Is it time to give up on gifted education?
"I’m So Tired"
That Beatles song is my frequent earworm. I also hear a loop of the line from the classic film Network: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Maybe I’m just showing my age, but I’m tired and mad. More precisely, exhausted and fuming. In all my 32 years of struggling to meet the educational needs of our gifted kids, nothing substantial has changed. We fight the same old battles, yet we never seem to make lasting headway or even hold our ground.
Trust me, I’ve learned to play by the rules. I advocated at the federal, state, and local levels. I wrote letters. I made phone calls. I sent emails. I visited legislators. I joined the board of our state NAGC affiliate, chaired conferences and served as president. I formed a regional support group for gifted educators. I ran SENG parent groups. I scoured the research and made sure our district programming was continuous, systematic, and inclusive. Following sage advice, I embedded all we did for gifted learners within school district policies so it would live on after I was gone.
Still, despite what we know about best practice, in our district (and in most American public school districts) our students are not in gifted schools or gifted classrooms or even gifted cluster groups. Most are in heterogeneous classrooms in which hard-working teachers may try to differentiate semi-regularly. I’m grateful for their efforts, but I’m angry that most of those teachers have no training in the needs of gifted kids. And I’m angry that so many advanced learners are just treading water. And don’t get me started about our failure to identify underrepresented students. Or federally-funded research findings that never trickle down to the majority of the kids in the desks. And that ideal gifted program I left ten years ago? Defunct. That makes me angry too.
So yes, I’m tired. Educators are tired. Parents are tired. All who advocate for our brightest learners are tired. But most importantly, our children are tired. Tired of waiting. Waiting to be challenged, to learn something new, to interact with like minds, to discover their passion. Some wait patiently, some do not. And underneath it all, I think we all are more than a little mad as hell.
How do I know that our kids are mad? The first activity in my self-advocacy workshop for teens is Gripes of Wrath. I start by asking, “What frustrates you about school?” a question that is generally met with silence. Gifted kids know they aren’t supposed to complain. How often have they heard the equivalent of “just be grateful you don’t have to struggle like some students?” But then we discuss Galbraith and Delisle’s list of great gripes and the floodgates open. They confess to feeling ignored, misunderstood, bullied, overwhelmed, and underserved. By far, their most common concern is lack of challenging and interesting work. The reality is that while we advocate for future changes in the system - laws, funding, accountability, or initiatives that may eventually take place somewhere down the road - at this very moment far too many gifted children are starving for the education they deserve.
Instead of asking gifted learners to wait for the system to change, we must encourage them to change the system. We must put the reins in their hands because they know best what is going on in their heads and hearts as they sit in class, walk the halls, complete assignments, and interact with their peers and teachers. In fact, when given the information they need, gifted students are best able to decide when, where, and how they want their education to be differentiated. But do they speak up? Generally, no. In my ongoing survey of workshop participants, 85% of almost five hundred gifted teens said they wished their schoolwork were better modified to fit their needs. Conversely, only 8% said they have asked for those modifications.
Our role must be to create and sustain a partnership. We must let our students know that there is something they can do right now to change tomorrow or next week or next month or next semester or next year: they can self-advocate by asking for what they need. And we must reassure them that they have our support each step of the way. This simple, intentional reminder is far more important than we might realize. Over half of the gifted students surveyed said no one has ever encouraged them to speak up, to take charge of their own education.
Information, Insights, and Strategies
Just what are the important steps gifted learners must take in order to successfully self-advocate?
1. They must believe they have the right to an education that challenges them and the responsibility to pursue it.
2. They must understand themselves as gifted individuals, assessing and reflecting on their unique learner profiles.
3. They must identify the available options and opportunities that match their personal needs and create new possibilities where none exist.
4. They must develop relationships with the advocates who can support their goals.
It’s not easy, but it’s do-able. And far preferable to waiting and waiting and waiting.
One Voice Sounds Like Whining. Many voices Sound Like a Cause.
So, am I giving up on gifted education? No. I just think it’s time to stop doing gifted education to students and begin doing education with them. Imagine how incredible it would be if the roughly 2.5 million gifted children in school today would have wonderfully positive experiences they orchestrated for themselves. When we help those masses of bright learners understand their giftedness in all its variations and individually adapt the education system to their advantage, they may become the politicians, professors, administrators, psychologists, journalists, parents, and voters who will value and support gifted education in the future. Maybe then we will all be much less mad and slightly less tired.
Douglas, Deb. The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the Four Essential Steps to Success. Minneapolis, MN: Free spirit Publishing. 2017.
Galbraith, Judy, and Jim Delisle. When Gifted Kids Don’t Have Al the Answers: How to Meet Their Social and Emotional Needs. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2015