Monday, April 30, 2012

Red herring du jour: defining giftedness

One of my areas of educational interest is talent in math and science--a common characteristic of many of those I call “left brainers.” This interest has me lurking on several gifted education lists. One of these lists has been dominated in recent weeks by parents arguing over what “giftedness” means. I’m guessing that many people would prefer whatever definition includes their own kids and excludes as many others as possible. Perhaps there are some philosophical issues as well.

Curiosity piqued, I spend some time on Google Scholar and consulted with my extremely intelligent and reliable collaborator, who holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, and learned that there is no well-defined construct for giftedness. Instead all we have are:

1. Arbitrary IQ cutoffs (the legal definition in many states)
2. Arbitrary percentage cutoffs (typically, somewhere from 3 to 5% of the school-aged population)
3. “Divergent thinking” tests
4. Arbitrary definitions by supposed experts

Criterion 1 rules out anyone with uneven intellectual skills--the great writer with dyscalculia; the Aspie math whizz with working memory problems or below-average verbal skills.

Criterion 2 rules out the possibility that a much larger percentage of kids are gifted in one way or another and/or are significantly under-challenged by today’s dumbed down curricula.

As for Criterion 3, “divergent thinking tests”, these often involve open-ended tasks that are difficult to score objectively, and that typically are verbal/informational in nature (“name as many uses for a fork as possible”), or are visual in nature, and thus unlikely to correlate with, say, mathematical or musical creativity. In fact, my expert psychologist tells me that the only thing that divergent thinking tests reliably predict is how well you’ll do on similar divergent thinking tests.

Perhaps most insidious is Criterion 4, arbitrary definitions by supposed experts. I’ve heard some people cite these as definitive, and others breeze through the often fuzzy but mystical-sounding criteria to the breathless conclusion that their children must be gifted.

Consider, for example these oft-cited criteria, reported, for example, at Education.com:

A bright child: Knows the answers
A gifted child: Asks the questions

A bright child: Is interested
A gifted child: Is very curious

A bright child: Pays attention
A gifted child: Gets involved mentally and physically

A bright child: Works hard
A gifted child: Can be inattentive and still get good grades and test scores

A bright child: Answers the questions
A gifted child: Questions the answers

A bright child: Enjoys same-age peers
A gifted child: Prefers adults and older children
A bright child: Learns easily
A gifted child: Often already knows the answers

A bright child: Is self-satisfied (when gets right answer)
A gifted child: Is highly self-critical (perfectionists)

A bright child: Is good at memorizing
A gifted child: Is good at guessing

I asked my psychology expert, and there is no rigorous test out there that measures “curiosity.” Beyond that, these highly subjective standards lend themselves quite readily to being one more way to shortchange the shy, diligent, introverted, and/or often bored-because-under-challenged left-brainer or child with Asperger’s in favor of his or her more extraverted, teacher-pleasing counterparts.

What, then, is the best way to measure giftedness? Recognize that it is domain specific, and look at a child’s performance in particular domains. And as for what to do with that information, the only thing relevant to K12 education is to make sure that everyone is appropriately challenged in all subjects.

9 comments:

Amy P said...

A gifted child: annoys everybody within a 100 yard radius.

Rivka said...

I've seen people argue that giftedness is "really" a set of behavioral issues and emotional overexcitabilities, and that high achievement is beside the point. Some go so far as to count high achievement against a diagnosis of giftedness, because a truly gifted child is supposedly too offbeat to get good grades.

I have a friend whose daughter was denied math acceleration, despite maxing out all of her tests with little effort, because she seemed happy enough in a regular class. She didn't complain about boredom or fail to turn in homework or show the kind of irritated noncompliance the teacher thought indicated giftedness - she just worked diligently and accurately. Hence she didn't "need" to be advanced.

AmyP said...

"She didn't complain about boredom or fail to turn in homework or show the kind of irritated noncompliance the teacher thought indicated giftedness - she just worked diligently and accurately. Hence she didn't "need" to be advanced."

Isn't that the sort of standard that would unjustly penalize girls for working hard and trying to please teachers?

Rivka said...

Amy: yes, yes it would.

Don't even get me started on the assumption that high achieving girls are just compliant hard workers, while high achieving boys have natural talent. (Yes, I have heard that said to explain away girls' better math grades.)

