I Think Your Compass Is Broken

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Back when I was a kid, the city started installing ramped sidewalks. Due to less than egalitarian attitudes, our city only had ramps on two of the four sidewalks at an intersection. In other words, if you headed north-south in a wheelchair, you could easily transition from sidewalk to street and back up, again. But, if you needed to change course and head east-west, well, you had a safety problem.

Then an interesting thing happened. Older adults with canes found the ramps helpful when crossing streets. So did young mothers pushing strollers.

What started off as an accommodation for wheelchair bound people became a universal benefit for everyone. Over time, ramped sidewalks went from an obligation to the disabled to a standard structure in urban projects. Suddenly finding funds to comply with the American with Disabilities Act wasn’t such a battle because it wasn’t just a small segment of society that benefited.

Over time, though, I think a subtle shift in attitude happened where the general public lost a certain sensitivity. How about all those people who park in handicap only spaces and think, “There’s no cripples around right now and I’m only going to run into the store for one thing”.

Regardless, teachers took a cue from architecture and now the National Education Association promotes the idea of Universal Design for Learning. UDL resets curriculum design goals by incorporating best practices into what, how, and why kids learn. Instead of creating costly programs just for learning disabled students, schools are urged to use all the effective teaching techniques that help struggling students so that all kids can learn better.

Sound familiar? It should. If you’ve followed the National Association of Gifted Children’s Bold Step fracas, then UDL sounds a lot like President Paula Olszewski-Kubilius’ call for focusing on talent development, rather than giftedness, in order to reach and benefit the greatest number of children.

What Is Talent Development?

Shame on me for not being better read about talent development. Our school district utilizes a talent model as its gifted program. But, then, I’m the wicked smart mom who had four different principals tell me over the years that they couldn’t serve the needs of my kids and would I please look elsewhere for educational services.

Still, the time has come to get a grip on talent development, if that’s where we’re supposedly heading.

Joseph Renzulli, of the Enrichment Model and Learning System fame, gave some basic descriptions in a 2010 Journal of Advanced Academics article. He shares the four basic characteristics that make up talent development.

  1. Kids pick an area or subject matter of interest
  2. Kids are allowed to think like scientists and test out ideas
  3. Kids present their findings to other people
  4. Kids are not expected to get one “right” answer to the problem they research

On one level, I’m nodding my head, “Oh yeah. I can get behind this form of gifted education.” But, then I read a bit more.

I read Renzulli’s statement: The raison d’etre of the creative person in our society is that they want to make some kind of change.

And then I read: What our country needs, if we are going to survive as an economic powerhouse, is the creative brainpower of people, not just high scores.

I also read Olszewski-Kubilius’s recent blog: Practice within our field, however, is largely focused on giftedness as a stable trait of the individual that can be identified through testing and identification and is associated with unique personality and psychological characteristics directly as a result of giftedness. As a result, we have programs that are driven by identification methods rather than service models and rightly criticized for focusing on too narrow a group of learners.

I find myself right back to where I was a few weeks ago when this firestorm started. These academics appear to be more focused on exploiting the child for all his practical worth rather than nurturing the whole child to grow into a good person.

How on earth can the president of a national organization serving the needs of gifted children say that we’re “rightly criticized” for focusing “unique personality and psychological characteristics”? Why the fear in admitting that gifted children have unique social-emotional needs from the general population of students?

More importantly, why the emphasis on achievement and product?

We’re talking about children, not young adults. Why must we feel compelled to place a weight upon these youngsters to keep our country economically competitive?

Why can’t we allow them to simply be kids? And play? And learn how to be happy? And grow into confident adults who can eventually emotionally handle the burden of saving the world?

  1. I have also not liked this line of reasoning when it comes to gifted children. Yes, we probably will experience a boost in ingenuity, inventions, and business growth if gifted learners are properly educated so that they learn how to work hard and overcome obstacles. However, children are not investments and commodities. The reason gifted students should be properly educated is because it is the right thing for the child. Society will experience benefits, but that is tangential to the real reason.

    However, this line of reasoning works with some people. If I want to get community leaders on board, I will tell them that gifted education will help the community by populating it with young entrepreneurs and highly educated scientists and engineers. I will tell them that gifted education programs will attract families with college-educated parents to the district. I will tell them that gifted education will attract European and Asian companies looking to create US headquarters to the area because many of their top engineers’ children are gifted. All are true statements and what matters to them. Educating gifted children in the district is what matters to me.

    It is a dangerous line of reasoning though. If you tell someone we are going to develop gifted children in to the leaders in industry, government, and other fields, they eventually think “What about my children who aren’t gifted? Will they be left out?” If gifted education is looked upon as giving advanced learners a boost over others, there will be little support.

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