When I started to write this, I realized that I wanted to say more than could fit in a single post. So, instead of trying to cram it in, I’ve divided it into two parts, the second of which will be posted on Wednesday or Thursday night. This first part will be mostly an introduction.
That said, there’s some controversy in the world of gifted education about whether or not to tell kids if they are gifted. The most mainstream article on the subject is Po Bronson’s in New York Magazine, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids. It doesn’t explicitly mention an application with gifted kids other than the introduction, but it might as well. Even more recently, a Washington Post article, Labels Aren’t What Kids Need, takes the same stance and even cites the same Mindset theories of Carol Dweck. Both of these are against telling kids that they’re smart/gifted. On the pro side, Hoagies’ Gifted has the article Should we tell them they’re gifted?. Both the pro and con arguments are equally intriguing, and I highly recommend reading the articles linked – they’re not just applicable for gifted kids.
From the Washington Post article:
“What most parents don’t realize is that the gifted label can harm not only those who don’t receive it, but also those who do. Labeling can create what Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a ‘fixed’ mindset of intelligence — the belief that your intelligence is set in stone… In 1998, Dweck conducted an experiment in which she gave two evenly matched groups of elementary school kids the same nonverbal IQ test. When one group of children did well, they were told that they must have worked very hard to get their results. The students in the other group, meanwhile, were told that they must be very smart to have done so well.
Dweck found that as time went on, the kids who were told that they were smart ‘fell apart when they hit a challenge. They lost confidence in their abilities. Their motivation dwindled and their performance on the next IQ test dropped.’ By contrast, the children in the group praised for working hard tended to seek out challenges and persist at difficult tasks and ultimately learned more.”
…suggesting that telling children of their giftedness will discourage them from seeking out challenging situations and taking risks. Po Bronson’s article goes more in depth about the study, and Dweck concludes: “When we praise children for their intelligence… we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” Kids told that they are gifted will apparently try and keep up their “smart” image by doing the minimum amount required, no more.
On the other hand, the Hoagies’ Gifted article approaches it from a completely different angle:
“What are you going to tell your daughter when she comes to you in tears, saying that the other kids are all mean to her because they won’t talk to her? It’s not that unusual for a gifted 3 to 6 year old to have a good working vocabulary that is 5, 10, or 20 times larger than the vocabulary of a ‘normal’ child the same age. They won’t talk to her because they can’t, they literally don’t know 80-95% of the words. Without discussing her exceptional abilities, how are you going to explain that to her?
It isn’t a question of feeling different – gifted kids know that they’re different – it’s a question of how they feel about being different. If adults treat that difference as something to be hidden, the intellectually gifted child will learn that intellectual gifts are shameful and intellectual ability is to be hidden from others like a dirty secret. Since it is a central part of the way they experience the world, they will learn to think of themselves as defective and shameful, and grow up profoundly ambivalent about themselves and about being successful.”
This one tackles the child’s emotional and psychological well-being, which I think is much more important than achievement. There are too many case studies I’ve read of people who’ve gone through most of their lives – or at least adolescence and college – before they realized they were gifted, and thought, “That explains everything.” And if only they’d known, maybe they wouldn’t have always thought there was something wrong with them, tried to develop it, and have done something with it instead of wondering what was wrong.
Optimally, we want gifted kids to grow up with both a work ethic and a healthy psyche; to be iconoclastic and challenge-seeking, but also at peace with themselves and their differences. Fantastic idea, but likely unfeasible in our lifetimes. Getting around the political incorrectness of admitting some students can be gifted long enough to think of tackling their problems on a wider scale is far enough away on its own.
And that’s your quick introduction – stay tuned for part 2: why giving the gifted label is like flipping a coin (but not really)!