Corin Goodwin said...

There are so many problems with your post I truly don't know where to begin. Even your last line - "And as for what to do with that information, the only thing relevant to K12 education is to make sure that everyone is appropriately challenged in all subjects." - completely circumvents the reality of social & emotional issues involved in giftedness.

It's interesting, there are many places where you start to make a great point and then sort of veer off and undermine it. I'd suggest a couple of things:
1. Broaden your horizons. Checking with your one psychologist friend doesn't begin to address the multiple viewpoints, nor does it necessarily take into account neurological factors, additional research, etc. It's just one person's opinion.
2. If you are following one list or group, try following several. Same reason as above.
3. Do your own homework. There's a tremendous amount of new research on giftedness, and none of it supports the Multiple Intelligences theory that you seem to be a proponent of. In point of fact, you are correct that most attempts to identify giftedness have limitations - but that is partly because many of those attempts (eg. WISC) were not intended to be such, and even more so because the tools are being improperly used and interpreted by the "experts" using them.
4. Stop thinking about giftedness as strictly education-related. it's not. My first book discussed that point and the one I'm working on now takes that even further. Learning is a global activity, not just something that happens in a classroom, and being gifted has a variety of aspects (and comorbidities, dual diagnoses, and overexcitabilities) that exist in all areas of a person's life. (Note I say "person's life" because giftedness doesn't end at 18 years old.)

I think you have begun a good discussion, but it's only that - a beginning - and there is far more information available than you have apparently come into contact with.

Thanks for considering...

Katharine Beals said...

"There are so many problems with your post I truly don't know where to begin."

You might begin by citing some peer-reviewed, empirically-based articles on giftedness in reputable cognitive science journals. (As opposed to secondary sources that may or may not cite reputable primary sources).

"Checking with your one psychologist friend doesn't begin to address the multiple viewpoints."

That's why (see above) I also did a Google scholar search (for peer-reviewed cog sci articles that operationalize giftedness.) If I missed something, I invite you to send a link to it.

"None of it supports the Multiple Intelligences theory that you seem to be a proponent of."

A careful reading of this blog will reveal extreme skepticism towards MI theory. It's important not to confuse MI theory with the empirical reality that different children have different academic strengths and weaknesses, seen in the extreme, for example, in children on the autistic spectrum.

"Stop thinking about giftedness as strictly education-related."

I'm not sure where you get the impression that I think giftedness is strictly education related. I do write that "the only thing relevant to K12 education is to make sure that everyone is appropriately challenged in all subjects." In other words, when it comes to things that are related to education, I view the relevant aspects of giftedness as those that are related to education. That's nearly a tautology, however. In particular, it does not rule out the existence of other aspects of giftedness, to the extent that giftedness can be operationalized at all.

I appreciate your thoughts, but you might make a stronger case if you read this post a bit more carefully and then cited some actual research that contradicts what I've written here.

Anonymous said...

Curiosity "peaked" or "piqued"?

Katharine Beals said...

>Curiosity "peaked" or "piqued"?

Both, really. But you're right, Anon: my distinct lack of giftedness in spelling has once again gotten the better of me.

Mnemosyne's Notebook said...

If you anthropomorphize "Curiosity," you could say that it peeked at articles on Google scholar.

When I was getting my teaching credential, I had to write about disadvantaged groups for one of my classes. Instead of the standard choices, I convinced my professor that "Gifted" students were a disadvantaged group worth writing about. As part of that, I came across an article about how the state of Georgia tests for giftedness. They use a mixture of all 4 methods you describe: test scores, achievement, and metrics for motivation and creativity - and allow students to be nominated for the gifted program (not just being triggered by high test scores). This seemed the most inclusive method I read of, with the chance to capture students even with "narrow" giftedness.

The article is McBee, Matthew B. (2006), The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, A Descriptive Analysis of Referral Sources for Gifted Identification Screening by Race and Socioeconomic Status, Volume XVII, Number 2, pages 103-111.

If any of your readers are Georgians, they might comment on the reality of the selections as compared to the article.

And if that's not enough, the paper I wrote for my class is here - mostly focused on how the population of gifted children is about half the size of the SPED population and receives about 1/750th of the per-student funding.

http://mutecypher.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/gifted-and-talented-education/