Why failure helps gifted children achieve so much more

Aug 11, 2018 by

The understanding of what constitutes a gifted child has experienced a subtle though significant transformation since my first training in this area in the early 2000s.

Maths group students Ryan Shi (left) and Simon Smith at Sydney's Arden Anglican School.

Maths group students Ryan Shi (left) and Simon Smith at Sydney’s Arden Anglican School. Photo: Supplied

Gifted identification and subsequent educational policies have until recently relied heavily on identifying a sub set of the population as gifted using a range of criteria, though heavily reliant on intelligence based (IQ) assessments.

These students – the gifted – then became the responsibility of the parents and school to provide appropriate opportunities for talent development; that is, converting the gifted to the talented.

The most familiar model for this practice is one of the versions of the Differentiated Model of Talent Development, by French-Canadian educator Francoys Gagne.

Two recent developments for educators would suggest that giftedness is more complex and fluid than can be defined simply by ability and subsequent opportunity.

These new players are growth mindset and neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is making headlines across many domains: from mental health to spinal cord injuries to education and aged care.

Stanford University mathematics educator Jo Boeler emphasises its importance in education particularly through explaining how making errors, then recognising and correcting errors, causes synapses in the brain to fire. When gifted students avoid risk taking and potential failure, they also lose this brain growth opportunity.

Growth mindset, best known through the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, challenges the concept that intelligence is a fixed characteristic distributed unequally at birth.

While it is easy to appreciate that having a fixed view of one’s intelligence is not helpful for a child with academic struggles (“I just don’t have a maths brain!”), a fixed view is also unhelpful for a gifted child.

By attributing achievement to natural talent, these students have no strategies for managing lack of success. In short, they are denied control over their own destiny.

Defining a student as “smart” or “intelligent” and equating this with achievement, can threaten the foundation of their identity, when at subsequent stages success does not come.

Growth mindset places characteristics imperative for exceptionality – effort, persistence and learning from mistakes – back in the hands of the individual.

Incorporating these new concepts is a model of giftedness known as the developmental approach. Lead publishers in this field are Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Rena Subotnik. While acknowledging individual differences in ability and the role early in life of IQ, a developmental approach to education argues that the representation of giftedness changes over time.

While giftedness in the beginning stages might be identified as potential, as the person ages, achievement becomes the new and relevant measure. This is defined as a performance or production in the upper-end of the distribution, even compared with other high-functioning individuals.

Thus, talent development moves through a trajectory – from ability to competence to achievement and, finally, to eminence.

My understanding is that the individual moves from being a consumer to becoming a creator in their discipline.

And early precocity is not a guarantee of the further stages of giftedness. By mid-high school achievement is much more significant than potential. It is the only factor of importance in the later stages of the gifted trajectory.

A developmental approach recognises that giftedness is domain specific. In some domains such as treble singers or female gymnasts, the domain trajectory starts and finishes very early relative to the human lifespan.

However, there is a wide variety. Teachers frequently interact with parents who seem to think that their child needs to peak in every aspect of their academic and personal life while still in the primary school years!

Some abilities such as string instruments or mathematical talent do start early. Yet many other disciplines like philosophy, politics and psychology only emerge in late adolescence.

Greatest achievements for eminent achievers emerge in the sixth, seventh or eighth decades of life. So the school years need to focus on important foundational qualities such as task persistence, learning and growing through failure and developing social skills which include supporting those with lesser opportunities, lesser abilities or fewer resources.

As parents and educators, a developmental approach allows a long-term view. Many of the things that upset families greatly in their interactions with schools will seem less important next week, not to mention next year.

We also need to permit our gifted young to experience frustration, failure and consequences.

By rescuing them from today’s problem, we injure their capacity to cope with tomorrow’s and such problems will be larger than today’s.

We need to help them fall in love with their domain, but later apply themselves to the discipline and rigour required to master it.

The teaching styles supporting this will vary throughout the trajectory. Once the love is established through a teacher or parent, a technical expert supports the student with the tools of the trade and finally a mentor guides them to make their own mark on the discipline.

We need to acknowledge disappointments when they occur, but more importantly, as adults, demonstrate moving on past the situation. We need to expect and model compassion.

Gifted adults may perhaps surround themselves with other high ability individuals. Yet they will have many encounters with those who think and act differently to themselves.

Practising kind and affirming behaviour to all starts in the early years with siblings, parents, classmates and teachers.

And finally, all children need time, especially time to be bored. Creating time and space for conversations, for messy play and not having a schedule is itself a gift.

The authors of the development model argue that the ultimate goal of gifted education is eminence. As an educator in a faith-based context, I see this view of gifted education as too limited.

Rather, my goal for my gifted students is to build transformative people who through their special abilities and commitment cause positive and joyful change.

It is my hope that these people will contribute locally and globally to make the world a more beautiful, truthful, forgiving and just society.

Dr Gabrielle Oslington is Gifted and Talented teacher at Sydney’s Arden Anglican School. The article is an abridged version of a speech given by Dr Oslington at St Andrew’s Cathedral School.

Source: Why failure helps gifted children achieve so much more

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