Gifting education sans prejudices

Last Updated 28 August 2013, 16:08 IST

Gifted education faces obstacles from certain beliefs held by Montessorians. Amita Basu examines these beliefs and evidences behind them.

Honouring the right of every student to an ability-appropriate education – and recognising and nurturing excellence – are not mutually exclusive goals.  Democracy guarantees equality before the law; it does not claim that everyone is the same. 

Equity strives for education that meets the needs, abilities, and interests of every student; it does not claim that all students are the same, nor does it try to make them all the same – doing this would mean holding back children with high potential.  I am revisiting this topic because of the strong resistance from some groups to gifted identification and education.

This resistance is particularly entrenched in the Montessori community which includes teachers, decision-makers, and parents.  It is unfortunate, as Montessorians and gifted educationists share many beliefs and goals and can work together to improve the general as well as the gifted curriculum.

The claims on which Montessorians and others base their opposition to gifted education are

*Children do not differ in their abilities: Most of us wouldn’t think twice about saying Hari is more athletic than Rahul, or Jinna is more extroverted than Sushma.  We often make comparisons between people on physical characteristics, as well as characteristics that are less tangible, like personality dimensions.  Comparisons of intelligence, however, are always hesitant and articulated with reluctance – in the rare cases that they’re made at all.  Previously we discussed the politics of intelligence, and the reason why we’re reluctant to discuss individual differences in intelligence.  But the claim that children do not differ in their abilities is simply untenable in the face of the facts.

*All children are gifted: Think of giftedness as “the ability to benefit from advanced learning material.”  Now consider the following experiment; we will henceforth offer the Std IV curriculum to all Std III children.  If all children are gifted, then all Std III children should be able to benefit from this advanced learning material.  Putting this claim to a practical test shows its hollowness. 

“Giftedness” is a statistical, normative comparison - a gifted child excels in comparison with age-peers.  A child who demonstrates potential or performance significantly above average for his/her age needs something more.

* We can make all children gifted: We have already discussed the misinterpretation and misuse of Multiple Intelligence theory to support this claim.  Montessorians claim that every child is gifted at something.  Revisiting our definition of giftedness, this means that “every child performs in the top 5-10%” at something.  This also means that if we haven’t identified a child as gifted at something, we simply haven’t looked hard enough.
At first glance this claim seems reasonable.  A child may not excel at academics, or sports, or leadership, or art, but he does excel in something. 

This claim can support enrichment – exposing children to a range of activities to find what they’re good at.  Enrichment has indisputable neurocognitive benefits to children at all levels of ability - it plays a role in canalisation.  (A child of a given ability level can achieve performance within a given range.  Enrichment canalises ability to facilitate performance at the higher levels of this range.)

But enrichment does not make children gifted.  If we provide enriched environments to all children – and we should – we will not eliminate differences between children’s abilities.  In any environment, there will be some children who perform significantly better than peers.  In an enriched environment, most children will perform closer to their potential.  Differences in potential and performance will remain.

The claim that everyone is gifted at something is hypothetical, and is contradicted by a large body of research which shows that different kinds of abilities covary, i.e. children who excel in one area also excel in others. 

To expect that a particular kind of schooling will make all children gifted is the claim that environment is king.  It is reminiscent of the behaviorist Watson’s claim, “Give me twenty children and complete control of their environment, I will make any of them an artist, or a criminal, or a doctor.”  We refuse to acknowledge the contribution of genetics of intelligence.  Is environment important?  Extremely.  Is it everything?  No. 

There is new research showing that Montessori-educated children outperform their non-Montessori peers in many ways including academic and socio-emotional.  An individualised education programme, with hands-on learning, and student voice and choice, will improve the learning and adjustment of all or most children.  But it cannot, and should not aim to, eliminate ability differences.

* All judgments of ability differences are subjective: We previously examined objections to intelligence tests and saw that they do measure something important, and measure it increasingly well.  Other sources of gifted identification include nominations and creativity tests.  Nominations depend on teachers or parents making behavioral assessments.  While subjectivity is inherent in such assessments, psychometric methods take this into account.
Research suggests that both parents and experienced teachers in fact make accurate assessments of a child’s ability.  If anything, the danger is that teachers may be too conservative, leading to under-identification. 

We think of creativity as nebulous concept, its objective judgment impossible.  However, research has established criteria for assessing creativity.  Perhaps the best criterion is productivity: in the arts, for example, in most fields, a small number of people have produced a large proportion of the valued works. 

Tests of creativity may also use expert judgment: a panel of subject-area experts creates a detailed scale of characteristics on which a piece of work is to be evaluated, as well as a rating guide.  Expert judges often agree about which pieces of work are superior, suggesting that excellence can be measured and agreed upon.

* With an appropriate general education plan, we won’t need gifted education: Montessorians and gifted educationists both agree that we need enrichment: diversifying, deepening, and broadening the content, delivery, and assessment of the curriculum. 

Montessorians believe that an enriched curriculum eliminates the need for gifted education.  Recall that gifted children need curriculum beyond their age group.  Gifted children need enrichment that fosters their preference for complexity and for solving novel problems.

 Any kind of one-size-fits-all curriculum will benefit neither gifted children nor their nongifted peers. 

Improving the quality of general education and developing a gifted education plan for India need to happen hand in hand. 

Montessorians and gifted educationists are both striving for this common goal, and would benefit from dialogue and collaboration.

(Published 28 August 2013, 16:08 IST)

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