Welcome to a collection of thoughts, questions and interesting links relating to giftedness ..............
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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back

The end of the year is a time when we seem more inclined to reflection, closely followed by looking to the future. As part of my reflective process I have been thinking back not only over this year but also over the last 8 years or so (years in which I have been working with gifted children and their families) and then also over the last 14 years since my oldest daughter began her formal schooling (and we first encountered the complexities of educating gifted children).

In some respects much has changed. In others, sadly it seems, very little.

Over the last 4 or 5 years I have worked with more than 250 gifted children and their families. Almost without exception these children are not only gifted but highly gifted or more. Their lives and needs are quite different in many ways. Some ‘cases’ have been straight forward, some have been challenging cases with a number of complicating factors. Every one of them is unique and every story is individual. The family setting, the age, the child’s IQ profile (where IQ test results are available), the position in the family with regard to birth order, their personality, degree of perfectionism, whether English is their first (or only) language……. The list goes on.

Many parents begin the journey as a result of ‘problems’ of some sort. Perhaps they felt there was a discrepancy between their perceptions of the child’s potential and their school achievement, perhaps there were behavioural issues or high levels of anxiety (or depression), perhaps it was the fact that their child seemed to have fewer friends at school over time or quite simply they refused to go to school. Sometimes it was suspected learning difficulties, something seemingly unrelated (to giftedness). Some parents have been genuinely shocked to find their child was gifted. Some have been relieved to learn there is something that explains things and are glad to be able to begin to piece things together and make a plan. More than a few have commented that at times they would swap the richness of life with a gifted child for the ease of life with a ‘normal’ child.

The challenges do not end with a ‘diagnosis’ of giftedness, as many of you who will read this will know! For all that it might explain, there are times when it feels like this is just the beginning of the challenges. The biggest hurdles are often with the education system.

Too often I have heard about a teacher’s defensive attitude, of parents being told the quantitative results they have (an IQ test administered under strict guidelines by a qualified psychologist) must be wrong because they don’t match what the teachers see. Many are told that their child is just immature, that they had an early start, that the others will catch up before long. Many parents still encounter resistance to the idea of acceleration despite decades of research showing it to be the most effective (but also most under utilised) option available. Many are still warned of the ‘damage’ they will do emotionally if they try it.

I have 2 daughters, one is fairly obviously gifted, with exceptional language skills, although she puts in just enough effort to get the result she wants and to this day puts her energy into self educating outside of the educational setting (even at uni). The other has had some challenges along the way and has found written output the most challenging. She is finally doing really well now that the content has finally become more complex but still finds writing enough detail is a challenge. She fills the gap with community service. In advocating for them over the years (and in trying to work out what was really going on with #2) I have heard just about all the arguments above. It turns out that none of them were true.

While all schools have had access to some professional development in the area of educating their gifted students in the form of the DEST packages of 2004 and 2006, many of the ‘arguments’ (as in a point of view that is being justified rather than being argumentative) put forward to which parents who approach a school about accessing the sorts of educational provisions that are a better match for their child’s needs makes me wonder if it made any (positive) difference at all.

In 2008 I gave a presentation at the national gifted conference in Hobart expressing my concern that as a result of a little exposure, we had perhaps created more problems – everyone now felt they ‘knew’ this gifted stuff, but still gifted kids were generally lumped together as a homogenous group. What worked for one, would work for all. Or more dangerously, what hadn’t worked for one child on one occasion, would clearly not work for anyone. I would have to say that this ‘case study of one’ approach is perhaps not quite as prevalent as it was a few years ago, but it is still worrying that those who are making decisions about a child’s life (not just their education!) only notice research that suits their thinking.

What progress then have we made then?

Recently more and more parents have been able to advocate successfully for acceleration for their child. Sometimes this has still been a difficult process, sometimes it has been against the wishes of a school (one Principal related that had she not been on long service leave at the time a particular acceleration would never have happened), but sometimes parents have encountered either an enlightened Principal or one who was prepared to listen and then check the research. One fairly small school took no less than 8 new accelerants in their new student population at the start of 2009.

During one call from a distraught parent after she had returned from a school tour (with a less than enlightened school registrar) asking if there was anyone who had been successfully accelerated, I was able to count at least 25 children I had worked with in the previous year who had been accelerated. (A recent search through my case files located no fewer than 79 students who had actually been accelerated). In all cases it has been successful, in some cases parents have said it has made the world of difference to their child, re-engaging them in learning, one parent related that she felt it has ‘saved his life’.

