Research into the achievements and outcomes of special provision for G&T children has produced surprising results, Joan Freeman explains
The outstanding finding from many years of international research on the development of gifts and talents is that the evidence and the mythology do not match (see Freeman 1998; Freeman 2002). The dominant stereotype is still of an undersized boy peering sadly through his thick spectacles at pages of mathematical equations. But virtually all the scientific research shows the gifted to be healthy children of both genders, emotionally stable and a pleasure to teach. This is not to say that gifted children don’t sometimes have emotional challenges. They are, after all, exceptional. They can suffer particularly from other people’s expectations; perhaps the worst is being expected to be perfect all the time. Constantly high expectations mean that failure is inevitable from time to time. This brings children fears of disappointing teachers and parents. Such fears directed some of the gifted children I have interviewed to aim for unchallenging goals throughout life. Teachers can help by allowing the gifted to feel free to experiment – and fail – and still feel good about themselves.
Teachers around the world vary a great deal in identifying gifted children. In America it varies from 5% to 10%. German teachers are less generous, estimating only about 3.5%, though Indonesian teachers came up with 17.4% (Dahme, 1996). Teachers are sometimes given check lists which can be misleading, but in fact, all measures are limited. IQ tests, for example, cannot tell you about how children learn and think, nor can they predict high-level creativity. What’s more, they are not even a sensitive measure of a gifted intellect because the upper limits are not able to distinguish between the top few per cent. Social or business talents are rarely considered in any form of assessment. Children’s own enthusiasms have been found to be excellent indicators of adult attainment. But nobody could predict future world-statures from the school records of geniuses such as Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie or Bill Gates. Studies which look back at the childhoods of outstanding adults have shown that many who became outstanding in later life were not at all outstanding, even by adolescence.
Research methodology is not always as rigorous as it could be in this field. Some researchers, for example, draw wide conclusions from studying just a small number of children. Studies on gender achievements highlight other issues: American research is unquestionably dominant in the field and it is often quoted all over the world as though it is pertinent to every population. But it is not. For example, successful girls in Louis Terman’s Californian long-term study of gifted children had to give up marriage and children to reach the top of their careers (Holahan and Sears, 1995). In the USA, within the top 10% of high achievers, boys outnumber girls by 2:1 in mathematics and 5:1 in science, (Hedges and Nowell, 1995). But now in Britain, girls are doing better than boys at all school subjects, including mathematics and science at all ages (Freeman, 2003). Similar trends are found in most other developed counties such as Australia, Holland and Spain, though less so in Germany. American figures and conclusions, (notably about different kinds of brains) do not tie up with results in Europe and Australia.
The Freeman research
In 1974 I began a comparison study in Britain (Freeman, 2001). I was concerned to find out why some children were labelled as gifted, while others – of identical measured ability and achievement – were not. My investigation has involved more than three decades of testing and in-depth interviews with the individuals, their parents and their teachers, in their school and home environments. My target group was 70 children aged between five and 14, described as gifted by their parents, all of whom had joined the National Association for Gifted Children (UK). Each of these children was matched with two comparison children, the first measured as identically gifted – though not labelled as such – and the second taken at random (N=210). Each of these 70 triads, also matched for age and gender, was in the same school-class, providing a common experience both educationally and from the same social population. IQs ranged from the 46 children with less than 120 IQ to 18 children with above 160 IQ; 13 knocked the test’s ceiling of 170 IQ. Family finances ranged from very poor to very rich. The essential difference between the target and identically gifted children was whether or not they bore the label of ‘gifted’. The uniqueness of this investigation lies not only in the long deep interviews over so many years but in the methodology, notably the carefully matched comparisons. World-wide, I still do not know of any other longitudinal study which has done this. My research has shown that pressure to conform to expectations, whether positive or negative, affected individuals’ life paths for decades. The unlabelled gifted had many fewer emotional problems and a broader span of learning and activities. In fact, strong pressure sometimes had the opposite effect from what was intended, the worst affected being the accelerated boys specialising in science. They could miss out on the healthy development of social skills and relationships and their self-images were poor. All work and no play not only make Jack a dull boy, but a sad and lonely one too. Today, in their forties, many regret the way their childhood was spent in heavy study. In terms of conventional success in life, such as high examination marks, climbing the corporate ladder or making money, the primary building blocks were always keenness and hard work, allied with sufficient ability, educational opportunity and an emotionally supportive home. Some gifts were more encouraged in schools than others, particularly science and mathematics, possibly because outstanding results could be more easily achieved and measured in those subjects. Poor educational guidance caused too many to waste time and energy in following wrong channels. High-level creativity though, as seen in adult careers, demanded a particular type of personality which enabled the individual to act independently of others’ opinions. Whether individuals were modest, conventional and rule-abiding or constantly straining to change the world, they usually carried their personal style through to adulthood.
In whatever manner the gifted are selected for special provision, the outcome is likely to be positive. It is not surprising to anyone that bright, keen children will learn something on a specially designed course. But holiday courses of a week or two a year, are less likely to be effective than the everyday challenge of good teaching.
The decision whether to accelerate the gifted in school is difficult and depends on the flexibility of the system, how many others in a school are accelerated, the child’s level of maturation and the emotional support received. Where the school standard is high (as in Scandinavia) there seems to be no need for jumping children up a class or two, and there are many other ways of helping the gifted without removing them from their age group. Accelerated children can have big gaps in their learning, and resulting emotional problems can appear long after the school years. General enrichment, though, is not adequate as a blanket measure. The children who had an enriched education at the Hunter School for the gifted in New York had not achieved any differently from their social and intellectual peers at other schools – 40 years later (Subotnik et al, 1993). A clear focus in enrichment is essential. This could be, for example, a journalism course for sharp writers or photography for the visually talented. It is helpful to observe children in rich and varied educational settings; perhaps dancers in a serious dance class or future programmers with access to good-quality computers. Teacher encouragement of play is extremely important for creativity in all fields. The great scientists, such as Albert Einstein and Peter Medawar said that they would not have gained their Nobel prizes without play. Playful attitudes to work begin from the first days of school and heavy memorising severely inhibits this.
Freeman’s sports approach
Selection of the gifted followed by special provision works quite well for children who are already highly achieving. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. I believe that we should change to a dynamic approach, flinging our nets more widely to pick up many more youngsters who have hidden talents. Given the opportunity and, with some adult guidance, children should be able to select themselves to work in any area at a more advanced or deeper level – assuming that the provision is there for them.
For talented sporting children there’s often extra tuition, equipment and transport for matches. But talented chemists or linguists often get much less support. In the same way that those who are talented and motivated can select themselves for extra tuition and practice in sport, I suggest they could select themselves for extra help in the subject area of their choice. This would mean, of course, that the extra facilities must be open to all, rather than only to those selected by IQ tests, adult experts or the money to pay for extras. If we were to take this approach for all children, I am sure that in a few years we could have a far higher proportion of those we now see as gifted.
No single style of teaching can cater for the needs of all gifted pupils. Gifts can take many different forms and they may turn up in quite unexpected situations at different points during a life-time. Above all, to develop excellence in any area, potentially gifted children require the means to learn, which includes generous learning materials, focussed challenging teaching, encouragement and absolute acceptance for who they are.