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Nature of the Gifted Learner: An Interview With Dr. Tebbs

Talking about gifted children

“I can only speculate here, but if a holistic approach was to be sustained throughout the 13,000 hours a young person spends in school K-12, not only would young people remain more fully engaged over those years, but they would also have a more lasting desire to learn once traditional schooling is over,” says Dr. Trevor Tebbs, PhD. “Although I especially see this as an important possibility for young people with high levels of intellectual/creative ability, in my opinion, it is entirely natural and indeed desirable for young people of whatever ability level to develop a sense of self, self-awareness, autonomy and responsibility by this means.”

I began my interview with Dr. Tebbs with an earlier post, Gifted Learners—New Holistic Methodology and Tech, which you may wish to reference so that you can follow our entire discussion on the topic of gifted children.  For anyone just tuning in, I’ll reintroduce Trevor Tebbs. 

Trained in both the U.K. and the U.S., Dr. Tebbs, PhD, has held a variety of positions in a wide range of institutions, including a stint as vice-principal in an English special school for children with severe cognitive and physical disabilities and on our side of the Atlantic, as Assistant Director of the University of Connecticut (UConn) Honors Program. He has, in addition, taught a diversity of college courses in the area of educational psychology, as well as courses in Arthurian Myths and Realities in Ancient Texts and Historical Places in England and Wales, Art Education, Critical Thinking, Curriculum Development, Drawing, and Sculpture.

Currently Dr. Tebbs is an adjunct professor of psychology at Castleton State College, Vermont and he offers evaluative services at Giftedness Matters (soon to be called Chandelier© Assessments) in Vermont.

There is much talk these days on the idea of life-long learning at all levels of academics. In fact, the notion of life-long, whole-person cultivation is embedded in holistic arts, education, and sciences and upheld by many world traditions. I asked Dr. Tebbs how this notion fits in with his concept of holism and his Chandelier methodology which was introduced in Part One of this interview. He replied:

Life-long learning to my mind is exactly as it suggests…life-long. I have developed a checklist called the Checklist for High Ability in Pre-School Children which I have used in connection with my psychological evaluations for several years. It is based on Joan Smutny’s text. [See: Smutny, Veenker & Veenker, 1989)[i];] Dr. Smutny graciously accepted the checklist as a very useful instrument and gave me permission to use it in whatever way I wished. It is at present informal and used purely as a survey instrument to obtain insights from parents with regard to their pre-school child. The Checklist is not a perfect tool, but it provides a means whereby I may gather evidence of strengths associated with language, thinking, conceptual reasoning, creativity, and interest in the arts, mathematics and sciences along with leadership and other relational skills before excessive socialization takes place.

"While self-reports are potentially problematic, Dr. Tebbs explains, “I regard the information obtained from parents based on their responses as enormously helpful when considering a particular case from a holistic perspective.”

Dr. Tebbs explains such information is greatly helpful because “it provides a baseline against which we can examine current interests, strengths, dispositions and behaviors to see what changes may have taken place over a given time and what might have conspired to cause changes positive or negative - in a child’s learning habits, motivation, and engagement.”   

“Early indications of a capacity to learn or even a passion for learning are so valuable,” says Dr. Tebbs.  “There is evidence to suggest that this capacity dwindles, however, year by year as children and young people pass through a traditional U.S. school system [See:  Sir Ken Robinson’s material. e.g., http://www.ted.com/playlists/124/ken_robinson_10_talks_on_educ, compares with Finnish system: http://www.nea.org/home/40991.htm] Many of our youth, of course, do perfectly fine and benefit from their schooling just as anticipated. However, we also know too many disengage and choose either to hang-in until graduation is through or completely dropout of the system at some earlier point in time.”  

Dr. Tebbs has “no doubt most dedicated teachers—especially those in pre-school, kindergarten and earlier grades—start out with a desire to understand the whole child and nurture a love of learning via their interests and strengths. Genuinely good intentions prompt investment of time, energy, expertise, money and other resources compiling and working in the context of holistic data and information. But then this path appears to become increasingly 'crowded out by standards, grades, exams, scores, achievement levels and the like.'” 

He goes on:  “It seems to me that a huge multidimensional loss is incurred after the fruit of that investment is metaphorically, and often time literally, placed on the shelf only to be replaced with cold, hard numbers that basically excoriate essential elements that contribute to a love of learning.”

