Archive for ‘categorizing kids’

May 4, 2014

Controversies and Misconceptions: Intelligence, IQ, and Gifted Education

intelligence IQ gifted educationIntelligence is a much more interesting, democratic, and dynamic process than a lot of people realize.

There’s a dangerous but all too prevalent misconception that some people are born intellectually gifted (and the rest of us aren’t). From this perspective, traditional models of gifted education make good sense. All one has to do is figure out who has the extra dollop of intelligence, call them ‘gifted,’ and segregate them with each other in order to give them special educational experiences. Under this misconception about the nature of intelligence, the best way to ascertain whether a person belongs to the gifted category (or not) is to administer an intelligence test. The resulting score—an intelligence quotient or IQ—is then interpreted as being stable over the person’s lifetime.

The more that’s being learned about the brain, however, the more that cognitive scientists and neuropsychologists are emphasizing the dynamic nature of intelligence and the diversity of developmental pathways that lead to gifted levels of competence and achievement. Ability is spread much more broadly across the population than the demographic distribution of IQ scores would suggest, and is much more amenable to environmental influences like family life and day-to-day experiences.

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March 28, 2014

From Apathy to Possibility: Scott Barry Kaufman’s Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined

ungifted: intelligence redefinedWhat’s it like to be on the receiving end of well-meaning sympathy for your learning disabilities, accompanied by low academic and career expectations? How does it feel to want to engage in the challenging learning activities that your friends in the gifted class are experiencing, and to be told you never will? Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute—describes his personal journey through special education, and what it taught him about the nature of intelligence, talent, and creativity.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these issues for a few decades, but nonetheless, my copy of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined is full of underlines and dog-eared pages where I’ve marked research findings, quotes, and ideas I hadn’t yet encountered or thought about in the way Kaufman describes them.  This book gave me fresh perspectives on many important ideas in my field and deeper understanding of many of the foundational concepts, as well as introducing me to research findings I hadn’t seen.

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March 18, 2014

The Wonder of the Ordinary: A Crucible for Creativity, Talent, and Genius

the wonder of the ordinary

Parents can help their kids find their own particular kind of genius by encouraging their sense of wonder in the ordinary. You may or may not want your child to be a genius—an exceedingly rare and extraordinarily high achiever in a particular field—but you can help him develop his intelligence, creativity, and talents, by ensuring he has enough time for unstructured play and daydreaming.

In The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents, William Martin wrote, “Do you have agendas for your children that are more important than the children themselves? Lost in the shuffle of uniforms, practices, games, recitals, and performances can be the creative and joyful soul of your child. Watch and listen carefully. Do they have time to daydream? From your children’s dreams will emerge the practices and activities that will make self-discipline as natural as breathing.” 

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March 1, 2014

Every Child Can Do Math: One Step at a Time, with Patience and an Open Mind

every child can do mathWe all know people who can’t do math. They’re better to take the easy math courses and drop out of math as early as possible. That’s what most North American teachers and parents think should happen, and that’s what usually does happen. The kids become adults who ‘can’t do math,’ avoiding careers they might otherwise be interested in, often passing on their ‘poor math genes’ to their kids.

In his Junior Undiscovered Mathematical Prodigies (JUMP) program, John Mighton has demonstrated that everyone can do math, even kids labelled ‘slow learners’ or ‘learning disabled,’ even those who are many years behind their age and grade in mathematical achievement.

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November 6, 2013

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.

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July 30, 2013

The Challenge of Giftedness/LD: Frustration, Creativity, and Resilience

gifted/LDThe most frustrated kids I know fit the giftedness/LD profile. They have exceptionally advanced abilities in some areas (aka, ‘giftedness’) and problems in other areas (aka, ‘learning disabled,’ or ‘LD’).

It can take a long time before parents and teachers figure out the giftedness/LD situation, if they ever do. By then, too often, the child hates school, and is deeply unhappy. Her self-esteem is non-existent, she’s having trouble making friends, she feels like nothing’s good in her life. She’s on track for leaving school as quickly as she can, and she may or may not find career fulfilment.

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October 14, 2012

Test Smarts Aren’t the Only Smarts

A good analysis by Scott Barry Kaufman of why science and engineering majors might have a higher IQ than business, social sciences, and arts majors — SATs and IQs are measuring the kind of intelligence that’s needed in scientific fields, and don’t begin to measure the kinds of intelligences needed in other fields–social, emotional, musical, creative, for some examples

Kaufman concludes by saying, ‘It’s time to stop equating “smarts” with standardized test performance. When we do that, we create the artificial and misleading picture that we really can rank fields based on how brainy they are. When in reality, all we’re really doing is ranking fields based on how important tests scores are to becoming an expert in that field.’

