Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Academically Gifted vs. Intellectually Gifted

Before continuing this discussion, I need to establish definitions of academically gifted and intellectually gifted, because there is a difference. 

The state of North Carolina defines academically gifted thus: "Academically gifted students in North Carolina are defined as those who “perform or show the potential to perform at substantially high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment."1  The key word in this sentence is accomplishment. The academically gifted see the rewards that come from working for grades and meeting teachers’ expectations.  They stay up late doing homework, get up early to complete assignments, come in during lunch hours for tutoring, even ask for extra assignments to raise their averages.  They monitor their own grades, stress about A-s, and occasionally successfully lobby teachers to raise poor grades.  They know their class rank--who is above them and who is slipping in the rankings. 

While many academically gifted students also qualify as intellectually gifted, many are not.  I knew two girls growing up who were academically very gifted, both of whom graduated at the top of our class of over 400.  Both performed well in school and had the grades to back up their achievements. Neither of them scored above a 20 on the ACT.2 One of these young women didn’t even break 15.  This was the first time in my life I remember being aware that all school-smart people weren’t SMART smart. Although they had proven their academic ability, neither of these young women would fit into the category of the intellectually gifted.

This is the definition used by the state of Tennessee for intellectually gifted: “Intellectually gifted means a child whose intellectual abilities and potential for achievement are so outstanding that the child’s educational performance is adversely affected. Adverse affect means the general curriculum alone is inadequate to appropriately meet the student’s educational needs." Key words used in this definition are potential, as I will address in a moment, and adverse affect—regular school can’t provide for their needs.

Intellectually gifted individuals see things others don’t see, understand equations others can’t comprehend, imagine solutions to problems the world deems unsolvable. Words flow from their minds and through their mouths that belie their age.  Puzzle pieces magically unite in their hands.  Stories leap from their minds and fill blank pages.  Miles of equations crumble into four simple, indecipherable symbols. Often, these individuals are categorized as quirky, their “outside-the-box” thinking refusing any other label.  And even more often, intellectually gifted children refuse to perform in school, classifying the rote learning taught in schools today as too repetitious and tedious to warrant their best efforts.  If the correct motivation is unavailable to them, they will find ways around assignments, even sometimes generating so little effort that they fail in academic situations. 

I have firsthand experience with parenting an intellectually gifted child.  Tucker showed aptitude for logic and puzzles at an early age. He could do fifty-piece puzzles before he was two, correctly identified every dinosaur before he was three, and taught himself math facts before kindergarten.  He fit many of the criteria of gifted kids--caught on quickly, loved by adults, emotionally and socially a little backward. I tried many different teachers and schools and educational approaches.  Nothing really clicked with him, and what I mean by that is that nothing really motivated him to do his best.  In sixth grade, he attended regular class at one school, an extended learning program (PC code for gifted program) at another, and math at the junior high, with me shuttling him between teachers and schools with the hope that something or someone would bring out the best in him.  Tucker completed high school geometry the summer before seventh grade and was attending math classes at the high school before he was thirteen.  If he were to complete the trajectory he was on, he would have completed the second year of calculus--highest level of math offered in our public schools--after his sophomore year, a class completed by less than one percent of all graduating seniors.

So where was the problem?  The problem was that he never received grades commensurate with his abilities because no math teacher could motivate him to care about his grade.  During his second semester of Calculus AB during his freshman year, Tucker was required to complete a three-dimensional shape project using some formula to calculate each two-dimensional sliver of the shape, then assembling all of the slivers into the 3D version.  This project was intended to take weeks and demanded exactness to reflect their work.  His project was slapstick and messy and inaccurate because he couldn't care about the project  itself, even though the calculations to render the shape were simple for him.  His final grade for that semester definitely did not reflect his aptitude, but it did reflect his meager efforts. I was frustrated, disappointed, and almost hopeless at this point.

The Calculus AP test is legendary for its difficulty, and here he was, taking it at the conclusion of his sophomore year.  Could I get him to go to any review sessions or study at all for it?  No.  Even without any of the standard preparation put in by most students, Tucker passed the AP test with a 3--a score equal to or better than many students' scores--and they had studied for weeks. 

He was enrolled in Calculus BC his sophomore year with the same teacher he'd had the year before.  This class was a small, elite group of mathematicians who lived and breathed math.  Four weeks into the school year my carefully constructed dam broke--this fragile structure that I had hoped would hold together long enough for him to recognize what he was capable of and to perform at that level.  How many of you have had conferences with high school teachers? I bet not very many of you. Let me tell you, high school teachers don't like conferences, especially AP-level teachers who only accept the best and brightest into their classrooms in the first place. I talked with his teacher many times, trying to figure out how we could pull this genius-level skill out of him and have it reflected in his grade.  I went into the classroom, only to hear these words that I will never forget: "Your son is one of the most brilliant math minds I've ever encountered.  And he is one of the laziest people I've ever met."  He then demanded requested that I pull Tucker from his class for the rest of the year.