So there appears to be the problem: There exists the potential for a flowing, high quality mindset to develop; it is likely to generate higher levels of motivation, understanding, and satisfaction; and it may cause learning to snowball. But the more holistic life-long approach is traded for the more immediate atomistic outcome. For this writer and on a personal level, I have seen this over and over again regardless of educational level and ability.

What Is Giftedness?

There are a number of definitions in current use. The National Association for Gifted Children website provides one of them, posting the Columbus Group statement on giftedness: "Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally."

“I especially like the well-known 1991 Columbus Group definition of giftedness,” says Dr. Tebbs.  “This definition is somewhat more holistic in that it helps direct investigation towards the nature of the gifted individual, not simply his or her productivity.  Specifically, the definition addresses not only advanced cognitive ability but also asynchrony, vulnerability and the need for modification in parenting, teaching and counseling.”

But let’s, take a moment, put some numbers on that. Jan and Bob Davidson—founders of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development and authors of the book Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds, What You and Your School Can Do for Your Gifted Child—write that genius has two different but interrelated meanings, “In one sense, genius means high intellectual potential; in another sense, genius means creative ability of exceptional high order as demonstrated by total achievement.” And they use both.

As such, Davidson programs serve what they refer to as profoundly gifted youth as identified by cognitive ability test scores that are in the higher echelons, i.e., 99.9% or higher or 3 standard deviations above the norm. Depending on the test, children participating in Davidson programs may norm differently and can peak anywhere from 145 to +150 in terms of IQ.

I personally like the specificity of the Davidson programs and definition. As for Dr. Tebbs, his opinion is overall positive because he believes the Davidsons have opened up many opportunities for young, really highly able individuals nationwide. 

Tebbs says he is working with a young person whose family has limited resources close by their home and the young person is deeply appreciative of and satisfied with the various resources and opportunities provided by the Davidson Institute[ii].  He quotes the child’s mother who noted “It's the parent list-serves and publications that I've personally found so incredibly helpful.”

Identify Your Child’s Holistic Needs

A parent’s intuitive sense plays a role, says Dr. Tebbs. He emphasizes the importance of, “Parents familiarizing themselves to the fullest about the population of highly able children and their holistic needs is, in my opinion, highly beneficial.”

An understanding of what holistic means is also crucial (discussed in Part One of this interview). “When it comes to the basic elements, I suspect there is little need to stress the obvious with regard to love, food, shelter, healthy environment, security, safety, consistent and trusting relationships and so forth.  Parents need to be—probably are, or can quickly become—savvy when it comes to identifying and providing for other elements, such as, helping children to learn about themselves, establish healthy relationships and pro-social behavior especially in terms of their social and emotional development and resilience.”

Dr. Tebbs sympathizes with parents who come up against a problem when they know “intuitively” something is wrong at school, but don’t fully understand what it might be nor how it may be addressed. “I have visited public schools where 'giftedness' is missing from any school literature,” explains Dr. Tebbs.  “And/or where the superintendent has announced categorically, 'We do not have any "gifted" children here; we treat all children the same.'  In other words, all children are gifted. Of course, in one sense they are correct—all children need to be treated with care and respect. However, each child is different. Despite a growing reference in educational circles to personalized learning, this widely held view does present a problem and thus it is important to identify children’s strengths and interests, not in such a way as to make a child assume they are better than others, more to celebrate differences. And If possible, provide them with as rich (varied, stimulating) an environment as can be afforded."

Dr. Tebbs suggests parents take time to get the whole picture by observing the child in different settings and watching for her responses, for example, how she responds to different music, different experiences, and different people; read and talk with him, expose him to different adventures, different environments; engage his or her thoughts and energies in meaningful family activities and projects.

He points to Bruner and Dewey[iii],[iv] who underlined education as a means not only to help foster rationality, but also creativity and imagination in the individual:

My sense is these essential elements of holistic needs, especially, but not exclusively, in the learning environment, are constantly under pressure in the face of accountability. Whether this is so or not—and I am sure it rather depends on the type of school a child attends—the fact that the importance of creativity and imagination may be underestimated, never really be identified in individuals and if perhaps overlooked completely, does suggest the importance of parents not only identifying such elements, but also advocating for them in school and providing for them at home.  This may sound rather "high-brow," but I do think it is vital that children are provided the opportunity to "see beauty, have awe, experience transcendence, and appreciate some sense of 'truth.'" When considering creativity and imagination, I think of these aspects as "plant and fruit."

