Ambivalent: Of, pertaining to, or characterized by ambivalence; having either or both of two contrary or parallel values, qualities or meanings; entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing; acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites; equivocal. (“ambivalent, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 27 April 2014)
When the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page announced a blog hop, the theme of which was using the G-word, I immediately knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity to sort through my own ambivalent thoughts on the topic. This post is not meant to give advice or to reflect anyone’s views but my own and, as an added disclaimer, I reserve the right to modify my understanding with additional time and wisdom.
I’m not sure I was familiar at all with the idea of giftedness—other than when the term “gifted” is applied to accomplished artists and thinkers—until our son reached school age and the Gifted and Talented Coordinator at our public elementary school gave me a copy of Bringing Out the Best: A Guide for Parents of Young Gifted Children (by Jacquelyn Saunders and Pamela Espeland, Free Spirit Publishing, 1991). While out of print, it’s a book I still highly recommend, especially to parents of young children, regardless of whether they are identified as gifted.
For the first time, I read about other children who display an often confusing combination of sensitivity, precocity, and drive. The book and what I would learn later about giftedness, especially at a small, private elementary school for gifted children that our son attended for a short period, made me a better parent.
However, when we decided to homeschool after our son’s second grade year, it was as much to escape the gifted label and traditional gifted education as it was to accommodate the needs that accompany giftedness. I continued to advocate for the needs of gifted children through my writing and by serving a term as a board member for the non-profit organization SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), but, increasingly, I realized that homeschooling, which we did for ten years until our son entered college, changed my perspective on what could be possible in a world with fewer labels.
Here’s where my ambivalence comes in. Yes, in our current culture, the gifted label is often necessary in schools so that some children can get the education they need to thrive, And, yes, learning about giftedness can be invaluable in understanding, accepting, and accommodating some very important individual differences. However, the word itself continues to nag at me.
Imagining What If
Edward de Bono, whose Lateral Thinking approach to creativity helps us to see challenging issues from new angles, offers a provocation technique of “wishful thinking,” in which we remove real world constraints from a problem we are trying to solve. Applying the technique to gifted education, we ask ourselves, “What would the ideal solution be if we had limitless resources (teachers, time, money)?” Or “What would the ideal solution be if everyone understood and valued individual differences?”
The answers seem obvious: Children who need to move ahead faster than others would be allowed to do so in one, many, or all subject areas, and those who need extra time would be given it. High levels of sensitivity and intensity would be viewed as a normal difference rather than a character flaw. Adults would understand that children can go through wide swings of low and high productivity, and that self-efficacy and self-determination can impede as well as facilitate academic (but not necessarily other forms of) success.
The need for the gifted label disappears in my world of wishful thinking. In the world we live in, it serves a purpose, especially in traditional schools, but at a cost. Some of the costs are unrealistic expectations on the part of adults or the children themselves, misunderstandings about just how broad is the spectrum of gifted individuals, divisiveness, and pressure to fulfill or maintain giftedness.
Some children and adults are highly sensitive or intense or fast learners or deep thinkers or intractable daydreamers or passionately nerdy or unusually creative or driven to succeed or drawn to introspection or a magical, delightful, heartbreakingly beautiful combination of several of these things. Even the trait that makes the most sense to me in terms of explaining giftedness—intensity—is not in itself sufficient or even necessary, for I have taught obviously gifted students whose intensity was not all that different from the rest of their classmates, and we can all think of very intense people who don’t strike us as necessarily gifted (which has made me realize that, in the past, some of my own writing on this topic has fallen into the trap of circular reasoning).
You May Say I’m a Dreamer
Understanding the complexity and individual experience of giftedness is important, and I strongly encourage anyone who wants to know more to become familiar with resources from Supporting Emotional the Needs of the Gifted (SENG), Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page, and the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. At the same time, I wonder if we can look for more ways to address and accommodate gifted traits and characteristics without overreliance on binary categories of gifted and not gifted. What I am not saying is that the differences of giftedness do not exist. This is not an “everyone is gifted” kind of post. However, the more I learn and see, the less sure I am about whether one word is the best way to describe such a complex concept.
Only in recent years, as our own son has moved beyond adolescence to adult life and I no longer worry about what I might be doing wrong on a daily basis to irrevocably damage his future, have I understood that my continued fascination and engagement with giftedness is really more about individual differences, especially about people—children, in particular—who feel that they don’t fit in.
People young and old with characteristics of giftedness often feel out of step with the world. I think this is why understanding their traits and tendencies as part of something bigger—giftedness—can make it easier to accept and value differences such as sensitivity, excitability, or a passionate drive to learn. The truth is, however, that those differences vary widely within the gifted population, and many people not labeled gifted also have those traits.
What if we could understand, accept, and value those differences without needing to attach them to a label? That may sound idealistic, and I am not naïve enough to think it is a real possibility any time soon. However, the whole point of creative problem solving is to jolt us out of our usual way of thinking, to keep us from falling into false dichotomous choices just because the ideal solution won’t work, to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.
I am the first to admit that I don’t know exactly how we might get closer from here to there, but I do know that asking “What if?” is a good place to start.
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 www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_the_g_word.htm