Thursday, March 22, 2018

No, it's not time to ditch the gifted label

There is still controversy about the gifted label. Yes, some believe that if gifted students know that they are gifted, they will become harmed, or lose interest in school, or develop a fixed mindset, or that an array of disastrous outcomes will befall them.

Gifted labeling is once again under fire.

Recent anecdotal accounts of students who claim that gifted labeling harmed their sense of self and or thwarted their ambition have been circulated by math education professor Jo Boaler, who advocates for eliminating such labels. Boaler uses her platform as a Stanford professor to promote an emotionally appealing video with a compelling argument against labeling students as smart or gifted. While these students' personal appeals are heartfelt, these few individuals are not necessarily representative of most gifted students, nor should their claims dictate policy.

In the video, Boaler interviews young adults, who believe that awareness of their giftedness affected their motivation or self-esteem. She also interviews children, who point out how it's not fair that some kids are smart, or that it is upsetting when some kids are told they are gifted and others are not. Music swells in the background as these interviews are filmed, aimed to tug at your emotions. Who wouldn't feel for a tormented young adult, burdened by high expectations? Who wouldn't want to reassure a nine-year-old that everyone has the potential to grow and learn?

Unfortunately, this heart-rending video overlooks research about gifted children and gifted education. It perpetuates stereotypes about gifted people, the gifted label, and the myth that everyone shares an equal amount of ability and potential. And although some gifted children may receive conflicting and distressing messages about their giftedness from parents, teachers, and peers, this should not indict the label itself.

Let's consider the following:

1. Boaler uses her status as a Stanford math education professor to add authority to an opinion piece about the emotional well-being of gifted students, presumably a topic outside of her area of expertise.
 I don't doubt the sincerity of her concerns or her compassion for these students. But she is not in a position to diagnose the cause of their psychological distress; she only can speculate. In fact, other than assigning blame to their gifted designation, no other possible explanation for their unhappiness is considered. Did these students feel pressure from parents or teachers? Were they bullied or isolated from peers? Do they suffer from anxiety or perfectionism? Did they struggle with existential depression and feelings of alienation? Did they have a trauma history? The possibilities are endless.

2. Boaler's "sample size" of gifted students is quite small. There is no comparison group of well-adjusted young adults, commentary about findings from the literature, or alternative hypotheses about these students' distress. In other words, there is nothing consistent with commonly accepted scholarly or research practice. This is an opinion-based video that any marketing company could produce - yet it gains credibility because of her academic position.

3. If most of the young adults in the video are, in fact, Stanford students, they reflect a fairly unique and limited subgroup of gifted students. Stanford is one of the most highly selective colleges in terms of admissions standards, so these students are likely exceptionally gifted and/or extremely high achieving. Exceptionally gifted individuals stand out from their peers, regardless of their label, and may have heightened sensitivities, social/emotional struggles as a result of social differences, and a difficult experience in traditional schools. High achieving students tend to be driven, focused, and sometimes perfectionistic, and may dread the possibility of failure. Taking what these (possibly) troubled young adults claim as the root cause of their struggles (being labeled as smart or gifted) ignores other possible underlying factors that may have contributed to their distress.

4. Boaler's premise ignores the fact that these highly intelligent individuals would have been labeled as smart or gifted even if they were never formally tested. Their curiosity, creativity, complexity, and accelerated pace of learning most likely set them apart from peers. They were (and are) different. Their differences may have fueled their distress - blaming the label, and assuming their lives would have been fine without it - is simplistic and unrealistic.

5. These young adults (again, presumably Stanford students) would be considered successful by most standards. Students who gain admission to Stanford typically demonstrate enormous drive and exceptional achievement throughout high school - hardly the picture of those who have been hobbled and disabled by an awareness of their talents. To assume otherwise is disingenuous. This does negate the very real underlying internal struggles they may experience, such as self-doubt, ambivalence, perfectionism, insecurity or anxiety. But in spite of any possible distress, they have demonstrated resilience and the ability to achieve recognized markers of success.

6. The claim that these students received "special" treatment in their early school years because of the gifted label may have been valid for some; however, we know that this is not true for most gifted students. When their intelligence is denied, gifted children will suffer. Many gifted students, especially those from minority and impoverished backgrounds, are underidentified, and most gifted students fail to receive anything close to the education they need.

Nothing new

Boaler's criticism of gifted labeling is nothing new.  Critiques of gifted labeling, gifted education and the negative media portrayal of high achieving students appear with some regularity. While some have used Boaler's claims to support arguments against identifying giftedness, others, such as this writer, this writer, and this writer have challenged her views. And if awareness of giftedness were so detrimental to career and happiness, then how can we account for findings from the longitudinal study of mathematically precocious youth who achieved professional success as adults? Clearly, awareness of their talents and innate abilities at a young age did not seem to limit their career trajectory or self-reports of personal satisfaction.

The NAGC STEM working group recently responded to questions circulated by Boaler's video challenging the importance of gifted identification:

" is necessary to provide these students with 'differentiated instruction in an engaging mathematical learning environment that ignites and enhances their mathematical passions and challenges them to make continuing progress throughout their K-16 schooling and beyond.' Research has shown that this is not only important for students with mathematical promise but for all students with exceptional promise."

The STEM working group summarizes their statement with the following:

"Refraining from offering suitable curricular challenges to students who are ready for them, whether called gifted, talented, exceptionally promising, advanced, or something else because other students are not ready for or do not have an interest in them is not ethically justifiable."

Gifted children know they are different; offering them a clear, age-appropriate explanation that helps them understand giftedness is essential and validates what they know to be true. Problems arise when parents/teachers/society place demands or an inappropriate personal response (e.g.,"I'm so thrilled that you're gifted"), or unreasonable expectations on these children. Problems develop when schools fail to challenge them. Problems occur when they are not permitted to learn alongside like-minded peers and feel like outliers and misfits.

Labels should never imply limits on personal and academic growth, nor any assumption that someone is better than another. It is up to the grown-ups in charge to ensure that children know this. But denying reality in the service of equity is false, serves no one, and as noted above, "is not ethically justifiable." Let's stop pretending every child is the same, and instead, focus on understanding and providing educational and social/emotional support tailored to each child's specific needs.