Lance the Myths of Giftedness 6

David McWilliams is an economist who resisted buying into the Celtic Tiger mentality and saw the boom for what it was; a house build on debt. He has written several books which could loosely be called ‘pop economics’ and as an economics graduate myself I have found myself in agreement with much that he says on the economy. However, when he strayed recently into commenting on giftedness without having first researched the terminology, he goofed up badly. To put it mildly.

Contrasting Lance Armstrong’s individualism with Paul McGinley’s team spirit McWilliams states

“Armstrong’s entire sense of himself was wrapped up in being the winner, the best: the one who took all the plaudits. For McGinley, it is obvious success is a communal thing”

This is to misunderstand or ignore the way the Tour de France is won. The Tour de France is a team effort but one in which the goal of the team is to ensure the leader wins. Armstrong may have been wrapped up in himself, but so was Muhammad Ali. In both cases, the sport produces one winner and it comes from beating everyone else in the field. Armstrong’s problem was not his attitude to winning but that he took drugs to win.

McWilliams continues

“Armstrong’s interpretation – either you had the talent or you didn’t – was all that counted to him.”

McWilliams failed to see through this. Armstrong clearly didn’t honestly believe it was talent or nothing. Had he done so, he would have believed he had the talent to win and did not need to take drugs to get ahead. The fact that he took drugs was an admission – at least inwardly and certainly subconsiously – that he didn’t have what it took to win on his own merit.

McWilliams then confuses Armstrong’s view of talent with McGinley’s view of potential. Both are different concepts but this is not apparent to McWilliams. Consequently, when he moved on to recount his experience at his daughter’s Parent-Teacher Meeting (PTMs), I saw what was coming; it might have been predictable but it wasn’t going to be nice. As he said, PTMs are “funny things….the potential for indignation and miscommunication is infinite”. Knowing this, you would imagine he would have taken the time to make sure he got his terminology correct.

McWilliams states

“South Dublin still has its fair share of Tiger mums and dads. God help the teacher who doesn’t recognise the inherent genius of their “gifted” child.”

He may not have intended his use of “gifted” to be disparaging but it was and it was borne out of ignorance of giftedness as a phenomena. To be fair, there are parents who will throw the term around, equally in ignorance of what it means.

But the last thing the genuinely gifted child needs is a national, very public figure whose commentary is respected, bandying around terms he doesn’t know.

To be fair, your average narrow-gauge economist is not going to be familiar with the myriad of issues that affect gifted children. I’m not talking about the high-achiever children buffed up by their tiger mums but about the child who, no matter how well informed of emotional intelligence is their teacher, the fact is very few teachers are sufficiently informed of giftedness and definitely not enough to encourage the gifted child to stop hiding their light under a bushel for fear of being socially rejected as a geek, a nerd, a teachers-pet, a loner, an anti-social misfit and all the other prejudicial insults and myths that are perpetuated by people one would expect to be better informed.

McWilliams ironically asks the question central to gifted education provision,

“… the real question for most parents is: how can their children reach their potential?”

This is the very question the resolution of which in Ireland has habitually evaded gifted children. I only know of one teacher training course in which gifted education gets a mention – a guest lecture I present in NUIM to PDE students! Gifted children are repeatedly denied opportunities to achieve their potential.

Potential can be set back – usually through lack of stimulation. One need only look at the long-term effects on children in orphanages to appreciate that the lack of stimulation stunts a mind.

However, ignoring the logic of his own argument, McWilliams states,

“Sometimes we hear certain children are ‘gifted’. We’re then very surprised if these young prodigies don’t achieve great things in later life.”

Of course they don’t. Firstly, being a prodigy, or just plain gifted does not automatically impose upon a child the onus of being great. We cannot say to a child ‘you are gifted therefore you must save the world/country/economy’. Saving the world or the country or the economy is an opportunity open to people of most abilities including the average; they don’t have to be gifted. We wouldn’t say to a child ‘ you are not gifted therefore you cannot save the world’. Nor should we.

Secondly, to suggest that we should expect great things of gifted children is to be ‘Tiger Mom-ish’ just like the ones McWilliams bemoans. We should certainly have high expectations of them, as we should of all children, but we can not load them with our preconceived notions of what they should become.

Thirdly, the education of gifted children, like all children, should be about providing them with opportunities to achieve their potential. Whether they do or not is dependent on a myriad of factors but they should have a shot at achieving their potential in school – just like the shot the children of all other abilities in Ireland have.

While we need to equip children with skills for life and work, our main focus should be to see they grow up as happy and well-adjusted as possible. Without this, life and work is meaningless. The absence of suitable opportunities for gifted children in schools and the consequent emotional damage has been the subject of suicide research in the US.

