Two Former Honors Students Discuss What’s Wrong With Gifted & Talented Education

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gifted and talentedFour-year-old Heidi Hankins was recently accepted into MENSA, after scoring a 159 on a standardized IQ test. While that might inspire a little bit of jealousy from other mothers whose kids are still mastering the alphabet at age four, our readers were more concerned with why a pre-schooler needed this type of recognition and publicity? Several commenters asked variations of “What’s the point in signing up your child for this type of organization at such an early age?”

The more I thought about the early identification of gifted and talented children, the more I thought back to my own experience in accelerated classes and honors programs. I am in no way comparable to the little girl whose IQ is only a point behind Albert Einstein. But I did go to school with some extremely intelligent individuals who probably could’ve given Heidi a run for her money in their early days.

So I caught up with one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. In a school full of gifted and talented alumni, he was always one of the brightest crayons in the box, you could say. Tuck, who had a perfect 1600 on his SATs, back when 1600 was the highest possible score, is just a couple weeks away from finishing his Ph.D. at Stanford. He’s also the guy I bothered when my calculus got a little too intense. He seemed like the perfect guy to discuss gifted and talented education with, considering that he experienced most of what accelerated learning had to offer and has found success in his post-graduate studies.

LC: This weekend, I published a piece about a 4-year-old with a 159 IQ who just joined MENSA. Overall, the commenters on our website weren’t supportive of this move and thought that it was a push by the parents to gain publicity.

And while I have mixed feelings about extremely early G&T programs, like the pre-schools in Maryland recently started, I think that there’s a benefit to encouraging support and social interaction within the gifted community for kids who have a hard time socializing with their peers. Honestly, the whole thing makes me think about our days at the Academy. So I was kind of wondering if I might get your take on it, especially as someone who obviously excelled at testing from a young age.

Tuck: I am fairly strongly against early G&T programs for several reasons.

Kids who are identified as G&T tend to be categorized as socially awkward as well; however, being identified as “special” early on may lead to a stigma. It may be that other children not picked out as G&T may subconsciously or consciously socially exclude the G&T children in some cases, leading to stunted social skills and the perceived correlation we see in adults between intelligence and lack of common sense/social skills. That is just my opinion on the matter, I have no data to back that up.

Also, G&T programs are best at identifying children who are talented at measurable, quantifiable areas, i.e. math and science. Thus, these kids are separated and pushed more in these areas, leading to a higher degree of G&T children in these professions. This is not necessarily a big issue, except that intelligent children that are pushed down this path are not exploring all the potential areas that they may excel. From a personal perspective, there is also a giant glut of people in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The schools are training too many scientists and engineers, leading to high unemployment; perhaps our society would have been better served if these unemployed scientists/engineers had explored their interests on their own as children and found a niche in writing, business, politics, etc.

So, all in all, I think we should just let kids enjoy their childhood, we don’t have to force their accelerated learning, they will have many decades on their own to do that if they so choose.

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  1. Heather

    April 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    AMEN. I was not identified as “gifted” (I don’t think they did that at my school and we had no formal intelligence testing that I remember) but they did put me in some accelerated math group in elementary school. I loathed it. I hated math anyway so I really resented doing extra work that the other kids didn’t have to do. If I’m remembering correctly, they even made us meet at recess! What a way to turn a child off learning forever. If they had given me the option of doing something I actually enjoyed, I might have discovered a passion for something instead of hating school and slacking off for the next four years. Maybe not, but it’s worth considering.

    I was also “bumped up a grade” from Kindergarten to grade 1, which was really horrible once I got older. Aside from the other kids hating me for being smart (and probably because I was rather obnoxious about it before I knew any better), which I sort of got used to over the years, it was a fresh hell for me when other kids were hitting puberty and I wasn’t. Grade 9 gym was particularly horrible. No boobs, smallest in the class, known “smart kid” = easy target.

  2. Daisy

    April 17, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    When I was in elementary, my mom got them to set up a special G&T program for me and a few other kids. It wasn’t total separation; 3 times a week, we’d get pulled out of regular classes for just half an hour, and get to do work that challenged us–advanced math, debates, creative writing, research projects, etc. instead of sitting in a regular classroom mindlessly doing hundreds of endless, identical, single-digit addition problems.

