Canadian Aboriginal Students: What They Can Teach Us All about Gifted Education

rsz alanis-obomsawin-photo‘We are gifted and very talented. But you’re not going to find out the way you are asking us your questions.’ Alanis Obomsawin, award-winning filmmaker of Abenaki descent.[i]

Although I haven’t been able to find solid numbers on the participation of Canadian students from Aboriginal backgrounds in gifted education programs, there are many indications that it’s lower than we’d see in kids from non-Native communities. The lower participation rates are partly a result of the poverty of educational opportunities experienced by many of the children growing up in Aboriginal communities, as well as the social and economic conditions their families experience. There are, however, other factors operating here, too, factors that suggest that Native perspectives on giftedness and talent development have something to teach mainstream educators about gifted education.

My deepest understanding of this issue comes from a masters degree course on the development of giftedness and talent that I taught in 1993 at the University of British Columbia. Three of the students in that course were Aboriginal Canadians, and senior educational administrators on large Native reserves.

My focus in teaching the course was consistent with what I’ve written about elsewhere (e.g., my book with Joanne Foster called Being Smart about Gifted Education). The lectures and resources I’d prepared concerned the limitations of an IQ-based definition of giftedness; the need to broaden gifted education understandings, policies, and practices, in order to support the development of diverse kinds of ability; problems with identification and labelling; and the necessity for flexibility, realizing the highly unique nature of individual developmental pathways, and the complex interacting factors that affect the development of children’s abilities.

I’d discussed these ideas before in other university courses I’d taught, made presentations at conferences across North America, written several articles, and spoken with numerous parent and teacher groups. Although these perspectives on gifted education are becoming more widely accepted now, in 1993 they were highly controversial. I came prepared to persuade my UBC students with research findings, anecdotal evidence, and discussion topics that I’d previously found effective in getting people to address their assumptions and misconceptions.

The Native students in my class took the wind out of my sails. They found nothing controversial in the idea that IQ tests are far too limited and problematic to be much use in gifted education. It was obvious to them that a decontextualized test of abstract reasoning wouldn’t tell you much about what a child knows already and what she needs to have differentiated in order to keep learning. They knew from observation that children are highly variable in their learning needs, and that although a given child might need advanced curriculum in one subject area at a certain point in time, that same child might need something entirely different in another area or at another point in time. In their work as teachers and senior educators, they had designed, devised, and adopted creative strategies for ensuring that children with special talents had opportunities to develop those abilities. They couldn’t imagine pigeonholing a child by identifying him as gifted (or learning disabled, or anything else). As they saw it, talent unfolds in a dynamic way, in response to a person’s interests and life experiences.

The Aboriginal educators I worked with that summer didn’t see much need for gifted identification or programming. They thought it was every teacher’s job to ensure that kids with advanced learning needs got opportunities to learn at the level and depth that allowed them to keep learning and being challenged. Kids who couldn’t sit still in a classroom obviously needed other kinds of learning experiences. Besides, they observed, for a lot of kids, classrooms aren’t the best place to learn very much.

Now I’m writing another book with Joanne Foster. It’s called Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. We’re writing it for a Canadian publisher, so in addressing issues of social equity as that applies to the development of kids’ abilities, we wanted to include a Canadian perspective. I asked some of my colleagues across the country about Aboriginal participation in gifted education. I was interested to discover that their responses were consistent with what I learned from the Aboriginal educators in that summer course at UBC.

Lannie Kanevsky at Simon Fraser University responded, ‘One of the awkward aspects of finding out more about the “underrepresentation” of students from Aboriginal backgrounds, I’ve been told, is that the whole concept of giftedness is not a good fit within their culture…The Aboriginal Education resource teacher told us there was a mismatch between what the district wanted to offer (academic enrichment) and what Aboriginal families would want (e.g., Aboriginal cultural studies).’

Ken McCluskey at the University of Winnipeg sent me a monograph he had written in 2012 with Philip Baker, Mike Bergsgaard, Lenna Glade, Kevin Lamoureux, Andrea McCluskey, and Alan Wiebe, entitled Lost Prizes: Manitoban and International Initiatives to Identify and Develop the Talents of At-Risk Populations. In this monograph, the authors review their extraordinary work in supporting the development of giftedness and talent in kids around the world at high risk of falling through the educational cracks, and into lives of crime and misery. The Lost Prizes project started with Native Canadian kids, many of whom had serious substance abuse problems, and some of whom were already incarcerated. The concepts they emphasized as critical in helping these kids reconnect with their gifts and talents were independence, mastery, belonging, generosity, altruism, and opportunities for service. McCluskey and his colleagues synthesized approaches from the enrichment literature with the at-risk literature to create a powerfully effective approach to supporting talent development in kids who don’t do well in mainstream schools.

Bruce Shore at McGill University sent me a book he edited in 1981, the first yearbook for the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children. It contained two chapters written about giftedness from a North American Native perspective. In these chapters, Alanis Obomsawin and Karlene George describe how conventional gifted education identification and programming is dreadfully mismatched for most Native North Americans (as it is for so many other children growing up in non-majority cultures). As said so well by Alanis Obomsawin in the quote that opens this article, standardized testing totally misses the abilities of Aboriginal children.

Marion Porath at the University of British Columbia suggested I get in touch with Constantine Ngara, who has drawn connections between the educational perspectives of the Shona culture in Zimbabwe and the learning needs of Canadian Aboriginal students. Dr Ngara sent me resources describing his dynamic interactive process model of understanding giftedness and talent development. This model is consistent with Dr Kanevsky’s observations, Dr McCluskey’s findings, the World Council chapters, and the experiences of the Native educators I worked with at UBC back in 1993: educators do best when they start by listening to their students. If you pay attention to kids’ interests, are flexible in responding to those interests, ensure a level of challenge that matches individual kids’ interests and abilities, you will be supporting the development of giftedness and talent across a broad spectrum of kids and abilities.

The underrepresentation of Native Canadians in gifted education programs across the country is not just a symptom of social and educational inequity. It may also reflect different cultural perspectives on the nature of learning—one that mainstream educators can learn from. As I see it, the lessons of the Aboriginal educational experience are of letting go of educational rigidities and preconceptions, and listening to each child, paying attention to her individual learning needs. Canadian Aboriginal kids and educators show us the way forward in gifted education. We should be emphasizing appropriate guidance, support, challenge, and content mastery that is based on flexible responsivity to individual development differences.

For more by Dona Matthews: www.beyondintelligence.net


[i] From Face to Face with Giftedness, edited by Bruce Shore, Francoys Gagne, Serge Larivee, Ronald Tali, and Richard Tremblay

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3 Responses to “Canadian Aboriginal Students: What They Can Teach Us All about Gifted Education”

  1. Thank you for sharing these perspectives
    You are definitely at grips with the critical issues pitying the participation of the Canadian Aboriginal students in gifted education programs across the country. The issues you raised are well supported by both the Native Canadian practitioners and existing research. Your article reflected a sound approach to understanding high abilities and the problems of the under-representation of the Native Canadian students in gifted education programs in Canada. In addition, I suggest including in your book the need to emphasize relevant Aboriginal cultural aspects in education (e.g., those that build self-esteem and raise the morale of a people such as their cultural contributions to knowledge and the Canadian society in general, heroes of Native cultural background etc) so that the Native students with potential for giftedness will emerge. I believe you have both a good discourse and a sound approach to producing a much needed book.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments, Dr Ngara, as well as for your contribution to my understanding of the issues.

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