Fourthly, we all know the phrase ‘use it or lose it’. Joan Freeman’s research in the UK highlighted this fact. Comparing children of average ability from middle-income homes, she found they tended to achieve better than gifted children from working class backgrounds. Without stimulation, gifted children lose out. Their natural ability withers. Should a parent whose child is genuinely gifted not seek the support of the child’s teacher at a PTM for fear of offending the sensibilities of the other parents?

McWilliams writes further of the effects of not providing for a child’s potential. Ironically, they are all the reasons the government and the education system should recognise and do something to improve the plight of the genuinely gifted child. Most gifted children do not fit the profile of the child of the Tiger Mums described by McWilliams. He might be surprised by the reality that a gifted child can fail because they are dyslexic (or have another learning difficulty) but only their dyslexia is recognized. And what do we do with such children? We try to teach them the thing they cannot do rather than look at their giftedness and teach them the very things they can do. Anything but address their gifted potential.

Despite the research of American psychologists in the 1970s  referred to but not quoted by McWilliams, there are things some children cannot do and while we can ultimately teach a lot of things to such children, the length of time it takes in unsustainable and ultimately futile because we could better serve them teaching them things they can do.

Quoting the kids who gave up when presented with work McWilliams says

“So we have capable students giving up because they hit a setback, whereas other students (regardless of ‘talent’), if encouraged, develop ability.”

This is the difference with gifted children. They usually have very high intrinsic motivation. All they need is a little bit of recognition and encouragement (you’d be surprised how little) to make a difference to their experience of school. But they don’t even get this recognition in Ireland’s schools (there are rare exceptions). What they get is what looks to them as boring, snail-paced lessons delivered to the top of the lowest ability. In Ireland this is what we call it mixed ability teaching. And they get the “all children are gifted” excuse from far too many teachers who want to avoid doing the extra little bit of work it takes in the short run to ensure that actually are catering for all their students.

Confusing giftedness with talent, McWilliams goes on

“This has been revealed over and over again, showing that people who believed talent was God-given, or that some people were gifted, limited their own potential”.

Some children are born with a natural ability (‘God-given’ is another prejudicial term in this context); how else to explain a child that teaches themselves (I mean themselves – not with Tiger Mummy Flash Cards) to read before starting junior infants at 4 years. Talent is developed through practice. Some people could practice all they like and while they could become very good, they will be quantitatively different to the child who is born with gifted potential. It’s why I’m a lousy piano player and Elton John is a multi-millionaire. He’s more gifted than me.

McWilliams refers to the work of Carol Dweck (Mindset) who rightly highlights the importance of praising childrens’ efforts. What Dweck doesn’t highlight, though McWilliams essentially contradicts himself about, is that humans can fall prey to ‘justification of effort’ and equate their hard work with achievement. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean that work is ‘good’ (howsoever defined). So praising effort is not enough. It works great with young children but after a while, kids cop on and can see for themselves whether their ‘hard work’ is actually ‘good enough’.

Enron didn’t fail because the managers were smart but their work failed and they decided to lie as McWilliams summarises. They lied simply because humans are notoriously miserable at accepting responsibility for their failings no matter the cause. People lie because people lie. They do it to evade responsibility. Not because they are gifted. Even dumb people screw up and lie about it. Ultimately, Enron failed, as did Anglo, not because anyone thought they were more clever than anyone else, but because group-think got the better of them – the ‘let’s do this, no one will know’ type thinking (and in fact, a root cause of the failure to manage the Celtic Tiger economy, the nadir being the chief cheerleader suggesting that members of the out-group should go a commit suicide). Not very smart at all.

In my humble opinion, the suggestion in McWilliams article is that gifted children think they are smart and therefore don’t work and never amount to much and therefore their plans will fail in whatever they do and they will lie about it!  So they are not as gifted as they think. And perhaps not at all. I would be happy to post his clarification on this.

Paul McGinley’s view may be to work harder and get better. Gifted children would love this opportunity but they almost never get sufficient hard work (by their definition) to do. Instead of tearing down the talent idol, we would better serve children – all children – and the country by at least trying to find out what is a child’s ability and then designing an education to suit them (IEPs) and helping them develop their talent from there. That way McWilliams need not fear the drone of the Tiger mums and dads he experienced. And the genuinely gifted will get a descent shot at achieving their potential.

Finally, parents obsess about the points system because it determines college entry and hence future career. If we really want to encourage potential and the effort to achieve it, let’s take a page out of Finland’s book and scrap the Leaving Certificate and the Points system altogether. Let college entry be decided by a college-entry SAT which would be a more honest reflection of both a student’s hard work and their ability.

But please don’t think that “gifted” is what Tiger Moms say it is.

Tuesday 22nd I will be contributing to the Guardian on line forum on the role of technology in gifted and talented education.

The role of technology in gifted and talented education – live chat Join a live debate to explore how digital learning can engage and inspire gifted and talented students, Tuesday 22 January, 6pm to 8pm:

Find out more about gifted education

I will be speaking in St.Patrick’s National School in Glencullen on February 6th at 7.30pm. All welcome.




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