    Yeah, I was shy and socially awkward. Yeah, I got picked on. But not for being smart! That was the one thing the popular kids actually LIKED about me. I was gonna be the left-out kid anyway, at least I had one place to go where I meant something! When I got to junior high, I was devastated because all I had was neverending mind-numbing easy work, and constantly being isolated and picked on. And there was nowhere to go that challenged me, or that validated smartness as a valuable quality in a school that glorified popularity and athleticism.

    I definitely don’t think G&T kids should be placed in totally separate classes, or sent to special schools, at least not at an early age (I DID love having separate AP classes in high school!), but you gotta give em something! Brains have to be exercised or they die. And quite frankly, it might even help social skills–I was way less shy and introverted in a small group with other geeky kids than in a large noisy classroom full of chatty jocks. If it wasn’t for my challenge classes, I might never have said 2 words in all of elementary school, or got to know some of the awesome brilliant kids, some of whom are still my friends today.

    TL;DR: My G&T classes in elementary school were what made life worth living and school worth going to.

  3. Daisy

    April 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I should probably add a caveat to that: my challenge class teacher was an amazing lady. She was quirky and smart, nurtured each of our individual talents, and came up with a ton of creative and interesting projects for us. She was, in fact, very Ms. Frizzle-like 🙂

    If it had been just doing a bunch of extra math problems instead of recess, I wouldn’t have liked it either.

  4. Eileen

    April 17, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    I also got “G&T-tracked” in kindergarten, which seems a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy…but no, I certainly never got picked on for it. My fellow G&T-ers missed maybe half an hour of regular class in the early grades, but by third or fourth grade, when we were switching classes for math and reading, we were just stuck in the “gifted” math or reading class (which was run just like a regular class; we definitely didn’t meet during recess!) and then were in our regular homeroom classes for all our other subjects. I didn’t think it was that bad, although there probably formed a certain clique of the kids who’d been in the G&T program since elementary school (and yeah, that group produced the valedictorian, salutatorian, and most of the kids who did well on several AP tests).

  5. Anon

    April 18, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    I teach G/T HS students in a public school. My perspective is the following.

    1) The label G/T is ridiculously inflated. “G/T” implies that one needs special attention and a specialized education and students who truly need that generally go to college before they hit puberty. I’m sorry, but if your child is not heading off to the university at 12, then your child not really gifted, in my book.

    The vast majority–in fact, I’d say ALL–of the “G/T” students I see are smart, but not by leaps and bounds beyond their contemporaries. They’re your average, garden-variety “bright kids” and the challenges they are capable of are not all that much greater than the challenges “regular” kids can do. It’s one thing to skip a child ahead in subject areas that they excel in, but I don’t think that on the whole, these differences are enough to warrant entirely separate programs and tracks.

    2) I have found that the G/T label is more limiting for students than anything else. By the time these students are in my classroom, they have internalized the label to such a degree that they conflate learning with performance and as a result, are terrified of making mistakes or being wrong. To them, academic inquiry or intellectual struggle are threatening because if you’ve based your whole identity around being smart, then the slightest intellectual difficulty will challenge your entire self-definition. Therefore, by the time I get them, I have a lot of G/T students who are hard-working and quick to pick up on the concepts–great attributes, for sure. But the majority of students are not what I would call motivated or innovative or curious. And unlike their “regular” counterparts, a higher percentage of which are more engaged with intellectual challenges and more receptive to creative solutions and more able to handle revision, most of my G/T students associate learning with accomplishing a task. Therefore, they treat everything like an elementary-level math problem: they solve it, and move on. But there’s no reflection as to whether they’ve actually understood particular concepts, and at its worst, some students literally cannot revise–at all. They figure that writing the essay means writing one draft and never editing or that scientific hypotheses shouldn’t have to be revisited. It’s not a question of being resistant to the work; it’s literally that they just don’t understand how to do it or because it’s painful to admit that their ideas weren’t perfect to begin with. This is an outcome I see all the time and it suggests big problems in the G/T approach.