While I can’t yet say that every parent will find someone sympathetic in their child’s school, the likelihood does seem to be increasing. Each year a number of teachers have completed the Post Grad Certificate course at Murdoch Uni, another group have completed the CoGE course through GERRIC, a few others have continued their studies. Still others have been motivated to learn more as a result of having a highly gifted child in their classroom (and a positive relationship with the parents). Some others have been delegated by their schools. More schools have appointed a Gifted Co-ordinator, a few independent schools now have a Gifted Policy, some schools have a gifted committee, one is even looking to include parents on this committee. (We do still though have a shortage of teachers with formal qualifications in gifted education and a more thorough knowledge of the research base)

In the last couple of years, some parents have been incredibly proactive in educating themselves (and their child’s teachers), in forming networks of support and in sharing their knowledge with others. This has given new-to-gifted parents confidence and a safe place to talk about the challenges of life with gifted kids. As the number of families I see increases I am more often able to connect families with each other.

Some parents, particularly those with young children have been proactive and have sought information and assistance before there were problems. This is something that I have only really begun to see in the last 2 years and is encouraging!

Some of my best moments over the past year of working with gifted kids and their families have been the emails and calls I have had telling me how well things are going. About the kids who have truly blossomed. About the child who had never really found a friend who has ‘clicked’ with someone in a holiday program and desperately wants to maintain the contact (even though 500km separates them). About the sparkle that parents are seeing again in their child.

Perhaps the one that takes the cake this year was an email from a parents of a young boy who had to counter much resistance to accelerate her highly gifted son. The email told how the Principal had commented that observing how he had flourished, the acceleration had been a good idea after all, despite the fact she would not have allowed it if it had been up to her.

Let’s hope some of these positive changes are not to be as short lived as our New Year Resolutions tend to be.

If I could make a wish for the coming year it would be for more parents to have positive experiences like the ones above (and for the positive emails to keep flowing).

Or perhaps even better, that there was no longer any need for parents to be persistent to convince a school that their child’s needs would be better met by something other than the regular curriculum. That the child would be at the centre of decisions about their education (rather than pressure to maintain the status quo), that there would be no more mention of timetabling problems when subject acceleration is discussed, and that the emotional needs of the gifted were perhaps considered even before academic accommodations were discussed. (and no school would tell me they are already doing virtually all of what I recommended – if they had been, can someone explain to me why things were not going smoothly all along?)

Many thanks for the opportunities to share the journey with so many families this past year. It has been a privilege.

Happy New Year everyone and all the best for successfully advocating for your children.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Gifted at something doesnt mean gifted at everything.........

Since I wrote the last post, Tiger Woods has been in the news again, and again it seems. It occurred to me that the way things have unfolded makes another good point.

Just because someone is gifted, doesnt mean that they are necessarily good at everything.  While we might find it fairly easy to grasp that a mathematician may not also be a gifted athlete, or a talented musician may not also be a famous scientist, we may not have really thought much about whether we think gifted children (or adults) should automatically be good at making decisions.

Like learning to ride a bike, or to master using a pencil, decision making is a skill and as such takes practice. Helping your child to learn to make decisions is not always an easy task. The temptation to make them for them, so that they dont 'get it wrong' is strong, but it is never the less an important skill. There will be times when they dont make a 'good' decision, but there is plenty to be learned from the experience. As no doubt Tiger Woods is also discovering.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It depends on how you see the world.........

Two Pre-Primary teachers are overheard discussing the likelihood of giftedness in young children. “Some of them seem gifted, but then they have been in child care and learning centres since they were babies” said the first teacher who doesn’t believe giftedness can be evident at such an early age. “They aren’t gifted, they are just school wise and had an early start. The others will catch up before long”.

The second teacher disagrees and is emphatic. “Gifted children think differently, learn differently and feel differently to other kids, what ever their age. It is important to make sure we consider best practice here and consider the needs of each of them accordingly.”

This is not such an unusual conversation. It could be heard in schools across the state (and perhaps the nation) and across all socio economic levels. While it is not limited to the early childhood years, this is often where it crops up most often.

Tiger Woods has been in the news recently and there is unlikely to be any argument that he is a gifted golfer. Let's consider the conversation above using him as an example.

Tiger Woods began playing golf at the age of two. At three he appeared on TV putting against Bob Hope and later that year he shot a 48 over 9 holes on a golf course in California. At the age of 5 he appeared in Golf Digest and on That’s Incredible. I don’t know much about golf but I would venture to say that the pace at which his talent developed was not typical.

It is true that not every gifted child shows such prodigious talent development but it does serve to illustrate a point. Would limiting Tiger Woods to playing golf against other 5 year olds and to attempting only age appropriate shots have been best practice for his talent development?

The parent of any gifted child will tell you life is not like the next person’s. How many parents have to comfort their 4 year old who has been moved to tears by a piece of music or the sight of a particular painting?