What do you do with that as the parent?  No matter how hard we both pushed him, encouraged him, bribed him, grounded him, or shadowed him,3 we could not force him to perform.  I spent many hours worrying, talking with teachers of the gifted, crying, praying, yelling.  All it did was disintegrate my relationship with my son.  My gifted son.  My brilliant, wonderful, capable, stubborn son.  Somehow, I and public school had failed him.4

After having read these definitions and examples, if you can classify you or your child as both academically and intellectually gifted--one of that very small, select group that achieves marks reflecting their gifts--consider yourself blessed, because you are in the minority. I firmly believe that most intellectually gifted kids develop lazy habits in their school experience because the challenge to their abilities disappears in early elementary school. 

Tomorrow: How Public School Is Failing Our Gifted Kids

1 Use of North Carolina's and Tennessee's definitions of these terms reflects which definitions appeared in my research first, and I have no ulterior motivation or reason for their use other than their availability.

2Scores pre-1989 use a scale that is now outdated.  In 1990, ACT “recentered” their scores, and average scores jumped from 18.6 to 20.6 in a year.  For more information, click here. Most recent median ACT score statistic available for the state of Idaho is 21.6 in 2012.

3yes, I actually attended calculus with my sixteen-year-old son and yes, it humiliated us both but did nothing to change his grade.

4Tucker is currently completing an LDS mission in NYC, due home in eight days (in case you hadn't heard).  I asked him in a letter since he's been gone what I could have done differently during that period of his life, and his reply was comforting.  He wrote that he knew I had done the best I could and that he knows he could have done things differently.  We both regret how this time in his life brought so much strife into our relationship and drove us to warring corners of the ring.


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  2. This post is incredibly interesting. According to the scale in your post yesterday, I'd say I'm somewhere on the mid to high end of the mildly gifted scale. I'm not an idiot, but I'm not a genius either. And yet, I had 2.3 GPA in high school. I am not academically gifted. But I know that I'm not stupid, that my high school GPA wasn't commensurate to my intelligence. I was just as able as anyone else (and more able than some) to understand what was taught, I just had no stomach for academic work (I did really well on tests, that's what saved me). I'm looking forward to tomorrow's post because after reading this one, as a mildly intellectually gifted child, I'm nearly convinced that public school did fail me.

  3. The tough thing is that when good grades come very easily and a child is tough to motivate to do more, they don't learn study habits. I learned in High School that I didn't have to study or work hard to get A's and B's...so, I wondered, why should I?

    Unfortunately this didn't work so well for me in College...eventually leading to me flunking out. (as you well know). It wasn't a lack of intelligence that was my problem, but a lack of motivation. 25 years later, I graduated from college with a near 4.0 GPA (excluding the poor grades from my younger years).

    I bet Tucker's mission experience will have done wonders for him in learning how to focus and discipline himself for his future....and the cool thing is, he can now choose the direction and level of his education.

  4. Yep! I let Dallin swap Calculus AB for online bowling...great parenting (heavy on the sarcasm), I couldn't take the contention anymore.

    I am interested to see how college post mission will go...

    And WEEEEE! 1 more week!

  5. I once had a teacher tell me she was shocked that Jake didn't like to read because he was obviously so bright...he doesn't like to read the "trash" fiction that is in our school library, but give him a book about the Civil war and he will devour it...Its all about "cookie cuttering" kids. Trying to make them all the same, if you are smart you should be able to motivate yourself, right? Oh, I get this, I soooo get this!

  6. Your Tucker and my David Scott are two peas in a pod. To quote his second grade teacher:
    "David has the brain of a rocket scientist but no ambition to build one."
    In 3rd grade he was reading on an 8th grade testing level--a voracious reader, a fantastic test-taker, but a terrible homeworker. He despised book reports so much, and put as little effort as possible into them. I know the frustration of which you talk. He was put into the TAG (talented and gifted program) in school which only resulted in MORE homework! It failed us both dismally. He didn't need more homework, he needed better CLASS work to stimulate his young mind.
    David Scott will graduate this year with a degree in Computer Science/Network and Administration. He currently works for HP's Naval Defense Tech Support AKA He has a JOB! lol

  7. Can an institution built to provide for the needs of everyone, ever really meet the needs of the one? It's a tough problem. You, and Tucker may find that you learned more from your "failures" than you did from your successes. I have found that to be true so many times in my life. I'm so excited for your reunion!

