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giftedness, enrichment, outlierosity

So. A month ago or so, Your Humble Blogger went to a Parent Information Session at the Perfect Non-Reader’s primary school, to learn about Enrichment for the Something School Student Community. I went in believing that enrichment was the new term for tracking or gifted programs, essentially, what the bright kids get that the other kids don’t. Well, actually, I went in believing that enrichment was what happened to the bad kids and why the school garden grew such large tomatoes. But more seriously, I thought we were talking about the Bright Kids. To some extent, I was disabused of this notion: the administration of Something School (a Magnet School of Math, Science and Technology for grades K-5) uses the term to mean stuff some kids get that others don’t, whether the kids that get it are bright or backward. It includes not only the advanced reading and math stuff, but band and chorus, ESL stuff (that isn’t called ESL these days, of course), remedial math and reading, Lego robotics, creative film-making, and, em, lots of other stuff. Art, too.

I think I approve of that conception, that having an unusual facility for arithmetic is not unlike being behind your class in arithmetic; both kids need special care to prevent them from (1) ruining class for everybody by demanding more than their share of the teacher’s attention, and (ii) deciding that this arithmetic stuff is for the birds, and spending most of the next ten years strenuously avoiding it. Although, you know, if the parents who have come to your session don’t understand what it’s about? Communication problem. And it’s a problem you need to fix not just for the people in the room, but (more importantly) for the people who might have come if they knew what the thing was about.

That leads me to my own problem, which is that I go to these meetings and respond to them as a sort of connoisseur of public speaking and a meeting critic. The woman from the district used transparencies and an overhead projector! What the hell? Is this 1974? I would be much better off responding as a parent, but somehow that other role creeps in.

What was on those transparencies, you ask? An excellent question, even if I had to ask it myself. One of them had the Venn Diagram you can see here, to which the proper response is not hee, hee, a Venn Diagram, but what is the philosophy behind a program that would show us this thing? The thing, for those who would rather have it in words, is that giftedness is shown to lie at the intersection of Above Average Ability, Creativity, and Task Commitment. It is only those who gain entry into all three rings that lie in the black hole of Giftedness.

Wow, says I to myself, you’re not gifted, after all! Yes, it turns out that the point of the overhead (and of the handout, as well) is that the old idea of giftedness was wrong, and that True Giftedness was much rarer. They handed out two quotes on that topic from prominent researchers on education (that I had never heard of, but that’s scarcely news). The first is from Henry Passow who evidently wrote that

that which educators and psychologists recognize as giftedness in children is really potential giftedness, which denotes promise rather than fulfillment and probabilities rather than certainties about future accomplishments. How high these probabilities are in any given case depends on the match between a child’s budding talents and the kinds of nurturance provided.

See, we thought that gifted kids were gifted, but really they are only potentially gifted, and we can’t tell which ones are Truly Gifted until we see the future accomplishments. This idea is carried out in the second quote, by Abraham Tannenbaum:

In order for a child to become truly gifted, five factors have to interweave most elegantly: 1) superior general intellect, 2) distinctive special aptitudes, 3) a supportive array of non-intellective factors, 4) a challenging and facilitative environment, and 5) the smile of good fortune at crucial periods of life.

Again, it is impossible to distinguish the Truly Gifted from the Also-Ran until that crucial period of life, whatever it may be.

Now, this seems to me profoundly wrong in two ways. First and least important, it screws up the entire metaphor of giftedness. I mean, if you give me twenty dollars, and buy losing lottery tickets with it, did I not get a true gift? In fact the whole point of the metaphor of the gift was that, having (perhaps inexplicably) received (from the Divine, but that part usually is left unsaid) unusual intellectual facility, it is up to the individual what use to make of the gift, or whether to waste it entirely. But nobody likes to waste gifts. Do y’all know the economist’s puzzle about how people who, given the opportunity to buy a (f’r’ex) playoff ticket for a hundred dollars, will not do it, thus indicating that they would rather have a hundred dollars than a ticket, but if they are given a ticket, and the next day somebody offers them a hundred bucks for the ticket— well, people are different one to another, but an awful lot of people wouldn’t sell it. Because it’s a gift.

So if we decide that we can’t allow that children are realio trulio gifted whether they achieve exceptional success in life or not, then the child to pisses away his gift is only pissing away a potential gift. The motivational aspect of the metaphor disappears, and it’s replaced with something much less appealing (who wants to be potentially gifted) and much less powerful.

But as annoyed as YHB is with the loss of the metaphor of giftedness, the underlying problem gets even further up my nose. Both of the quotes, as well as the Venn Diagram, come from an attitude that says that education is valuable because it makes great achievement possible. Or it maximizes the probability of achievement, if you like that better.

