Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

The Double-Edged Sword of Giftedness, Part 1: Cognitive Traits

Ah, William... HE knows that Robert E. Lee traveled with a pet hen...

"So help me figure this out," she says. She waves her fork in the air distractedly.

"Ok, what's that?" I ask. I watch as she dips her fork into a small Dixie cup size serving of dressing and then spears another bite of her salad.

"Why is it that whenever I am doing group work—you know, whole class discussions or cooperative learning in small groups or whatever—it's going to be my gifted kids that cause all the trouble. Boy do they sure like to stir up the muck."

We, this young blond haired lady and I, are sitting at a table in the teachers' lounge at one the four schools I am assigned to service as part of my job, the school's gifted specialist. I look her over a bit more carefully, trying to judge the question's intent by the questioner. She's fairly young, mid-20s I'd guess, and just two years into her teaching career. Her tone and body language do not indicate any real animosity or bitterness, per se, so I eliminate garden variety complaining from the list of reasons she has raised this topic. There can be a fair amount of cattiness in the teachers' lounge particularly, I've noticed, among those who are not new to the profession. Most of the time the more seasoned teachers are merely expressing frustrations but sometimes it can be downright snippy and it is for this reason that I usually avoid eating here. Still, on occasion, I find myself with no other place to eat and so I join the ranks.

"And you're sure it's your gifted students that are doing this?" I counter. "It's not just that they're the easier ones to spot?"

She considers the question a moment. "Well, sure, it's not always them. Of course there are others that may act up too. But they do it in a more predictable way, I guess. I mean, with my gifted kids, it's like they want to question everything or play devil's advocate for everything or raise points about things that really don't matter all that much to what we're talking about. And they do it because I think they just like to see how everyone reacts—not because it really matters to what we're doing at the time."

I know what she is talking about in more general terms. In fact, it's a concern I've heard in similar forms before—sometimes even from the parents of these students themselves at conference time. What each is responding to as they voice these thoughts aloud is the frustration they feel as they consider why behavior issues sometimes get in the way of what they feel should be some especially promising potential for exciting thinking and learning. There are reasons why this happens and this phenomenon is what I call the "double-edged sword of giftedness."
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We must take stock of one very important truth: gifted students are no different in many ways from any other student. Each has his or her own level of patience, willingness to take risks, respect for authority, etc. To think that gifted students/children will automatically respond to any situation (whether that be in school or at home) in a particular, even predictable, way is to make too simple the whole nature of social interaction.

Still there are characteristics of gifted students that are common enough to this particular group that they should be made a part of any new teacher's curriculum before they enter the classroom—and in many teacher ed programs, they are. These characteristics, if understood, might help adults—like the one who sits across the table from me now—better understand why they find themselves facing situations like the one she has just described.

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I glance at the clock and try to decide how best to tackle this topic, how to parse it, because it is not one that can be covered in its entirety with the mere fifteen minutes we have left in this short lunch period. For the moment, it seems as if identifying the common cognitive characteristics that most typically cause trouble is as good a place to start as any because for each of these particular cognitive traits, there is a brighter/more positive side as well as one which causes frequently some degree of consternation.

I run through a quick checklist in my mind, take another swig of my Diet Coke, and begin.
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Cognitive Trait #1: Gifted students tend to be more adept at seeing the "whole picture" and see value in doing so. Frankly, this is something we all wish we were better at sometimes. Being able to see the larger context of the issue at hand is what allows us to have "perspective"—to see and measure the importance of our own point of view beyond our own ego. Seeing the "whole picture" allows a good thinker to consider alternative courses of action that others may not even conceive of—and to consider decisions about those actions based on what is better for those in a larger sense. It's what most of us would agree we want to see in a leader—that ability to better understand the nuances of complex ideas and concepts that, to others, may seem too abstract or even downright unrelated. But in the classroom or over dinner conversation at home, this same trait can be highly irritating.

Mark, for example, is the child who seems to always raise questions about things that don't really matter to others. If the school topic under discussion is bullying, for example, then why would we care about how the Native Americans perceived the colonists? If we are discussing the family budget at home, then why in the world would we stop that conversation to consider what Roosevelt thought about the Great Depression? To bring these other issues up is mildly amusing, at best, and distracting at worst. But to Mark, these topics seem highly pertinent because he is considering how people in history might have already dealt with similar issues to help us better consider the current topics at hand.