    3) I understand that G/T may be the only option for parents to provide a quality education for their kids because in some school districts, it’s the only game in town. But I think that it’s terrible that we’re mortgaging the education of some students in order to provide it to others. “G/T” correlates overwhelmingly to privilege and it’s pretty atrocious to me that the label conveys a natural ability, when really, it’s more often than not a socioeconomic determination.

    • Daisy

      April 19, 2012 at 12:21 am

      Anon, I feel kind of sad for your students 🙁 I’m so glad my challenge teacher wasn’t that cynical! For us, challenge class encouraged creativity, curiosity, and innovation way more than “regular” lessons.

      Our challenge activities were things like: research a topic, and then create a board game based on it. Pick a school rule and debate the merits and drawbacks of it. Design a scientific experiment to see how to keep fruit fresh the longest. Design a new invention and explain why it would benefit people. Use a search engine to plan a trip to Africa (this was back when the internet was pretty new). Write a story with no punctuation, trade them, and edit each others’. Research a “hero” and present what you found in a creative way of your choosing. Pick a children’s book from the library and adapt it into a play that you can present to the younger grades.

      Whereas regular classes were things like: Do these twenty math problems. Now do twenty more. Copy notes off the board word-for-word. Fill out this worksheet. Copy these spelling words over and over until they’re drilled into your head. Pass out and die from boredom.

    • Heather L.

      April 19, 2012 at 7:18 pm

      Anon, you have completely hit the nail on the head: “they have internalized the label to such a degree that they conflate learning with performance and as a result, are terrified of making mistakes or being wrong.”

      I was in G/T programs from 3rd grade on through high school and took top honors at my university. I am 31 now and *still* dealing with my entire identity and self-esteem taking a hit when my abilities and talent fall short. I wish things had been different for me. But thank you for saying what I needed to hear.

  6. Stephanie

    April 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    I have a few problems with the contentions being made in this article.

    First, for many students (including myself) being “labelled” as G/T is actually a good thing. I am not reserved or shy and am an overall loud kid and up until they split us up (in 5th grade) I caused enormous disruptions because I was bored out of my mind during school so I talked and talked and interrupted class. Once I got into what we called the “Enriched” program, that stopped. I had to pay attention and listen otherwise I wouldn’t understand the material.

    As for the bizarre contention that too many G/T programs has created too many people with STEM degrees that can’t get jobs, that is 100% ludicrous. Those with STEM degrees CAN get the jobs. If you look at business immigration in this country the great majority of people have STEM degrees because the US is not producing as many of these people and companies need to “import” these workers from abroad. (And no, it also is not because they get paid less than American workers–you’d be shocked by the actual numbers.)

    Also the reason this person was able to single himself out in high school math was because he had been G/T and had already learned the stepping stones he needed whereas many “regular” students would not have been able to do this because they would not have learned the building blocks just yet.

  7. NeuroNerd

    April 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Lindsay, do you mind if I link this article to my personal blog?

    • Lindsay Cross

      April 20, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Hey there! Thanks so much for checking. Link away!

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  10. CTrax

    October 23, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    I don’t know how much my experience matters, but thought I’d put in my two cents. I went into G/T when I was in fourth grade. Even though I liked the thought that I was something special, it was only a couple years that I unceremoniously dropped out of the class on my own accord.

    At first I enjoyed it – there were a few fun little creative projects and the like, but eventually was just another assignment I had to do. Even though we “voted” on certain subjects (such as the middle ages) it was still little more than having information shoved at you that you were expected to regurgitate at a later date. The only difference was that there were few worksheets and no tests.

    After a few years we were old enough to be entered into a yearly G/T competition. It seemed like it was fun at first, but that wound up being the entire purpose of G/T. Add that to the fact that it took me out of classes that I would have to make up for, and it was just ridiculous. I wasn’t learning anything, I wasn’t enjoying it.

    So I quit. I hear that some G/T classes are done differently – such as students are placed into accelerated learning science or math classes. I suppose I would’ve enjoyed that more. In fact once I moved to a different school district and started high school, I was given the option to take “College Prep” science and English classes. I did so, and did well in those.

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