaps between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Moreover, much depends on whether the label is permanently applied or confers a temporary status.
I recently published a Twitter conversation explaining how the ‘g’ label can be used as a marker to identify those learners who for the time being need additional learning support to maximise their already high achievement.
This approach reflects the fact that children and young people do not develop through a consistent linear process, but experience periods of rapid development and comparative stasis.
The timing and duration of these periods will vary so, at any one time in any group of such individuals, some will be progressing rapidly and others will not. Over the longer term some will prove precocious; others late developers.
This is not to deny that a few learners at the extreme of the distribution will retain the marker throughout their education, because they are consistently far ahead of their peers and so need permanent additional support to maximise their achievement.
But, critically, the label is earned through evidence of high achievement rather than through a test of intelligence or cognitive ability that might have been administered once only and in the distant past. ‘G’-ness depends on educational success. It also forces educators to address underachievement at the top of the attainment spectrum.
If a label is more typically used as a temporary marker it must be deployed sensitively, in a way that is clearly understood by learners and their parents. They must appreciate that the removal of the marker is not a punishment or downgrading that leads to loss of self-esteem.
Because the ‘g’ label typically denotes a non-permanent state that defines need rather than expectation, most if not all of the negative connotations can be avoided.
Nevertheless, this may be anathema to those with a nature-excellence-special needs perspective!
I have avoided using the ‘g’ word within this post, partly to see if it could be done and partly out of respect for those of you who dislike it so much.
But I have also advanced some provocative arguments using terminology that some of you will find equally disturbing. That is deliberate and designed to make you think!
The ‘g’ word has substantial downside, but this can be minimised through careful definition and the application of the label as a non-permanent marker.
It may be that the residual negative associations are such that an alternative is still preferable. The question then arises whether there is a better term with the same currency and none of the negative connotations.
As noted above there are many contenders – not all of them part of the English language – but none stands head-and-shoulders above its competitors.
And of course it is simply impossible to ban a word. Indeed, any attempt to do so would provoke many of us – me included – to use the ‘g’ word even more frequently and with much stronger conviction.
This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page inaugural Blog Hop on The “G” Word (“Gifted”). To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_the_g_word.htm
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