By Carolyn Coil, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Carolyn Coil is a speaker, educator and author. She works with teachers, administrators, parents and students, offering strategies for raising achievement, developing creative and critical thinking skills, motivating underachievers, differentiating curriculum and assessing student performance. She has taught graduate-level gifted endorsement courses for more than 20 years. You can follow her on Twitter, @CarolynCoil.
(CNN) - American educators have struggled for more than 40 years to define giftedness. Yet even now, there is no universally agreed upon definition of what it means to be gifted. U.S. federal law defines gifted students as those who perform or who show promise of performing at high levels in any one of five categories: general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude, creative or productive thinking, leadership ability or visual/performing arts.
Beyond that definition, there are no specific national criteria for identifying gifted and talented students nor does federal law provide funding or mandates for identification of these students or programming for them. This definition is left to the states.
The result has been a wide variety of state definitions and methods for the identification of gifted children. Some states have specific definitions for giftedness, while others have none. Some states require programs for gifted students, while others do not.
In other words, the availability of programs and services for gifted students depends for the most part on where a student lives and what state, school district or school he or she is in.
There is debate over how to identify and measure giftedness, whether giftedness is innate (nature) or developed (nurture) and whether giftedness is driven by intelligence test results or through other indicators.
These varying perspectives have led to much misinformation about gifted students and what programs for gifted students should look like. Here are 10 of the most common myths about gifted students and programs for the gifted:
Myth No. 1: Intelligence is inherited and does not change. Gifted students, therefore, do not need any special services.
All of us do inherit certain traits, intelligences and talents. But these need to be developed and nurtured throughout life for them to grow and reach their full potential. A beautiful flower inherits certain traits. But if it is not watered and fed and if it does not get the right amount of sunlight, it does not develop as it could. The same is true for gifted children.
Myth No. 2: Giftedness can easily be measured by intelligence tests and tests of achievement.
Giftedness is difficult to measure. This is why schools and school districts try so many different ways to identify gifted students. Tests are often culturally biased and may reflect ethnicity, socioeconomic status, exposure and experiences rather than true giftedness. Other children may be gifted but are not good at taking tests. They may not score well on standardized tests but may be gifted, especially in creative and productive thinking.
Myth No. 3: There is no need to identify gifted students in the early grades.
Many school districts do not begin identifying gifted and talented students until third grade. There is a belief among some educators that giftedness cannot be properly identified in the early grades. However, the National Association for Gifted Children programming standards start with pre-kindergarten. The group’s early childhood network position paper says that “providing engaging, responsive learning environments … benefit all children, including young gifted children.”
Myth No. 4: Gifted students read all the time, wear glasses and/or are physically and socially inept.
From Jason, the cartoon character in the “Foxtrot” comic strip, to Sheldon on the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” we can see this stereotype in action. But like all other kids, gifted children come in many varieties. Some are successful in sports or music, and some are physically attractive. Some have many friends, while others have only a few. Some are extreme extroverts, while others are introverts. There is no one type of person or personality we can pinpoint as gifted.
Myth No. 5: Gifted kids are all model students – they’re well-behaved and make good grades.
This statement reflects another stereotype about gifted students. Some gifted children are model students. They are compliant, follow directions, never misbehave and make straight A’s. But many others challenge teachers, do their own thing instead of the assigned work, procrastinate until the last minute when doing long-range assignments, get low grades, are disorganized and have poor study skills.
Myth No. 6: All gifted students work up to their potential.
Most schools have their share of gifted underachievers. These students have the potential for excellence but - for a variety of reasons - do not fulfill that potential. Gifted underachievers may decide they will only do the minimum requirements and choose the easy work instead of more challenging tasks. They often lack study and organizational skills because in the early grades they don’t need to develop them. Some get discouraged when the work doesn’t come easily, and others don’t want to look gifted because it isn’t “cool.”
Myth No. 7: Teaching gifted students is easy.
Some believe that a good teacher can easily teach any student. If this were the case, good teaching with no special training would be all that is needed to teach gifted students. However, in my many years of teaching graduate-level courses in gifted education, I have found that good teachers add to their skills and learn new strategies and techniques targeted particularly to meeting the needs of the gifted. Most teachers of the gifted tell me this is the hardest, most challenging, most exhausting and most rewarding teaching they have ever done.
Myth No. 8: Gifted students will get by on their own without any special help from the school.
I hear this myth often, especially in times of budget cutting. Some people claim that gifted students come from wealthy families who can meet their children’s needs. Others assert that the expense of providing gifted programs cannot be justified. In general, the assumption is that gifted students will succeed regardless of the quality of the education they receive. This is simply not true. Gifted students require special services and programs to ensure the growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities.
Myth No. 9: It never hurts gifted students to teach others what they already know.
If gifted students already know the grade-level standards, it may seem logical to have them teach others. This is faulty logic. It assumes that teaching struggling students is something gifted kids innately know how to do. Most gifted students do not know how to tutor others. They often are frustrated that struggling students don’t understand what they perceive as easy. Peer tutoring using gifted students also takes away time they should be using for more advanced work, more rigor and more higher-level thinking.
Myth No. 10: All children are gifted.
If all kids are gifted, then there is no need to identify gifted students and no need for any special programs for gifted. I strongly believe that all children have distinctive and unique qualities that make each one valuable. This does not mean, however, that all children are gifted. Being identified as gifted simply means that certain children have needs that are different from most others at their age and grade level. All gifted students need programs and services to ensure their growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities.
For information about gifted students and programs, I recommend the following websites and publishers:
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carolyn Coil.