Monday, December 6, 2010

Emphasizing the emotional needs of gifted children: a self-fulfilling prophecy

A recent Globe article on gifted education unwittingly articulates a number of problems with today's versions of gifted education:

It's becoming clear that not every bright child needs a specially enriched program, especially as the educational mainstream shifts toward student-centred learning, which tries to take account of every child's particular needs and ways of thinking.
Actually, student-centered learning is largely responsible for increasing the academic enrichment needs of gifted children. In math, for example, student-centered discovery learning--as opposed to teacher and textbook centered presentations of age-old mathematical concepts and algorithms--is a highly inefficient way to progress through mathematics, leaving mathematically gifted children bored and disengaged.

And "student-centered learning" often comes in the form of "group-centered learning," which in turn often comes in the form of mixed-ability groups that hold bright students behind even further.
Instead, the kids who need help are those at risk of dropping out or failing because they are facing emotional and social problems.
Why doesn't it occur to people that at least some of the emotional problems of gifted kids stem from boredom and disengagement in today's academically watered-down, group-centered, No Child Left Behind classrooms? Or that the social problems--bullying, isolation--might be ameliorated by allowing these children to work independently and/or to be accelerated into classrooms with intellectual peers?

Placement with intellectual peers, indeed, is one recommendation made by Tony Attwood, an expert who specializes in one particularly common subtype of gifted child: the gifted child with Asperger's Syndrome. Given the apparent prevalence within the general gifted population of what the article calls “asynchrony between a child's advanced intellect and his or her not-so-advanced age," Attwood's arguments for acceleration apply to most, if not all, gifted children.

Another problem for the academically gifted is a shift in giftedness labeling and identification:
Over the past few decades the definition of a gifted student worthy of special attention has been evolving away from the IQ-centred ethos that dominated the 20th century.

“The cognitive assessment is only one part of the package,” says Deborah Lewis, a superintendent of learning support for the Calgary Board of Education. “There has to be a need. It's not just high grades.”
The more heterogeneous needs are lumped together, the less likely for those with academic enrichment/acceleration needs to see those needs met.

Consider one child profiled in the article:
After her son began to withdraw from his Grade 3 class, Vancouver mother Erin Dyer pulled him out of school and sought a private assessment (his second – he had tested gifted in kindergarten). It got so bad, she says, his physical heath had begun to fail.

“He seemed sick at the very thought of school,” she recalls. “He stopped reading and refused to respond to the teachers. He was shutting down, retreating into himself. He refused to participate in so many things that had once excited him. His enthusiasm for life and learning had vanished. He was skinny, pale and anxious. I felt desperate.”
The article seems to think the underlying problems are entirely emotional and largely a result of the pressures that come with heightened expectations, quoting one giftedness expert as saying:
“Gifted kids will often experience their giftedness as a big bag full of expectations. So there's some anxiety about being able to live up to those expectations.” 
The problem with today's nearly exclusive focus on emotional needs is that it leads to "solutions" like these:
To help deal with such non-academic problems, Westmount teachers are now launching a pilot version of an “affective” (emotional) curriculum in their middle school.

For instance, teachers will lead kids into “supported failure” by asking them open-ended questions – such as whether euthanasia is ever justified – so that they can experience the frightening truth that there's not always a correct answer.
But further dilution of the academic curriculum will only increase the academically gifted child's apparent emotional problems; and open-ended questions, as I've argued elsewhere, are often not a good starting point for gifted "left-brainers."

Some "gifted educators" go further, arguing that it's no longer necessary to target the academic needs of gifted children in particular because, or so they think, today's classrooms are increasingly imparting the best of gifted education to everyone:
At the Atlanta conference on Saturday, gifted-education expert Joe Renzulli's talk will lob out this challenge: Now that general education has appropriated techniques such as creative problem-solving, thinking skills and problem-based learning, what's left?

“We used to think these were the province of gifted education, but now all kids should develop them,” says Dr. Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talent at the University of Connecticut.
Little does Dr. Renzulli realize that the kinds of school activities that have emerged in the name of creative problem-solving, thinking skills, and problem-based learning have actually dumbed down the academic curriculum for everyone.


Anonymous said...

It's true that gifted children may have emotional needs around the mis-match between their achievement level and what's offered (academically and socially) in their classrooms. But the social work approach to this issue is not an appropriate response. It would feel intrusive to most kids, especially Katherine's "left-brain" types.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I agree that "acceleration" is often the best intervention for emotional problems of gifted children. See my post