  8. Sister Denton, this was so interesting to read. I've never read your blog before but the subject intrigued me because I have been thinking about a similar topic lately. As you know, Tucker and I were grouped together from an early age as two of the most "intellectually gifted" students at our elementary school. As we grew up, I always did well in school while he didn't, though I'm sure he is much smarter than me. I guess that makes me one of the fraction of people that are both "academically gifted" and "intellectually gifted." Yet because I did care about my GPA, I feel like I spent most of my effort working to figure out what a teacher wanted rather than actually learning. I remember Tucker could always figure out math problems faster than everyone else, yet he usually just used his brain rather than doing it how the teacher asked him, which often got him into trouble. I did what I was asked, but I never developed the skill of figuring things out myself. Give me a formula I know, and I can figure out how to use it, but I could never come up with the formula. Over the years, I have become somewhat disenchanted with the public school system, and I have realized that I have spent much of my life working for something I don't really agree with: grades.
    One of the biggest problems with out school system, I believe, is the obsession with standardized measurment. I have been studying for the GRE and have been reminded, once again, that national standardized tests don't test ability or knowledge-they test how well you know the test. I have always performed exceptionally well on standardized tests, but I don't think this makes me any more capable of sucess than my friends who didn't do as well. My near perfect SAT score mainly says one thing about me--I'm really good at taking tests.
    Public schooling really does cater to a certain type of person and fosters a certain skill set, often forcing the creativity out of students in the process. I am a public school success story, yet I sometimes wonder what I could have learned and accomplished if I had developed other skills rather than putting most of my energy into getting good grades.
    I wish I had answers to these problems. I echo Sister Eddington's question: Can an institution built to provide for the needs of everyone ever really meet the needs of the one? It's one of my goals in life to find better ways to educate the next generation, but as my mom has told me and my siblings, I have to work the system until I graduate, and then I can start fighting it.
    Sorry for the super long comment, but this is obviously something I'm passionate about, and I thought you might like having the perspective of someone who sees the flaws in the system, despite doing very well in it. Thanks for your post!

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  10. My two most intellectually gifted kids were the laziest in primary and secondary school. Happily, they excelled in college and beyond because for some reason, it finally mattered enough to them to play the game...to a degree, at least.

    Having said that, I still don't think either one of them has reached his full potential, and they are 36 and 30 years old. One has a masters degree and excels in his field, but he still pretty much wings it. The other is in medical school, but his work habits are so iffy that it's a miracle he manages to get the job done. (Thankfully, the "book learning" part is over for him now, and he is moving on to rotations. He far prefers hands-on learning.)

    Not sure what the solution is, but I think you are right that challenging my children as youngsters might have gotten them more excited about (willing to buy into) education that wasn't self-directed. You see, when they are researching or learning what THEY choose, they are driven.

    But they were never into school. At all. Which is why it is so funny to think of Todd in medical school, where he is definitely the oddball among a group of mostly very motivated (even anal) students.



  11. This is quite an interesting topic you are tackling on your blog. E is still too young for me to tell if she is gifted in any way (though my FIL is convinced she's musically gifted because Jason is).

    Jason falls under the intellectually gifted category. He's always telling me stories about when he was in school and how he'd get into trouble all the time for being lazy and not doing his homework but yet still pass all the tests he was given. His parents complain that he's lazy but he constantly likes to say that he doesn't understand why he has to do homework if he already understands the materials. According to him, homework is just to help you understand the materials but if you already understand then it's just repetitive work. He has the ability to picture things in his head and see patterns that no one else can. He also learns things really quickly and can pick up new skills and abilities without trying really hard. The downside to him being intellectually gifted is that he tends to be impatient with other's inability to see what he sees.

    His parents actually sent him to a magnet school that only accepted kids with a high IQ and even that wasn't challenging enough for him so I can only imagine what a regular public school would have been able to do for him.

    Jason is still pretty lazy these days because that's how he has been all his life when he was in school. Things still come easy to him which is probably why he doesn't have to try hard. The only thing that he actually has to put in effort for is with the girls and me. :) We're not like math problems or computer programming and we're not easy to figure out.

  12. I am a teacher of gifted students in a public school in NC. My own 3 kids qualified for the program early in elementary school and have completed college with extremely high scores. They were each unique regarding their motivation level but the main similarity I saw was they would do anything if they felt their teacher loved them. It wouldn't matter what I said; the teacher was their inspiration. Each day it is my hope that my students feel that love such that they will challenge themselves, drive themselves harder to go beyond what is asked, and feel confident to make a difference in the world. I pray all students have at least one teacher that they feel loves them so much that they will do anything to please them!

  13. Wow, finally a parent that understands what I am going through with my oldest son. He puts all his effort in "how to do the minimum just to get by". Math class is so boring for him. He is identified gifted in Math, but he mostly still does the regular curriculum, and gets just a couple 20-minute pull-out sessions per week (which he LOVES because it is finally interesting). We've had to do IMACS to keep him truly on a path to realize his potential. Add to this that he has dysgraphia (much like dyslexia but with writing instead of reading), so his twice-exceptionalism has the problem of masking the giftedness. If they cannot show on paper, they don't get credit for their intellect. So a kid who struggles with putting things to paper gets overlooked -- if only they would allow oratory examination for the dysgraphics. What can we, as parents, do to have our voices heard on this?

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