Joseph Renzulli, one of our foremost researchers on giftedness, tells us that a gifted learner can have all the ability in the world, but until there is a spark or a passion . . . until there is an opportunity to express giftedness--that ability looks, well . . . pretty darn average.
Fortunately for gifted educators, many gifted kids "fit" in school. These students start expressing their talents early and often. These students will thrive in any gifted program anywhere. They will take AP courses in high school, apply for and be awarded merit-based scholarships, set academic goals and achieve them, finish college with advanced degrees. If we challenge these students (that’s a big IF—but another topic for another day) and encourage them toward autonomy, these kids will be successful.
Many times, though, gifted kids don't really fit. No one gave them the memo about how to be normal.
Nope. They’re not normal! And to their credit!
Brilliance should never be confined to the “normal” parameters of a school system. By its very definition, brilliance needs to burst forth. For some—the less lucky--it takes other, less common environments or means to express their talents and ability. Renzulli tells us that the top 15-20% in ability should be nurtured through gifted programming. Let’s “catch” as many students as possible and offer them enrichment opportunities or alternate programming.
Have you seen the movie Mathilda? I love that movie! There comes a moment in the movie in which, on her first day at school, Mathilda’s teacher is leading the students in a choral response to review their times tables. On a whim, the teacher, Miss Honey, calls out something like “413 x 62.” To everyone’s astonishment, Mathilda’s voice shyly rings out the solution to the math problem. I love the moment we hear that little voice do her amazing mental math. Mathilda absolutely "fits" in the school environment. It took only a few minutes on the first day to notice that she loves it there. In her home environment, though, Mathilda is a misfit. We are aghast. Horrified at her treatment! How unfair!
Yet Mathilda’s situation is flipped for many of our gifted kids, and not many of us are aghast at the treatment these kids receive. Giftedness, I believe, has an absolute/genetic/hereditary component (and a big one at that), but what giftedness absolutely needs is the right environment, and I believe we can nurture that environment for gifted learners in our classrooms as long as we don’t let the “system” of achievement testing and “stay in the box” and “post your benchmarks every day” or “teach nothing outside of the standards” rule our decisions.