I have been asked my opinion about gifted education topics in a fair number of places but this one has got to be the most unusual. At the very least, it’s the most unexpected because, at the moment, my wife and I are waiting for an eye care specialist to be free of her current client so we can take our turn. Yep, here in the store’s waiting area, surrounded by eyeglass frames of all shapes and sizes, we have met a lady who, as it turns out, is also a teacher in a neighboring district. She’s friends with a colleague of mine, Stacy, who just left the high school I used to work at in order to be the dual enrollment English teacher at this lady’s high school. She too teaches English and we complain about all the essays that have to be graded (“A paper treadmill!”). But now she has discovered I have since become a gifted resource specialist. And since that moment, for about the last ten minutes at least, she has been on a,… well, a rant really.

Truthfully, I am feeling a tad impatient, but I am also trying to be a good sport because I know this kind of thing happens to everyone. The man who is a contractor is asked at a holiday party what he would do to make the host’s living room just a bit larger. A massage therapist hears the same joke every time: “Wow, your husband must love being married to you!” The dentist is asked how she can stand to “look at all those people’s teeth every day!” The thing is I am used to fielding questions—from parents and teachers alike—in a more typical manner: through emails or phone, or at meetings in conference rooms. Sometimes I am even stopped in the halls at the schools I work in so I can give my opinion as to whether or not a certain child’s behavior in the classroom is “typical of a gifted kid.”

On this occasion, though, the reason I am biding my time, hoping that the sales lady at Lens Crafters will soon be available, is because the lady talking to (read: at) my wife and I has entered that stage of the conversation that is commonly joked about among those in education: Everyone thinks their child is gifted.

Of course, I am being a bit facetious. For all I know, this lady’s son really is gifted but I cannot judge based solely on the evidence she is offering. She insists her son must be so because as, a kindergartner, he is already reading at the second grade level.

Please understand: this reading level is impressive, sure, and like the school curriculum for any learner, this child’s advanced abilities in this area should require his school teacher to adjust her lessons accordingly. However, that claim alone is not enough to certify this young man as gifted.

Although I will not get into this exchange of ideas now—seated as we are among others who are waiting their turn to have lenses ground or frames adjusted—I have had this conversation, or similar ones, many times over. Once we finally get there, at the heart of it all, will lie two central debate points. One is the age old question of Nature versus Nurture. The other will focus on how we ultimately define and assess the quality of “gifted-ness.”

Of course, it is impossible to separate the yin-yang duality of Nature and Nurture. A person’s natural gifts, like a keen mind, are indeed shaped and further molded by his environment. But when a parent claims that her child is gifted because he can, say, read several grade levels above his young peers, or count to 100 at the age of three, or “name all fifty states in alphabetical order when he was just five”… then that parent is perhaps confusing correlation with causation. He can do all of these things, so he must be gifted, the thinking goes.

Um, not so fast. Perhaps it’s true that he is gifted, but it is not necessarily true merely because those examples could be offered.

It is possible that this lady’s young child is reading above grade level because he comes from a household that is rich with stimulation (ahem, Nurture). His parents, and in particular his mother who is an English teacher, likely read to him every night. They engage him in conversation and use wide-ranging vocabulary to express themselves. They encourage and foster his reading skills when, say, they go the grocery store and ask his help as they read the signs above each aisle trying to find the ketchup (catsup?). More than likely, this child even sees reading modeled as a habit at home. So when his Fountas and Pinnell pre-test places him at Level G—while another  child whose home is a bit less stimulating lands on Level B—it is tempting to look for the gifted traits right away.

And yet if the parents of both children—the lower and higher enrichment households—could somehow look ahead into their child’s third or fourth grade school year, they might be surprised to find that each child is reading now at the same level. Why would this happen? Simply put, the enriched child’s household gave him a leg up on his peers, but true “giftedness,” as we might typically define it in most schools, was never really at play.

And so you see why the second debate point arises: This begs the definition of what true “giftedness” really is.

That conversation is a hard one to navigate and it’s made no less difficult when you find yourself in a strip mall store with a person you have met only fifteen minutes ago. Another reason why I have decided to let this mother speak her mind as I, mostly, nod my head.

If I could engage her more meaningfully, I might tell her about a man named Howard Gardner (heck, she’s probably even heard of him). Gardner is an education psychologist who, in the early 80s challenged the very notion of what it means to be "intelligent." He questioned the idea that intelligence is a single entity; that it results from a single factor; and that it can be measured simply via IQ tests. Instead, he offered the idea that “there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth.” In his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he outlined at least seven different ways (though later he would add more) that a person could be “smart.” Some of those included being especially gifted with verbal/linguistic tendencies, mathematical/logical traits, inter- and intrapersonal skills, musical abilities, etc. His goal was to get educators to consider not “How smart is Johnny?” but rather “How is Johnny smart?” 

Granted, Gardner never wrote actually wrote about the nature of being "gifted" in the way that this mother is discussing that word with me. And yet, his theory single-handedly created a new way to have a conversation about any individual’s strengths and weaknesses, both in and out of school. It allowed teachers and parents alike to see and identify the real “gifts” that were at play when, say, a high school sophomore could completely deconstruct and then reassemble a car’s V-8 engine—even as he failed his English end-of-grade test by just a few points.

Alas, … I would eventually have to tell this very animated woman before me that—no matter how much I personally love his theory’s inclusiveness—Gardner’s particular notion of intelligence (and what that might imply for defining “giftedness,” and offering subsequent “gifted services") is a little less than practical in most schools. The truth is that it is easier to identify students as traditionally “gifted” if we fall back on the more standard, nationally norm-referenced assessments, like,… yes, an IQ test.

Typically, these IQ-style tests look at a student’s verbal (i.e. one’s vocabulary base) and non-verbal (e.g. recognizing and predicting patterns) skills. These are then combined into a composite score, which is very likely at least one of the elements that help a child earn his “gifted” label. It’s this way in the majority of most schools in the U.S.

You’re clever, dear Reader. You can see where this is going and, now, why I have avoided engaging in this dialogue: at this point in the conversation, the same central two debate points we might have been plowing through would come full circle.

Did the enriched verbal household give that child an advantage in his early gifted identification? Is that why it appears that the other child had “caught up” by fourth grade? Or perhaps that young child truly is gifted. How then, some would argue, do we define that other fourth grader’s “gifts?” It’s easy for this to become a circular conversation, and you start to see why a lot of school districts don’t even bother with full-bore “gifted identification” until the third grade year.

I see that, finally, a store employee has been freed up, and so now it is our turn to be fitted.

“Yeah,” I say, standing up, “I hear you. That’s a tough call.” I’m hedging my bets as I wrap up the conversation because, as I’ve told you, I don’t know her child at all—especially to intuit solely by this conversation if he’s gifted or not. “I think you should talk to the teacher some more. You can always ask for him to be screened whenever you want. And keep doing what you’re doing at home!”

We shake hands. It occurs to me that Howard Gardner might tell her not to worry so much about her kindergartener, to instead look at all the ways her child is "gifted"... and talented.

There’s certainly merit in that.

About the Author

Christopher Taibbi M.A.T.

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

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