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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Gifted and Talented People (and Programs) Need Help!

Talents need supportive skills for lifelong growth.

Many people believe that talent will out. Parents, teachers, and policy makers alike assume that 1) talent is easy to recognize; and 2) that talented individuals are invariably mature, motivated, and focused individuals. In the classroom, it is expected that unusually gifted children will be able to develop on their own and take care of themselves. This outlook is reflected in school budgets, which spend more on testing than improved teaching, and in most states put tens or even hundreds of times as much money into support for special education students than they do into gifted and talented students. But does talent invariably rise to the top? No way! More often than not, it needs help.

Indeed, we have news for educators, school administrators, and legislators: tests don't capture most talents and talents developed by gifted students are often, if not usually, decoupled from personality and maturity in ways that can undermine talent development. A student who is a math genius is not unlikely to be a social and communications dunce. A brilliant musician may not have the patience to practice. Talented artists and dancers may also have ADHD and literally be unable to sit still in class. Gifted kids are just as likely as any others to be troubled and act out in class.

Imagine a student who puts his feet up on his lab partners chair so he can't sit down. Who purposefully knocks over one of the test tubes, spilling its contents. Who at eighteen years old and a freshman at Princeton University, is behaving like he is six. He's on the verge of being kicked out of class, if not the university. He was one of our students.

Imagine another student who sets records for the highest scores ever achieved on tests in killer courses such as physics and organic chemistry, again at Princeton University. Who yet can't figure out how to open the lecture room door - just like the famous cartoon by Gary Larson of the kid trying to push open the pull door of the "School for the Gifted." He was a college acquaintance of ours.

Imagine a CalTech graduate student so brilliant that anytime anyone had a problem they referred you to him and he almost always found a solution. But imagine, too, that once this student solved the problem, he became so bored by it that he would not take the time to explain his insights. He was some one we learned about in our hunt for extraordinary thinkers.

In each of these cases, talent was at risk.

In the first instance, the student was from an impoverished minority background and was "acting out" because of overt discrimination. Telling him that his disruptive behavior would not be tolerated combined with "I grew up a mile from you so I understand where you're coming from - talk to me! I'm here for you!" helped him settle down to learning.

No one ever addressed the problems that our straight-A friend had because his teachers never spotted them. Standardized tests don't capture whether someone is a clutz-or whether they integrate school learning with every day living. So this brilliant student has become a merely competent professional, far from living up to his vaunted potential.

And that CalTech grad student? As far as we know he eventually left the university and dropped out of science altogether. What he needed was a mentor to help harness his brilliance to just enough patience to make it effective. Or, barring that, a mentor to pair him with collaborators able to translate his insights into useable knowledge. .

For sometimes talent can be manifested through collaborations rather then individual abilities. Consider the young man Bob's mother tutored at Continuation High School in Los Angeles. The young man had been kicked out of school for being a trouble maker. In reality, he was unable to learn how to read or do even the simplest mathematics. Perhaps he was profoundly dyslexic. But he certainly wasn't brain damaged, because he could take a wrecked car apart, strip it down, fix or replace the parts, and reassemble it faster and better than anyone the automotive folks had ever seen. He was clearly very talented, just not at anything anyone ever measures in school.

So Bob's mother taught the young man how to take the examination for the Armed Forces which consisted of three sections: one third, basic vocabulary; one third, simple arithmetic; one third, how machines work. At the time, you only need to get about a dozen questions right to be admitted to the Army; thirty right got you your choice of Navy or Air Force. The young man got every machine question right and joined the Navy, where he became a master mechanic. The Navy paired him up with someone who could read and do sums and fill out part orders so the young man could apply his talent where it counted.

A similarly collaborative approach was used by a savvy teacher Bob had in sixth grade. In retrospect, she probably changed his nerdy life. One day she chose the two smartest boys in her class - Bob being one of them -for an undefined "special assignment" that would take place for an hour each afternoon while the rest of the students did their regular school work. Moreover, the boys could pick any two girls in the class to help them. The assignment turned out to be a prototype of So You Think You Can Dance: Monday through Thursday, learn a new dance (music and instructions provided); Friday, teach the rest of the class the new dance. This was not exactly what two smart but shy boys "were good at," but it was a good idea. Teaching others how to dance the boys learned a thing or two from their more socially (and kinesthetically) inclined classmates. (Bob may not be a great dancer, but he is reasonably personable!)

All five of our anecdotes lead to one point. Talent, no matter what kind, needs help developing. Wise teachers and mentors search for the hidden talents in every student and nurture their growth. They also search for ways to bolster talents, hidden or obvious, by developing other skills (verbal, kinesthetic, social and collaborative) necessary to their lifelong sustenance. Gifted students can need just as much support as regular or even special ed students. Society depends on helping talent out.

© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2011

About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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