Reflections on gifted education from the Olympics, part 2: What we can contribute

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Throughout the recent Olympic Games, I reflected on the parallels between elite-level athletics and gifted education, and I thought how much we could learn about developing exceptional ability from what we saw during those two weeks. We appreciate diverse forms of brilliance on the field, in the pool, on the court, and on the track. And we support the long-term dedication of time and resources it takes to achieve athletic excellence. And yet we wonder why, as a society, we have had a harder time openly embracing and celebrating the development of intellectual and creative talent.

It has been suggested that the answer lies in some vague (I would suggest misguided) discomfort related to our nation’s egalitarian roots. Supporters of gifted education counter with the argument that there is something decidedly undemocratic about not providing all children—including those of exceptional ability—with equal opportunity to develop their talents.

A second argument—one that came to mind many times when Rio commentators talked about records that fell during the games—is that by investing heavily in the kinds of programs that promote exceptional performance from gifted students, we may indeed be showing the way to much-improved educational experiences (and achievement) for all students. This argument may will finally put the spotlight on gifted education in a way that allows all educators to recognize its valuable role not just in meeting the needs of gifted learners, but also as a catalyst for achieving school-wide excellence. 

Here’s what I mean: My husband is a weekend cyclist. Just before he left for a forty-mile bike ride with the local cycling club, he and I watched the dramatic final of women’s road cycling from Rio. Although he is in better shape than many middle-aged men, I can assure you that my husband will never be a contender for Olympic gold! But as he strapped on his strong, light-weight helmet and clipped into the pedals of a top-rate (if slightly aged) racing bicycle, I considered the ways in which weekend athletes have benefitted from the tremendous expertise that has been applied to shaving seconds off the times of world-class cyclists. Innovative technology, new training techniques, specialized psychological support, better understanding of the role of nutrition in peak performance: All those assets are first used to take elite athletes to new levels of performance, and then eventually adopted by downstream enthusiasts of the sport. And what happens then? The floor of performance is raised, and those who coach gifted athletes continue to innovate to find the new ceiling!

That is the unique contribution that gifted education can and should be making to school improvement efforts in this country. It is time for gifted education specialists to come in from the trailer behind the school to take a place at the leadership table.

Our message should go something like this: “Friends, over the years we have shown how certain instructional strategies, such as constructivism and problem-based learning, can result in improved engagement, motivation, and achievement for our most able learners. We are not backing away from our commitment to providing those kinds of experiences for gifted students. In fact, we want you to lock arms with us to provide even more. But in return, we’d like to work with you on ways to modify those strategies for use with many more students. We believe, in fact, that gifted education may be our best secret weapon for promoting school-wide excellence.”

It has been estimated that in the last half century, our nation has spent $3 trillion on school improvement efforts, most of it concentrated on structural changes (e.g., year-round schools or block scheduling) or instructional approaches associated with remedial education. Can we not look back on all those years of diligent efforts by well-meaning educators and wonder, “How’s this plan working out for us?” In most cases, the honest response must be, “Not so well.” Isn’t it time to try a fundamentally different approach? I believe, that deficiency view (i.e., reform efforts that start by looking at what’s wrong with children and what students do not do well) is inherently limiting. Yet for decades, we have persisted in trying to improve schools by hammering away with prescriptive, didactic approaches to teaching and learning.

As we face increasing demands to improve student performance and mounting competition in a global economy, it is time to pose these questions: What if the strategies we have used to create high-ceiling, highly personalized learning environments for gifted students can be modified to help many more students achieve at levels we never dreamed possible? What if the best way to improve our schools is to focus on excellence, not adequacy? What if the answer is to pull from the top of the school improvement mountain, clearing the way for more students to climb higher, rather than hammering away relentlessly at the bottom? That is the lesson of Olympic coaching. It’s an approach that results both in regularly broken records for our best athletes and better performance for recreational participants like my husband.

The next time you are watching elite athletes perform, take a moment to reflect on all that had to happen along the way for those individuals to reach the level at which we can admire their dazzling performance. Undoubtedly, that they were born with exceptional psychomotor ability. In early childhood, I suspect, someone—a parent, a teacher, a coach—noticed the child’s delight and grace in movement, and the child began to understand that his special abilities were valued. Specialized training that was targeted just above the young athlete’s current level of development, as well as opportunities to hone his skills alongside other kids with similar abilities and interests, helped him maintain that early passion and continually improve.

We can provide a similar path to amazing performance in the arenas of academic and creative achievement for our most able students. In a parallel way, those who may never be leading scholars or artists can undoubtedly strive higher when they have access to the know-how traditionally applied to gifted students (e.g., challenging curricula tied it to students’ strengths and passions, authentic problem-based learning, and high degrees of personalization). The pedagogical expertise of gifted education professionals is an important element that is too often missing in conversations about school reform.

You can wonder if this intentional extension of gifted education strategies to promote total school improvement might not diminish our ability to meet the needs of gifted students. I don’t believe so. I have been a gifted education advocate for forty years, and I have never seen a really good gifted program in a bad school. A genuine commitment to educational excellence encompasses a commitment to excellence for children who are gifted.

Much of this post was originally published in TEMPO: Journal of the Texas Association for the Gifted & Talented. Used here with permission: Krisel, S. (2014). Gifted education as a catalyst for school improvement: It’s time to come in from the trailer and lead the race to the top. TEMPO: Journal of the Texas Association for the Gifted & Talented, 35(2), 21–27.

Dr. Sally Krisel, director of Innovative and Advanced Programs for Hall County Schools in Gainesville, Georgia, is president-elect of the NAGC Board of Directors.

The High Flyer is a unique collaboration between the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Our two organizations unite around common goals: to expand the public’s understanding of the needs of gifted and talented children, to increase public urgency to serve them, and to dispel common myths. The High Flyer and our other combined efforts are meant to lead the conversation and signal that all gifted and talented students matter.