Education Equity

Identifying and Nourishing Gifted Students

Let’s broaden our definition of gifted students to include creativity, writing skills, musical and artistic talent, superior leadership and speaking skills, and moral character.

October 30, 2015

Having just seen He Named Me Malala, a film about the life and work of teenage Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, I wonder whether this young woman, gifted in thinking, values, courage, and public speaking, would ever have been selected for a gifted program in a U.S. school. In the film, she notes that her performance in some of her academic subjects is not that good. A few days earlier, I'd received the book Failing Our Brightest Kids by Chester Finn, Jr. and Brandon Wright, a critique of how we're failing our best students. Carefully skimming the book and the index, I saw only one mention of the arts and some musings about whether considering giftedness and talent adds to or "muddies" the authors' topic. Perhaps more muddying is needed!

Discussions of the best and brightest seem to invariably focus on kids who score high in math and language testing, and some who also demonstrate high scientific aptitude. I agree that we need to do a better job of identifying these kids and nourishing the development of their abilities.

But we should also discuss how we all too often fail others of our most gifted and talented students and how this begins with our very limited definition of gifted and bright. Because of this narrow definition, we fail many of our most gifted kids at a significant cost to the students themselves -- and to us as a nation.

Defining, Identifying, and Nourishing Gifted Students

How do we define gifted? How do we identify gifted students? How do we nourish these talents in our schools and classrooms?

Our current definitions, usually limited to verbal and math test scores and/or IQ, exclude students who missed the cutoff point on tests. A student might be a highly gifted writer or extraordinary social analyst and have great moral character, but he or she might be a mediocre test taker.

In my ideal school, giftedness would include any of the following:

  • High scoring on math, science, or verbal tests
  • Scientific promise as displayed in the creation of science projects
  • High-quality writing as reflected in journalism, poetry, fiction, screen writing, and more
  • Musical and/or visual art talent
  • Theatrical brilliance
  • Superior leadership skills
  • Public speaking skills
  • Moral character reflected in action

This is step one for both school districts and teachers, who should be committed to identifying important talents ignored in our normative focus on high test scores. And I strongly believe that the qualities of moral courage and public speaking skills demonstrated by someone like Malala should be on that list.

Part of the problem relates to the second question: How do we identify gifted students? We are stuck in a paradigm in which we allow what is most easily measured to define our focus. The tail wags the dog. Testing easily identifies verbal and mathematical skills and memorization. When we move into other areas, we find it more challenging to come up with methods of identifying talent. Yet it isn't difficult for music and art experts to identify talent in their fields. Leadership ability is evident in classes and schools. While identifying moral talent is more value laden, there are individuals, even short of Malala's gifts, who demonstrate their moral courage in our classrooms and schools, or their volunteer work outside of school. We need to work on better identification methods, rather than excluding talent that isn't easy to measure.

A recent NPR piece speaks well to the subject of how we can identify and nourish gifted students in every school and classroom.

The Role of Teachers, Parents, and Schools

Sharing information about student talents should be a critical part of the process. Teachers from different disciplines and the arts must combine their impressions of students for a fuller picture of their talents. Parent input should be actively sought. Many parents know of their children's exceptional talents that could go unnoticed in a school setting.

Teacher observational skills can be improved in identifying exceptional leadership ability and moral courage. In social studies and English classes, students should be given the opportunity to write about social issues and do presentations of learning that demonstrate their public speaking ability. There are many kids who may not write perfect essays, but who demonstrate extraordinary articulateness when addressing a group.

Who is that student who frequently speaks up with a strong, positive, moral position on some issue related to racial prejudice, sex-related discrimination, immigration policies, or climate control? Is this not a gift that our society needs?

Schools should provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their talents and receive mentoring to further develop them.

One example is presentations of learning that utilize artistic and musical talent as a means of communication. I observed such a presentation at Eagle Rock School in which a musically gifted student played his guitar and sang a song he'd written about his learning experiences during that trimester. That's way outside our usual educational frame, and that's my point. We have to move beyond that frame if we expect to nourish and help strengthen our most gifted students.

Science appears to be an easier area, because many schools provide opportunities for students to develop science projects that can be entered in local and even national competitions.

Identifying and Nourishing Morally Gifted Leaders

When it comes to leadership, there have been very gifted leaders who were also destructive. Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez were gifted, but so were Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler. So students gifted as leaders need special attention to determine whether their moral values could be challenged or better developed, or if they already have a commitment to positive social change.

If you share my commitment to also identifying gifted children with great moral sensitivity, and nourishing those talents, I highly recommend reading Identity Development in Gifted Children: Moral Sensitivity and The Moral Sensitivity of Gifted Children and the Evolution of Society, both from the educational non-profit Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. You should also take a look at Ben Johnson's Edutopia post, How to Support Gifted Students in Your Classroom.

Including All Students

Another NPR piece brought up the issue of how our Latino and black children are most frequently lost in the process. It should be no surprise that when the criteria for gifted focus on test scores, Latino, black, and immigrant kids would be the most shortchanged.

Finally, I just saw this story about an incredible 17-year-old woman who started The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. She did this in the midst of the war and was recently named Visionary of the Year by the Euphrates Institute.

Would Zulan Sultan have been selected for a gifted program? Would she have scored well on our tests that are used to determine the best and brightest? Very possibly not. That needs to change.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
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