Inquiry and the Gifted Child

I have a confession to make (I think I may need a support group).

My name is Emily and I was a gifted child.

Joking aside, it’s something that I always feel awkward admitting – a bit shameful.  It smacks of elitism, this gifted label.  “What, you think you’re better than me?”  I don’t.  I really don’t.  I know all about the pitfalls of intelligence testing, of narrow definitions of intelligence, of sub-tests that were later thrown out.  The day I took the intelligence tests is one of my few clear memories of early elementary school.  I can remember tearing through the verbal/analytical part, flying through the general knowledge, and grinding to a halt at the spatial reasoning – darn those puzzles. Was there a puzzle of a duck?  I’m pretty sure there was.

I can remember being called to a little room by one of my classmates as she returned from her test and being told to fetch the next child when I came back.  Neither of them joined the program.  The reasons why we were chosen for testing and why we did or didn’t get invited to join the program were mysterious to us.  No one ever explained and the whole thing was spoken of in hushed tones.

girl creating a tree using a stick and blades of glass
Creating her own tree using a stick and blades of grass

My parents were very uncomfortable with the whole thing – embarrassed even.  My scores weren’t something I should ever talk about – I didn’t even know what they were until I found them as an adult – I knew not to ask.  I can remember telling a friend about what we did ‘in gifted’ and being admonished not to talk about it – I might make her feel badly.  As a child it was very confusing but as I got older I started to understand more about the complications of privilege.  What we did at school on Wednesdays during our pull-out program wasn’t a subject of conversation at school or at home but, and here’s the kicker, it was, by far, the best day of my week.  From grade 5 to grade 8 I lived for Wednesdays and from grade 9 to grade 13 I survived because of the space that the school allotted for gifted students to work and hang out and the events that they organized for us.

So here’s the rub; I’m torn in two directions about giftedness.  On the one hand, I question whether it even exists.  Aren’t all children gifted in some way?  Children have so many gifts, so many talents, and so many ways of communicating them.  Doesn’t a narrow intelligence test reduce all of that complexity to a falsely simplistic score that can’t possibly capture all of the miraculous diversity of children’s potential? Yes, yes, and yes.  But then, there’s this first hand-experience of being outside of the norm, feeling different, weird even, and of being saved and supported by the very elitist programming that supports children who, popular wisdom tells us, will succeed regardless of what we do, even in spite of us.

So where does all of that angsty internal conflict leave me when it comes to my own classroom and to the children in my classes whose abilities lie outside of the bounds of that famous bell curve?  It leaves me flumoxed sometimes, to be honest.

When I was in grade 5, we learned (in gifted class, of course) about Bloom’s taxonomy.  We learned that acquiring knowledge about a subject – which was what we did most of the time in our regular classrooms – was only the beginning of learning.  We were aiming higher, towards the upper echelons of the pyramid.  Analysis… synthesis… evaluation… onward!

old pyramid for Bloom's Taxonomy
The Old Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning

This type of learning typified my experiences in those special classes – we were always pushed to go deeper, to think bigger, to look at problems from another perspective, frankly, to do what I now call “inquiry learning.”  Subjects were never assigned to us; we got to choose what interested us.  I can remember creating personal utopias and doing research in Dance History.  I even worked for the local Provincial Member of Parliament – I was 13. Follow your interests, that was the mantra.  Imagine if school had been like that every day.  Would the program have even been necessary?

Today Bloom’s Taxonomy looks different.  A new level has been added to the top of the pyramid: creating.

New Bloom's Taxonomy
The new version of Bloom’s Taxonomy

So where does that leave us in Kindergarten, when creating is at the foundation of everything we do?  For our students, knowledge doesn’t come first – it’s not a prerequisite – it often grows out of their creativity, not the other way around.  Children are creating from the very first day they come into the classroom; they’re creating from the day they’re born.  How do we frame this notion of giftedness when we’re tackling learning from a completely flipped point of view?

Another story: When I was in grade 6, our teacher decided that we needed an extra challenge so she chose a few students who would use a different spelling book for weekly dictations.  They were small pink books – hard words lived inside.  Each week, we would wait for our turn to have our own, super-hard words and sentences read out for our special dictation.  While I am grateful that I can spell chrysanthemum (that may have more to do with Anne of Green Gables than with grade 6 spelling), this experience represents for me the worst of what enriched programming can be.  Too often, our attempts to challenge kids just mean giving them more of the same; more surface learning, more rote learning, more but not better.

What I am most thankful for in Ontario’s Kindergarten program is that it gives all children the opportunities that I only got on Wednesdays.  In our class we spend most of our time creating and that provides children whose interests and gifts lie all over the bell curve with regular opportunities to problem solve and to ask big questions.  Children’s questions are spectacularly different.  Their play is as diverse as they are and sometimes what they do doesn’t fall into a neat, academic, curricular box.  But I have, without question, observed children who I’m going to call gifted (for lack of a better term) find challenges for themselves in play.  I have had students who have led read-alouds in their second year of Kindergarten.  I’ve had students learn how to crochet, knit, and play complicated string games.  I’ve had students create their own fashion designs.  I’ve also had students create marble runs and block structures of incredible complexity.  Today I had a student describe a long narrative about her block structure; she has a spectacular imagination.  Last week, FI problem-solved how he could create trusses for his roof using tongue depressors.

boy building roof trusses on cardboard model

It is often challenging to stay ahead of them, to remain nimble enough to meet their needs in a large classroom.  But I am heartened that, if education can remain focused on creativity, great learning will follow.  Like water trickling down the side of the Bloom’s pyramid, we will get to the knowledge if we start at the top.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Emily, this is a great essay. I wish I could have had you as a teacher when I was young. Also, I’d like to join in the support group; your story sounds so much like mine. Have you seen this? http://www.karmecholing.org/program.php?id=5491

    1. Thanks Rhiannon, that workshop sounds wonderful! Is that something that happens every year? I wonder how many potential support group members found their way to Bennington.

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