Reconciling the Field's Many Motivations


As I work with educators, parents, and advocates around the country, they are often surprised by my optimism about the future of the field. As I begin my term as NAGC president, the time feels right to share the reasons behind my excitement … but also a cautionary note about how our current progress can be easily lost if we’re not careful.

I see plenty of reasons to be optimistic. We have more and better theories and research on developing students’ gifts and talents; we have more advocates than ever before, and they’re constantly improving their strategies for creating policy and educational change for talented children; educators are implementing sound practices and showing a clear commitment to equity; districts are implementing research-supported strategies such as universal screening; and we’ve never had so many policymakers sensitive to the needs of gifted children. We are collectively focusing on development of children’s talents, helping them improve their quality of life and future prospects. That’s optimistic by definition!

But as an NAGC officer over the past two years, I've also come to understand the nature of our major weaknesses, and how those issues threaten this recent progress. I’ve talked to many people about these problems and potential solutions, including parents, students, educators, consultants, and higher-education folks. These conversations are often difficult but always enlightening and inspiring. Yes, we have challenges, but they aren’t insurmountable.

The big challenge is that the gifted education community is really several different communities. They’re loosely connected like squares of an afghan blanket, with some communities less connected than others. Each group have its own motivations and goals, and their perspectives often don’t overlap that much. As a result, we talk past each other, roll our eyes at each other’s views, and move the field forward in inches rather than miles.

We have four main communities, from my perspective.* Parents want solutions to the problems their child faces, generally caused by lack of services within their school, and strategies for dealing with the wide range of social and emotional issues their child experiences. This makes perfect sense: You’re concerned about your child, you don’t really care whether other students’ face similar issues, you don’t have the time to keep up with the latest research – you want solutions that help your bright child immediately. Even more to the point, parents feel an urgency for quick action because, for example, an underchallenged fourth-grader only has one shot at fourth grade, and the problem needs to be addressed NOW. So a deficit perspective that treats each gifted student as dealing with unique academic, social, and emotional issues and challenges is reasonable. Yet many other parents and the school may appear unsupportive or even dismissive of your child’s needs: “They’re smart, they’ll figure it out on their own without any help.”

Most talented students know they are different, even at a young age. Their concerns tend to involve keeping themselves challenged and interested when in school, along with all the normal trials and tribulations faced by young people: making and maintaining friendships, developing a sense of identity while not wanting to stick out from the crowd too much, having fun. They realize they have the potential to do important things, but they also live in a culture where advanced academic achievement is paradoxically either an expectation (to an excessive degree) or a social detriment – especially for low-income, Black, Hispanic, Native American, twice exceptional, and female students. Or both!

Educators within our field want effective strategies for working with bright students. They may have one advanced student or dozens; they may have no identified students but many diamonds-in-the-rough who will do great things if only given the right opportunities. They understand the value of research but wear many hats and have little time to keep up with the latest studies. Educators’ concerns are usually broader than those of parents (several students vs. one or two children), and they are working within educational systems that provide little credit for helping students perform at advanced levels (and may even be hostile to the idea).

Academics generally are concerned about conducting cutting-edge research, working with the other communities to implement research-based practices, and training future educators. They often focus on improving the situation for large groups of students, not necessarily individuals, through promotion of research and research-based practices, and their work is examined quite closely by their employer (mainly through peer evaluation) to ensure they’re having the desired impact. Academics rarely have large numbers of colleagues with similar interests, and many work in settings where gifted or advanced education is a very low priority, if not offensive to many.

Four overlapping communities, each with its own motivations, strengths, and hurdles to overcome. Our greatest weakness is that we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of people in other communities, leading to misunderstandings, division, and pulling in opposite directions at times. This may be one reason why I look across the field and see so many passionate, hard-working advocates … but not nearly the advocacy results one would expect from such a talented group.

NAGC has an important role to play in bringing our communities together. We can promote conversations among these stakeholder groups; we can ensure that all groups are represented when planning events, outreach efforts, and convention sessions; we can provide a wide range of resources that address the needs of each group while acknowledging the contributions each community made to that particular resource. We can model our field’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity by not merely exhibiting tolerance – which implies there is something to be tolerated – but carefully considering a wide range of opinions, valuing perspectives different from our own, and modifying our views accordingly.

The future of the field depends, in large part, on our communities acknowledging their different mindsets and learning to work together across those well-entrenched perspectives and biases. If we all start pulling in the same direction, much like the field of special education has done, we will create the long-term change for gifted students, their families, and our schools, culture, and economy we have struggled to achieve. I look forward to working with you as we take NAGC to the next level in our support for gifted students.

Footnote: *There are probably more than four communities within our field, but I boiled things down for argument’s sake. The same issues exist whether we have 2 or 22 communities.

Jonathan A. Plucker, Ph.D., is the President of the NAGC Board and the Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

The views expressed herein represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.