How many parents of 3 and 4 year olds have to intervene to save the dignity of one in a discussion about which creatures lived in which prehistoric period, or whether crocodiles can actually eat sharks (small ones of course) and whether they do occur in the same habitat?

How many parents of young children have been woken at 5 in the morning by excited cries along the lines of ‘Mum, I’ve worked it out!” when a child has suddenly made the connection between the sunshine and the falling water level in the pond?

If we fall in behind the first teacher who believes these children are just ‘school smart’ we take credit ourselves for the child’s rapid mastery of skills and the amazing intensity we might see amongst gifted preschoolers. It is a defensive position that assumes a child cannot know anything until he or she is taught it.

How much practice do you imagine it would it take before a 4 year old might be expected to complete a brand new never-seen-before70 piece jigsaw puzzle in the time his mum is outside hanging a load of washing?

And how do you explain the child who is begins walking at 9 months, the one who can hold conversations with strangers by the time they are 18 months old or one whose eye hand coordination means they are hitting a cricket ball before many children are out of nappies. Hot housing??? Just ‘School Smart’???

When I did my training as an early childhood teacher many years ago, there was a strong developmental focus in relation to skill acquisition and learning. Children do all develop at different rates and we know that not every gifted child will show precocious development nor are their talents necessarily obvious at an early age. But giftedness is not something you simply learn and consequently it shouldn't be expected to ‘even out’.

It is a qualitatively different way of being.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's what's within us that counts

We take for granted the chance to have an education through to the end of high school. The "Fifteen is too Young" campaign has managed to convince us that anything less means our future is limited.

Perhaps though it takes more than years-at-school to make the difference to our future pathways. Perhaps some of the Intrapersonal Catalysts that Francoys Gagne mentions in his Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent) might be more important than the content we cover.

Imagine living in an African village where there was no running water, no electricity and where the village is on the brink of starvation as a result of a severe drought. Imagine having to leave school because your family could not afford the annual school fees (a sum that is less than the voluntary contribution in many schools and less than the amount WA parents get back from the government when they have a child in the senior years of school).

For one young boy in Malawi this was his reality. Although he had to leave school at the age of 14 and to work on his family’s plot of land, his dream of a better future for his village and of further education did not end there. After work he went to the library and continued to read and learn. He was fascinated by science and his life changed when he found a picture of a windmill in a battered text book. seeing that the widmill could generate power, he was able to imagine a life with running water, the luxury of an electric light and see a chance to protect his village against hunger.

Like many people who step outside the normal expectations, he faced some challenges and derision not only from the community but also his family, as he scrounged from rubbish and persevered, cobbling together enough pieces to build a makeshift turbine and windmill. Over time he powered his family’s compound, began to change life in his village and inspired the world.

To continue in the face of opposition, to creatively use what was available towards and to stick with his vision shows something more valuable than he might have learned in school.

I believe there is danger in attempting to ‘normalise’ those who fall outside the ‘normal’ curve, in expecting uniformity and in setting expectations too low. I wonder if this boy would have been driven to continue to work on this project if he had continued at school. I wonder how many of our children assume that all the ‘good’ ideas have already been thought of, that there is no need to strive or feel that they must conform to have a future.

This heart warming story is a reminder to celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of our children, to encourage ingenuity and to remember that there is more to success in life than high test scores. Creativity, perseverance and volition may be under rated in some circles, but they may just be more important than almost anything else our children may take out into life with them.

If you would like to find out more about William Kamkwanda, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" you might like to read this article or this one (with video clip and book review) or to read his blog and see what has happened since word has spread.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How flexible is your school?

Are the children grouped by age and move rigidly through the year levels? Does it allow your child to move between classes as needed depending on their strengths and skill development? Does it provide opportunities to work at the pace their need to learn at their optimum? Does it offer flexibility in start and finish times each day to fit in with parents work patterns? And flexibility about when your child takes holidays?

One Dutch primary school has taken a new approach to the organisation of the school schedules. This ‘flexible’ school operates between 8 am and 6pm each day enabling parents to drop off and pick up their children early or late depending on their work schedules. Parents can also determine the child’s holidays to suit their individual needs.

Pupils receive individually tailored study programs with each program lasting 10 weeks. The school year consists of 5 consecutive study programs and children’s progress is monitored in the usual way. The day is organised in such a way that students can ‘interchangeably play and study’ while at school.

Far from being experimental this private school has considered an organisation style that they believe suits the modern flexible world. The northern hemisphere long summer vacation is a ‘legacy from the agrarian past when farmers needed their children during harvest’ and the Director indicated she also believed that the conventional school hours of 8.30 to 3.30 did not suit children’s biological rhythms.

Other similar schools are being planned in the Netherlands. Click here for more information on this flexible school

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