“For a moment she rediscovered the purpose for her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment, and to call each thing by its right name. By its right name.”
--Boris Pasternak, 20th Century Russian poet, novelist, and literary translator
The above quote from Boris Pasternak became popular in the mainstream in 2007 with the release of the film Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless who left his life of privilege to explore the world in its most primitive form – Alaska. It’s also one of my personal favorite quotes because calling something by its right and proper name is the first step in giving identification, respect and recognition.
Recently, there has been more debate over using the terms gifted and talented identifiers so as not to marginalize other students, and whether it even matters to identify a student as gifted at all (Maybe My Child Is Gifted. Maybe Not. Maybe It Doesn’t Matter. By Farrah Alexander).
MIS is a school that serves gifted and high achieving students, and we have found that it is necessary and appropriate to use the correct terminology when identifying gifted students. Ensuring that all students have access to educational programs that are tailored to their specific needs means no student’s potential goes untapped. This is no less true for a gifted learner than any other student.
Part of what characterizes a student as gifted and talented is when they display superior abilities in academic, intellectual and creative pursuits. It’s not as if gifted students receive a better school lunch, free concierge service during school hours or use of the ever-illusive teacher bathroom. Gifted students simply learn differently and at a different pace than the rest of student population.
Likely the problem with the label gifted student is that it has the word gift in it, which means getting something without earning it. It can imply entitlement, elitism, or the idea that some people have something special and others don’t. We certainly agree that every human being has unique gifts and talents! The term gifted doesn’t refer to these characteristics shared be everyone, and really is a misnomer. Gifted students have differences in the way they learn, and really thrive when they can explore complex topics, create connections across subject areas, and engage in problem solving instead of practice and memorization.
The pace is also different in a gifted classroom, and varies by subject. For gifted students who excel in math, it may be that they may take longer to finish a writing assignment, and a traditional classroom where students are moving at relatively the same pace through relatively the same material doesn’t work for their strengths or their weaknesses.
This reminds me of the challenge we have when we use the word “fat” to describe something in food. The problem with the word “fat” is that it has “fat” in the name. People think eating fats will make you fat when in fact there are as many healthy fats as there are unhealthy fats. Unfortunately for us, we cannot unilaterally change the terminology for the word gifted, so we use what we have.
In a response to Ms. Alexander’s blog, Heather Boorman, a writer and licensed clinical social worker who advocates for awareness and support for gifted and talented individuals, wrote that Alexander's piece doesn't make her mad, but instead makes her feel sad:
"I’m sad because the misconception of giftedness is so rampant. I’m sad because giftedness continues to be thought of only in terms of education and intellect, when in truth, it has very little to do with education. It has to do with living and experiencing life more intensely. It has to do with being wired differently. Which, trust me, has some great benefits and some great disadvantages."
And not all gifted students are successful. Researchers estimate that between 18 to 25 percent of gifted students drop out of school, and gifted dropouts are disproportionally from lower socioeconomic and minority backgrounds. Compare that with the national dropout rate of 6.5 percent. Even when gifted students stay in school, many of them underachieve—that is, their actual achievement is far below their expected achievement.
Underachievement is particularly troublesome because gifted students have great potential to be future leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, and influencers. A recent study by Kell, Lubinski, and Benbow showed that 44 percent of high-ability students whose potential was recognized before age 13 went on to earn a doctorate degree, compared with a national rate of only 2 percent. These young, talented students also made substantial creative and intellectual contributions in their respective fields before the age of 40. For such potential to be realized, though, educators and policymakers must nurture gifted students’ talents and provide appropriate instructional supports.
Giftedness matters. Identifying giftedness matters. Properly naming giftedness matters. It doesn’t mean just doing more work. It doesn’t mean just doing work faster. Gifted education is a complex set of accommodations to support the differences in our students’ brains. And call it by its name, by its right name.