Tebbs identifies some behaviors that might lead to a deeper holistic understanding of a very young, pre-school child in this context and thus also their needs: 

Most probably, he or she will enjoy playing with words; use rich language,  e.g. metaphors and analogies; have a long attention span for stories and conversations; respond to questions or make comments in clever, unusual ways;  have a keen sense of humor; make up stories, songs, and rhymes; fantasize easily and have imaginary playmates; generate creative play situations; sing tunes; remember things in great detail; use materials or media in unusual ways and come up with a product that seems distinctive in style; remember landmarks and different turns in a journey; demonstrate a sense of space; transfer learning from one situation to another; see many sides of the question; tolerate ambiguity and demonstrate intense powers of concentration; and be especially persistent when engaged in a task—especially one that is of interest.

He further explains: 

“Specific details leading to the identification of holistic needs in older children may include: An advanced vocabulary; ability to deal with abstractions; recall of factual information; keen and insightful observation; ability to transfer learning from one situation to another;  an imaginative thinking ability; a great sense of humor; an adventurous spirit;   willingness to take risks; a large number of ideas or solutions to problems or questions; an  ability to adapt, improve, or modify objects or ideas;  an intellectual playfulness, a willingness to fantasize and manipulate ideas; a non-conforming attitude – no fear of being difficult; participation in classroom plays or skits;  adept at role-playing, improvising, acting out a situation “on the spot;” creates original plays or makes up plays from stories and imitates others – is able to mimic the way people speak, walk and gesture; tells interesting stories; uses colorful and imaginative figures of speech such as puns and analogies and is  able to express ideas in a variety of alternative ways; and sees alternative ways to distribute work or assign people to accomplish a task.”

When working with a child reported to be "gifted," he always looks for intensity or OverExcitability[v] —an attribute often noted in highly gifted learners when they are engaged in such activities as are noted above.

Tebbs explains that, “Intensity or OverExcitability (OE) is a distinctive and significant characteristic that typically indicates the presence of advanced intellectual capabilities. It is also an aspect of a highly able individual that may be misunderstood. Parents and teachers may comment on intensity from an early age in individuals, but not realize that it may be at the root of difficulties in understanding the self, how others understand the individual, how the individual relates to others, and life in general.”

Referencing Dabrowski, Dr. Tebbs itemizes the five specific psychic abilities, i.e. intellectual, imaginational, emotional, sensual, and psychomotor, that may be observed in the child. Such characteristics can speak volumes about a child as an individual. For example, the child may have:

  • A vivid imagination
  • Endless energy, especially in a creative, intellectual and emotional context
  • Marked enthusiasm and nervous habits, high levels of activity, a need for mental stimulation, and the capacity work for long hours when involved in a project
  • An unusual ability to visualize and invent, a love of poetry, drama, fantasy, creativity, science fantasy/fiction, metaphor and mental imagery 
  • A particular intense awareness of touch, sound, visual imagery

Seeing and experiencing elements of giftedness via holistic channels wonderfully enriches our understanding of highly able learners and their needs across the spectrum of individuals in our educational and family systems. Adopting a holistic view helps us better nurture and appreciate their gifts and provide a safe, happy, and free environment in which these children may grow.

Stay tuned for more with Dr. Tebbs on:  Nurturing Genius in Introverts vs. Extroverts; What Parents Can Do; What Happens When Your School Doesn’t Cooperate; and The Effects of Common Core on Gifted Kids

Notes: Here are some resources you may enjoy that have been shared with me:

  • http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Resources_id_14781.aspx.Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds
  • Davidson, Davidson & Vanderkam, 2004) http://www.geniusdenied.com/
  • I would personally like to add to this list another great book that comes out of the William and Mary Center for Gifted Education. It is titled Spatial Reasoning (Prufrock Press), which lays the foundation for science courses and higher level mathematics requiring spatial reasoning.

[i] Smutny, J.F., Veenker, K. & Veenker, S. (1989). Your gifted child: How to recognize and develop the special talents in our children from birth to age seven. New York: Ballantine Books.

[ii] Contact: Christyn Smith at csmith@davidsongifted.org for more information

[iii] Keiichi Takaya (2013). Jerome Bruner: Developing a sense of the possible. New York, NY: Springer

[iv] For example, http://www.the-philosophy.com/dewey-education

[v] Dabrowski: See http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/dabrowskis-theory-of-positive-disintegration-some-implications-for-teachers-of-gifted-students; See also: http://www.educationnews.org/articles/an-interview-with-sal-mendaglio-on-dabrowski-and-gifted.html

Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., is the author of Can I Have Your Attention? How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration.

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