No, no, no! We don’t provide special education for people who have extraordinary facility with symbols or music or drawing because they may someday be superphysicists or rockstars or animators of blockbuster movies. We do it because they may someday be happy. They may lead interesting lives, bless ’em. They may contribute to their communities in a variety of ways, whether good fortune smiles on them or not. It’s nice when that happens, particularly with the physicists, but that’s not why we do it. And if it is why we do it, then it’s a spectacular failure, an unimaginable waste of resources.

And then I read an extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which talks about the Outliers in much the same way as Mssrs Passow and Tannenbaum. Essentially, if we want to have brilliant (f’r’ex) violinists, we need to identify those kids with talent by the time they are five, and give them the opportunity to play ten thousand hours on the violin by the time they are twenty-five. If they do it, they will probably be brilliant violinists.

Oh, I have so many problems with Mr. Gladwell’s methods. He’s a fascinating writer, but he comes up with some wonderful item—ten thousand hours—and he can’t view it skeptically, and he finds so many connections and reflections of it that he doesn’t even bother to convince us that the thing is right in the first place. But those things are appealing, and it’s appealing to think about those Outliers and how to make more of them. Because I do want more Outliers. I want the superphysicists and the rockstars and the animators, and the writers and the doctors and so on. And it is tempting to set up our educational system to maximize Outliers, both in quantity and quality. Given infinite resources, and tremendous wisdom in the allocation of those resources so that we somehow wouldn’t work to the detriment of others when we do maximize Outliers, it sounds great. But given our real world, or anything remotely like it, setting up an educational system to maximize Outliers is a grave mistake. And even with those infinite resources, I would still object to the idea that the purpose of the thing is to get the records and movies and aircars. And we don’t find out whether somebody was a truly gifted outlier by looking back and seeing that they succeeded. We shouldn’t have a biggish group of gifted and a small inner circle of truly gifted. That’s the wrong way to look at it.

Why do we provide enrichment? On one level, we just do it so they won’t cause trouble in the classroom. But on another, we do it because we want to teach each child to his appropriate abilities and background. Quick kids are one problem, slow kids are another, and medium kids are their own problem, too. We should enrich the lives of children through education, because that’s what education is, whether they go on to be ditch-diggers, doctors or dramaturges.

Which is what the school is actually doing. I was all upset by the woman from the district, with her transparencies and her Venn Diagram and her handouts. But when it came to finding out what was going on in the actual classrooms (and the gym and the library and so on), I was happy. And that was done with a computer projector with edited video and all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


My experience (about a semester as a substitute teacher at all levels in the city of Roanoke's public schools) seems to indicate that:

1 Being in the "enriched" programs, whatever you may call them in your district, is primarily a function of turning in work, less so of the grades received on that work, although extreme good grades gets one shunted into the enriched enriched programs.

2 Turning in work is primarily a function of social class.

I find that enormously irritating, and so my mission is to get into the remedial classes and start pushing those kids into enrichment. I expect to find this enormously frustrating, but I'm resigned to that.


setting up an educational system to maximize outliers is a grave mistake

ooo, ooo, isn't that also true for an economic system?

ok and i have another question. you defined gifted in relation to a person's facility with central or high cultural elements. this sort of breaks the metaphor for the gifted idea, as these high/central places are sustained with the well-justified expectation that enough people with, say, serious baseball skillz will continue to show up to have a decent league, or enough geeks for an MIT, etc -- but it seems to me the outlier people are produced by a process of community focus -- so giving aid to the genius-looking kids, all things equal, is about rejuvenating culture, by sending culture-the-being some very attuned friends to play with -- and hoping the results are interesting.

Since most of my experience with the term "enrichment" (as distinct from "unjust enrichment", vide OOPaHCoCaI) in the last decade has been along the lines of "finding weird ways to feed captive animals so they don't get bored", I assumed something like what the school seems to have meant. Well, maybe not hanging the lunches from the cafeteria ceiling.

Yeah, you want the kids to learn to do math and spell and all that; but mostly you want them to stay engaged, and get the idea that Learning is Fun. Then you can slip some math and grammar past their guard while they're distracted.

Thinking back on my elementary school, it seems like most of it was enrichment. Math by way of bridge design and construction. State History by way of actually going gold mining for a week.

Unfortunately, after that, Junior High was even more of an unpleasant surprise than usual.

It was a big liberating epiphany for me that adult potential is not the important thing about childhood giftedness. Being super smart as a kid was not awesome, contrary to what all those teachers told me, because it meant I might grow up to do great things; it was awesome because it was fun and satisfying *right then* in my life as a kid. I have no idea, of course, whether thoughts on giftedness will turn out to be relevant to the meeple, but I suspect I would have been a somewhat different parent back when I was more hung up on the idea of childhood "paying off" in adulthood.

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