Cognitive Trait #2: Gifted students are likely to have intense interests in a particular subject and, correspondingly, a vast storehouse of knowledge about that topic. University professors make their life's work studying everything from Mark Twain (ahem, Samuel Clemens!) to Boolean Algebra. Chefs can specialize in everything from pastries to pasta. Doctors know the differences between fifteen iterations of cancer and how they metastasize; an effective NASCAR pitcrew boss can effectively supervise as his team strips a car engine and reassembles it in mere moments. Most of us would never deny that having a passion to learn about nearly any subject is anything other than a positive. What these people know and contribute to the culture is never questioned.

And yet consider nine year old William who is terrifically interested in the Civil War. He is a gifted learner who, with sufficient resources at home, has more than mastered the minimal requirements typically laid out in the 4th grade. When the teacher seeks to impress upon the rest of the class a few of these facts, William chimes in with his own material (facts which are, frankly, more interesting and memorable than those deemed "essential" by the state curriculum). William knows the main figures of the Civil War, as well as the dates and locations of the key battles. But he also knows a great deal about Andersonville prison, black market trade among Northern and Southern soldiers, and that Robert E. Lee traveled with a pet hen throughout much of the war.

Cognitive Trait #3: Gifted students, put plainly and simply, learn and retain more information/skills much faster than their non-gifted counterparts. What takes most students up to twenty-four repetitions of practice to master, may likely only require the gifted student two or three rounds of practice. Algebraic thinking processes, balancing chemistry equations, conjugating irregular French verbs—the gifted learner may very well not need the time the rest of the class requires to sort out these thinking skills.

So, then, what is a new teacher (who is, as yet, unskilled in differentiation) to do when a child in 3rd grade has mastered two-digit division and does not need to do the practice worksheet containing twenty more of the problems he has already shown he can successfully solve? Similarly, what is the parent at home to do when the child refuses to complete that very worksheet that was assigned for homework? What are each to do with this child when the boredom of rote (and unneeded) practice begins to manifest itself as a behavior issue?

Cognitive Trait #4: Gifted students have a more advanced vocabulary than their age peers and are adepts at manipulating discussion of the subject at hand using appropriate "jargon." Paul, a sixth grader, loves biology class. He is easily able to answer the teacher's questions about any topic from cell biology to genetics using, appropriately, words like "mitosis", "permeable", and "double helix." He even knows what DNA stands for. He is confident as he discusses and explores the topic in the room.

But to his peers in middle school, Paul sounds "uppity"-and since this is middle school they tell him this in less than kind ways. Sometimes the way he talks just plain confuses them—and on a good day, his teacher.

There are two sides to this issue. Sometimes their use of advanced language makes this student seem as if they understand the material better than they actually do. And when questions they have go unanswered, the student is confused further. If the teacher then spends more time helping those who do not seem to understand, the student can easily grow frustrated and behavior issues can ensue.

Cognitive Trait #5: Gifted learners are adept at analogical thinking and use it effectively and efficiently to solve problems and reason their way through tasks. They do this by often intuiting the right questions to ask or eliciting the correct elements and details within the learning concept. Joy, for example, is asked to solve a multi-step math word problem about percentages. She is able to recall similar methods to accomplish this style of problem as she tackled ratios and fractions earlier in the year. Others around her, however, are less than sure precisely how to proceed.

Elsewhere in school, this is a great transferable skill to employ on long term projects and often this student is sought to be the leader of group projects because he can more easily see the finished project and map out the intermediate steps for others. But this responsibility can also frustrate the gifted student—especially when others in the group do not pull their weight. For this reason, he may refuse to work with others or may ask the teacher for alternate assignments—especially if the one offered to the whole class seems a tad too simplistic.
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Ms. Hope tightens the cap on her vinaigrette and zips it away in her lunch box. There is more movement around me as other teachers too begin packing their lunch materials away. Beginning long conversations in a teachers' lounge is not usually a good idea, and I am proven right on this point yet again. But it will wait. I throw my own can into the recycling basket. The second part of this issue is one that we can resume easily next time.

Now, however, it's time to pick up our students from the cafeteria.

Back to work.

Next Blog Entry: "Part Two: The Affective Traits of Gifted Learners, The Good and the Bad"

 

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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