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Gifted Education: Losing the Racism and Elitism

How Optimal Match is different than conventional approaches to gifted education.

Key points

  • Gifted education is transitioning to a more dynamic, context-sensitive, and flexible approach to meeting gifted learning needs.
  • Optimal Match is about meeting gifted learning needs in one subject or another—math, music, science, literature, etc.—not about high IQ scores.
  • Instead of exacerbating racial, geographic, and cultural divisions, Optimal Match is inclusive, welcoming all kinds of diversity.
  • Optimal Match provides a model for encouraging the development of children’s high-level abilities much more broadly across the population.
Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

There’s a remarkable and welcome transformation happening in gifted education. Many educators are moving away from identifying some children as "gifted"—and everyone else therefore as "not gifted"—and toward a perspective that addresses children’s gifted learning needs across different subject areas and much more broadly across the population.

Instead of looking for kids who score at the top end of intelligence tests, Optimal Match educators are looking for kids who have gifted learning needs in one subject or another—math, music, science, literature, etc.—and then looking for ways to match those needs with appropriate learning opportunities. Just like they help kids learn to read if they have special needs in the learning-to-read department, teachers make sure kids get what they need in order to keep engaged in learning if they’re way ahead of others in one subject or another.

There are many advantages of the Optimal Match approach. In addition to being more consistent with current research on child development and the brain (which I address here), it’s more inclusive. Instead of exacerbating racial, geographic, and economic divisions—gifted education has historically left many minority, rural, and low-income communities underrepresented—it welcomes every kind of diversity. Nobody has to choose between special education for learning disabilities and special ed for giftedness. Kids who have multiple exceptionalities, including giftedness as well as problems with learning, attention, behavior, or something else, can get their gifted learning needs met and also get their other learning needs met.

Optimal Match Definition of Giftedness

In Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change, Joanne Foster and I describe the Optimal Match approach, defining giftedness this way:

Giftedness is an exceptionally advanced subject-specific ability at a particular point in time, and in a particular context, such that an individual’s educational needs cannot be well met without making significant adaptations to the curriculum, or providing other learning opportunities.

Optimal Match vs. Conventional Gifted Education: What’s the Difference?

  1. Where does intelligence come from? Most people now realize that nature and nurture work together in building a person’s intelligence, but conventional approaches to gifted education prioritize nature, postulating that some babies are genetically more intelligent than others. By contrast, Optimal Match accepts that people are born with different genetic predispositions, but takes into account recent findings in neural plasticity, and puts the teaching and learning focus on providing children with opportunities to learn that match their interests and abilities.
  2. Once gifted, always gifted? It used to be thought that if a child tested in the gifted range at one point in their life, their intellectual superiority would persist across their lifespan. However, from an Optimal Match perspective, learning needs are seen as changing over time. Some kids need some form of gifted education through all their years of schooling in pretty much every subject area. Others have gifted learning needs in one subject or another for a few years at some point along the way.
  3. Do you have to be smart at everything to be gifted? The conventional approach to gifted education assumes that kids identified as gifted are advanced in all subject areas. By contrast, the Optimal Match perspective takes into account the fact that people’s interests and abilities vary across areas. A child can have gifted learning needs in math and science, for example, but need help learning to read and write.
  4. When should gifted learning needs be identified? Conventionally, it was believed that the sooner an exceptionally intelligent child was identified as gifted, the better, so the intelligence wouldn’t be wasted. That assumes that people are born smart (or not), and ignores the nurture factor altogether, by which children build their own intelligence in an environment that supports that. From an Optimal Match perspective, it’s all about identifying educational mismatches as they develop, whenever that might be.
  5. How does Optimal Match avoid racism, elitism, and labeling? Gifted education has often been criticized as racist and elitist, with some justification in situations where it has resulted in two tiers of learning, one that’s obviously enriched compared to the other, with kids from racialized and disadvantaged backgrounds disproportionately excluded from the top tier. The Optimal Match approach avoids creating different tiers by supporting gifted learning needs much more broadly across the population, avoiding labeling kids as gifted, and by providing each child with an education where their learning needs and interests are matched by the appropriate level of challenge.
  6. What about problems with politics and funding? Historically, gifted education programs have been vulnerable to charges of elitism and withdrawal of funding. When gifted program options are clearly designed to match children’s special learning needs, and include all those students for whom they are appropriate, most parents, teachers, and educational decision-makers find gifted education considerably more valuable, making it more resistant to funding cuts.

The Optimal Match approach offers an alternative perspective on understanding and meeting diverse kinds of gifted learning needs. It also provides a model for encouraging the development of children’s high-level abilities much more broadly across the population. It has social justice benefits at the same time as it is consistent with emerging research in the brain sciences, psychology, and education.

For more on Optimal Match, see

How to Raise Intelligent Kids

Neurodiversity and Gifted Education

A Better Way to Support Gifted Learners

Two-Eyed Seeing

References

Matthews, D., & Foster, J. (2021). Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change. Gifted Unlimited.

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