Little Geniuses

by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

(Originally published in Parenting magazine, September, 1989)

© Thomas Armstrong, 1989

Every school day at 11:00 a.m. sharp, Jimmie leaves his regular fifth-grade class and goes to the “gifted and talented” room.  There he designs futuristic model homes, builds complex geometric solids from cardboard, and brainstorms ways of solving the energy crisis.   The reason for the daily switch is that Jimmie was identified several years ago as a gifted child, based on an IQ test he took that ranked him in the top 3 to 5 percent of the student population in the nation.  Jimmie is one of nearly two million schoolchildren in the United States who are in gifted programs that provide enrichment ranging from great-books discussion groups to critical-thinking seminars to courses in creative problem-solving.

Such activities are offered to a select group of kids, with the intent of providing the intellectual stimulation that’s missing from the average American classroom.  However, as important as gifted education may be in developing the talents of our nation’s academic elite, there’s growing concern among educators and parents that these programs leave out a substantial proportion of schoolchildren who have different talents and abilities that also deserve to be recognized and developed.

One of the most frequently cited objections to gifted education concerns the use of tests–particularly IQ tests–in determining who gets into special programs.  Such a procedure favors children who possess what Joseph Renzulli, a professor of education at the University of Connecticut, calls “schoolhouse giftedness.” “Schoolhouse giftedness might also be called test-taking or lesson learning giftedness,” he says.  “Because it is the kind most easily measured by IQ or other cognitive-ability tests, it is also the type most often used to select students for entrance into gifted programs.” This seriously limited definition of giftedness discriminates against kids who may be poor test-takers yet who possess other talents and traits such as creativity, curiosity, leadership, and problem-solving ability.

Plenty of Ability

Fortunately, educational programs do exist that aim to identify talents and abilities in a broader segment of the school population instead of just in those children who score highest on traditional intelligence tests.  One such program, at the Minter Bridge Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon, considers every student in the school eligible for the gifted and talented program.  Using a model developed by Renzulli and his colleagues, teachers offer enrichment activities to all the students.  At the beginning of the school year, the staff polls students about their top ten interests, and their responses are stored in a computer database.  Then, throughout the year, kids are informed when a school activity occurs that corresponds to one of their chosen interests.  Recently, for instance, a graphic artist came to the school to talk about medical illustration, and all the children who had indicated an interest in drawing were invited to attend.   Likewise, kids who’d expressed an interest in pet care were assembled when a veterinarian brought a boa constrictor to school.  Teachers follow up these events with more advanced lessons for those students who show continued interest.

Although the school does use test scores and teacher recommendations to help determine eligibility for the program, no student is turned away if she shows that she can do the work.  Stuart Omdal, the enrichment coordinator at Minter Bridge, says, “I don’t want to be the one to say ‘No, you can’t learn about that; you don’t have the test scores, you don’t have the recommendations.’ One boy in a class for the learning disabled lectured other kids about shark habitats; his presentation was at a very advanced level.  And a student we had considered ‘average began doing work in astronomy that even I can’t keep up with.”

Another system for cultivating every child’s unique gifts is the multiple-talent approach developed by Calvin Taylor, currently a researcher at the University of Utah College of Health in Salt Lake City and chairman of the World Conference of Gifted and Talented Children.  Taylor says that besides the traditional academic abilities, there are at least eight different talents worth developing in a classroom environment, including creative thinking, planning skills, the ability to implement a plan, decision making, forecasting, communication, human relations, and recognizing opportunities  Taylor claims that if teachers would consider each of these talents in assessing their students, about 90 percent of all kids would be viewed as above average in at least one area.

Using Taylor’s approach, students at the Forbes School in Torrington, Connecticut, start identifying their own talents and those of their peers at the beginning of the school year, and they engage in activities designed to make full use of their abilities.  “It doesn’t take long before you see which youngsters are the productive thinkers, or the planners, or the decision makers,” says Josephine Radocchio, the principal at Forbes.
Developing Their Gifts

Parents whose kids haven’t been selected for gifted programs (as well as parents of kids who have been) can encourage schoolteachers and administrators to start programs like those based on Renzulli’s or Taylor’s approaches.  Parents can also begin working at home to encourage their children’s gifts and talents.  Benjamin Bloom, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Chicago, conducted a study of 120 artists, athletes, and scholars in an attempt to determine what factors in childhood had led to their later accomplishments.   “In practically every case,” says Bloom, “the parents played the key role, by exposing their children at an early age to music, sports, or learning.  Once their children displayed interest and enthusiasm in a particular area, these parents encouraged them at every step.”

This enthusiasm can be sparked in small ways, through what professionals in the gifted field call “crystallizing experiences”–spontaneous events that can trigger an interest or a talent, such as your child’s receiving a new toy that fills him with wonder, or his experiencing a book, movie, or community event that makes a big impression.  But be careful not to overwhelm your youngster with lessons, kits, and tutors when what he really needs is someone to acknowledge his gift and provide him with appropriate tools to help him meet his own goals for success. Above all, don’t be discouraged if your child isn’t chosen for a gifted program in school.  “Giftedness isn’t like an extra golden chromosome that you’re born with,” says Renzulli.  “It’s something that teachers and parents can help to nurture through the opportunities, resources, an encouragement they make available to kids.” By focusing on your child’s abilities at home and by encouraging his school to provide enriched education for all students, you can help him develop the talents just waiting to be discovered within.

No Lack of Talent

Giftedness comes in many forms.   Academic talents make up only a small proportion of the sum total of abilities that deserve to be developed.  Look over this list, and think about which strengths and abilities your child displays most strongly.  Then let yourself be guided by your youngster’s own interests, and provide materials or enrichment activities to draw out those talents.

Acting Ability
Aesthetic perceptiveness
Artistic Talent
Athletic prowess
Common sense
Emotional maturity
Excellent memory
Inquiring mind
Knowledge of a given subject
Leadership abilities
Literary aptitude
Logical-reasoning ability
Manual dexterity
Mathematical ability
Mechanical know-how
Moral character
Passionate interest in a specific topic
Physical coordination
Political astuteness
Problem-solving capacity
Sense of humor
Social savvy
Spatial awareness
Spiritual sensibility
Strong will
Verbal ability

For more information, see my book Awakening Genius in the Classroom

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