August 7, 2012

Geniuses Are Made, Not Born

Scott Barry Kaufman distinguishes genius (extraordinary adult performance that moves a field forward, like Einstein or Freud) from precocity (a child’s ability to do something at an adult level of competence–amazing for a child, but not noteworthy for an adult). He observes that ‘We must stop referring to the precocious as “geniuses” and see their feats for what they are: early signs that the child may be ready to start the long, arduous path to acquire the expertise required to learn, or even change, existing paradigms.’

He concludes by saying that although genes matter in a whole lot of way, ‘genius involves figuring out who you are, and owning yourself.’

July 3, 2012

What Does It Mean If a Child Is ‘Scary Smart’?

January 17, 2012

‘People have told me that my little girl is “scary smart”. Is that going to be a problem for her as she gets older?’

‘Kids shouldn’t be allowed to get ahead of themselves. If someone’s already great at math, let him learn about reading or develop his social skills.’

‘I’d rather be normal than super-smart.’

In my work with families and schools over the years, parents have sometimes confided that friends, relatives, or even teachers have described their kids as ‘scary smart’. I’ve also heard similar ideas from teachers or parents who question whether or not it’s okay to let children learn more than what’s expected for their age levels, and from kids who experience being unusually smart as meaning they’re ostracized by other kids and even adults.

A lot of things can underlie observations and questions like these, but very often, what people are really talking about are their own concerns. They wonder if they have what it takes to parent their energetically curious child who surprises them with what they know, teach students who have IQ scores higher than their own, or “be” extremely bright. Sometimes they’ve encountered critical reactions from friends and family members, and sometimes they’re worried about the praise, suspicion, envy, or expectations that can come when kids are noticeably ahead of ‘normal’.

My response to observations, questions, and concerns like this is to talk about what very high intelligence is, and what it isn’t. A lot of people think it’s a mysterious gift that some people are born with, and that others aren’t. But, the more that scientists learn about how the brain develops, the more it turns out that intelligence is actually an ongoing process that depends very much on the temperament and will of the individual child, as well as the environment that the child experiences at home and then, later, at school. Intelligence-building does involve genetic predispositions, but it is also dependent upon all those moment-by-moment environmental influences and learning opportunities that make up infants’, toddlers’, and older children’s experiences of life and the world. It’s not nearly so mysterious – or frightening – as some people seem to think.

From where I sit, highly intelligent or unusually “gifted” children are not scary creatures at all, but rather they are young people who are actively engaged in interesting developmental processes that are more complex than—but not as mysterious as–often imagined. They are experiencing what’s been called a ‘rage to master’, and they’ve been blessed with the kinds of social support and opportunities to learn that they need in order to pursue whatever it is they are raging to master. In my opinion, exceptionally high intelligence is a healthy and positive developmental process, and totally ‘normal’ within the context of particular circumstances. By looking at it this way, fears and concerns about kids who are ‘scary smart’ melt away, and parents, teachers, and children become free to continue engaging in enjoying learning together.

For more thoughts on this topic, go to

July 3, 2012

What if We Don’t Label Smart Kids ‘Smart’?

October 8, 2011

When children are ahead of their peers in their learning needs, their parents usually have lots of questions about what to do next. How do they make sure their children get an education that is challenging enough, without being stigmatized?

“I want my child to have the more challenging education that she needs, but I’m worried that the gifted label will lead to other kids bullying her or treating her differently.”

Joanne and I get a lot of questions from parents who want their children to be challenged in their learning, but are concerned about the gifted label, or about sending their children to segregated programs for high-ability learners. We’ve written about this in many places, including in Being Smart about Gifted Education, and Raising Smarter Kids. For a brief summary of some of our thoughts on this topic, including the pros and the cons, you might be interested in a paper we’ve posted to the Resources page of this website: “Label the person, or the program?”

Labeling and segregation is a hot topic for many parents. Earlier this week, Maureen Downey, an education writer and parent in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote a blog questioning the categorizing process that too often happens. She pointed out some of the problems, and offered an alternative suggestion: “I prefer that we get rid of gifted labels and instead make classes more fluid, moving students into higher grades when they show great aptitude.”

She also suggested that schools “consider raising the bar for all students, and treat everyone as a high achiever.” As evidence for this idea, she described Duke University’s Project Bright Idea, a five-year study of 10,000 students in the early grades. All the children were taught (independently of test scores or eligibility for gifted programming) in classrooms that used techniques recommended for high-ability students (which include more challenging learning opportunities, and an emphasis on higher order thinking). About 20 percent of these students were later identified as being academically gifted, as compared with 10% of similar students who were taught in regular classrooms, illustrating the remarkable effect of raising the bar for all children.

I’ve known many parents who are convinced that gifted labeling and/or programming saved their children’s lives in one way or another. However, I have also seen too many children on both sides of the artificial ‘gifted’ divide who were hurt by the fact of the divide. I agree with Ms. Downey—there is probably a better and more inclusive way of making sure that kids get all the challenges and support that they need to learn at the highest levels. To see Ms Downey’s blog:


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