This blog post was written at the invitation of Gerald Aungst, Supervisor of Gifted Education at Cheltenham (PA) School District, and is cross-posted at his blog, Quisitivity.
I’m a school psychologist, so my professional life is a minefield of labels and acronyms – FAPE, IEP, SLD, OHI, IDEA, PLAAPF, ICS, FBA, “gen ed >80%”, “gen ed 40%-80%”, “gifted”, “learning disabled”, etc. While labels like these are the reality for now, I have a vision of education in the 21st century that reduces or possibly even eliminates the need for these labels. Although my professional focus is on students with learning disabilities (giftedness is not a special ed classification in NJ), I believe that LD and giftedness fall under the same umbrella in that they represent atypical learning styles and abilities, and must both be accommodated accordingly.
My issue with labels stems, in large part, from my own childhood, when I was identified as a “gifted” child in grade 3. I remained in my district’s pull-out “Gifted & Talented” program through grade 8, when the program ended. While I did enjoy getting to leave class to work on more challenging projects, there were the constant comments of “there goes the nerd herd”, etc., whenever my classmates and I would leave. A friend of mine was recommended to the G&T program in 6th grade but declined; when I asked him why, he said, “Because everyone will think I’m a nerd like you guys!” At age 11, that cut me to the quick, and it’s awfully telling that I can remember that conversation and his response verbatim over two decades after the fact.
From early on, my “giftedness”* was a double-edged sword: it was seen as desirable in terms of school (was it a competition that I was ‘winning’?), but socially it became an albatross around my neck. I’ll spare you the tortured self-analysis, but suffice to say I’ve thought a lot about it over the years and have drawn some pretty solid conclusions that are probably better discussed over some beers than in a blog post. While I don’t think this is the only issue, consider, for instance, the physical removal from the general classroom: if my academic needs could have been met through in-class differentiation, perhaps that stigma would not have been so significant (and perhaps my friend would have gotten the challenging curriculum he deserved).
But forget about the academic implications for a minute; labels and categorization are detrimental to our students as people. They overwhelmingly inform students’ sense of self and their relation to others; they pigeonhole, they segregate, and they ultimately do more harm than good. Even when those labels are more socially desired, like “gifted”, I feel it’s still kind of like saying, “but saying all Asians are good at math is a good stereotype!”
My vision for gifted education in the 21st century is much the same as my vision for special education in the 21st century, which also happens to be similar to my vision of general education for the 21st century: to reimagine not only the curriculum, but also the physical and geographic elements of our schools. I wrote about this a few months ago, but to briefly re-cap: rethink the necessity of the 7.5 hour, Monday-Friday school day, rethink the role of the instructor as deliverer of content, and rethink the role of the student in terms of steering their learning in ways other than choosing a few electives each year once they’re in high school. My hope is that individualizing students’ formal educational experience as much as possible will reduce the need for labels such as the ones I describe above, either by allowing a wider variety of needs to be met within the traditional classroom, or by eliminating the traditional classroom completely.
In the initial email Gerald sent me to invite me to write this post, he indicated when he unveiled his new mission statement for his district’s gifted education program, “In among the many positive and encouraging responses, a few people commented that, while the statements were nice, aren’t these things we should be doing with every student?” Indeed, none of what I’m putting forth in this blog post is revolutionary; Vygotsky, Piaget, and Dewey laid the groundwork for this type of thinking a long time ago. Despite, or perhaps especially in light of, that fact, the question remains: why are we not doing this for all our students? Are the roadblocks physical, philosophical, geographic, financial, or other?
*Yes, I’m probably considered “smart” or “bright” by most academic measures, but consider: doing simple mental math is very difficult for me, I still take pause to consider my left from my right (bonus fun fact: up until my mid-twenties or so, I relied on a trick I devised when I was about 5 and owned shoes that had Winnie the Pooh on one sole and Tigger on the other), I must write down everything I need to do or it won’t get done, I can’t change the oil in my car, and the most basic of household handiwork tends to flummox me. Who’s gifted now?