Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Gifted Label

I didn't commit to writing a post about this topic, because I am still not sure where I stand in relation to it. 

On the one hand, I acknowledge that the term "gifted" is misunderstood, misused, and considered slightly offensive by some people.  On the other hand, I don't think it is necessarily the word itself that is at fault. 

I have been teaching since 1971.  Before that, my mother was a teacher, and her mother as well.  So, we have a long history of being involved in education.  My father was also a school board member and both my parents were involved in the establishment of the Iowa TAG subgroup of the Council on Exceptional Children.  In those many years, the term for slow learners has changed over and over again.  The earliest term I can remember is "retarded".  It was intended as a simple descriptor.  These children learn more slowly in relation to the other children.  But it acquired a negative connotation, so other terms were substituted, MR, EMR, learning disabled, and more.  In some cases, the terms became more descriptive and more definitive; in others, it was hoped that they would be perceived as less undesirable. 

Over the years, I think teachers, school personnel, and the general public have all gotten to be more understanding of slow learners, but I am not sure that it is due to more descriptive or more well-defined designations for them.  I would like to think that it is more due to improved knowledge about their capabilities and methods to help them achieve more and be integrated into the regular lives of school children. 

It is thus with some reservation that I look at whether "gifted" should be changed to something else.  Are we trying to better describe the concept of giftedness and look differently at the capabilities of gifted children (and adults) or is it because of a negative connotation?  In my experience, the negative perception of the term "gifted" is partly due to the reality of giftedness, not the term itself.  Examples:  a) I was in the teachers' lounge eating lunch.  I said something in response to the general conversation.  I was told, "You're too smart for us."  b) I was speculating about some phenomena - its causes and consequences.  My children said (with great exasperation), "Do you have to analyze EVERYTHING?"  In neither of these cases was the word "gifted" even close to being mentioned.  The negative perception was for me - a gifted adult.  Both examples were rejections of ME for being who I am.  In the case of my children, I will forgive them because of their youth and their teenage critical natures at the time.  But the first example has happened under slightly different circumstances over and over again.  I am sorry I can't appear to be not gifted at times.  I have tried "code switching" - changing my speech to match the types of conversations I am a part of.  It works, most of the time - or at least I used to think it did.  Now, I am not so sure.  Eventually, I get "outed" - by something I say, usually. 

Thus, I feel that part of the problem with the word "gifted" is not the word itself, but the person to whom the label is applied.  We represent some things that people find uncomfortable.  As with the terms for slow learners, it makes many people uncomfortable to acknowledge the people, so the term keeps changing in an attempt to show that we really don't want to make people feel bad. 

On the other hand, "gifted" isn't exactly a descriptive term.  It doesn't say anything about how the process of learning or being is different for that person.  "Retarded" and all of its replacements can at least be credited with that.  "Learning disabled", though vague, at least indicates that there is some learning process that, for that particular student, is more difficult than normal.

The problem, as MANY people have said, is that there is no good alternative.  "Smart" could be a catch-all descriptor, except that it, too, isn't very descriptive.  "Fast learner" only describes a portion of gifted people.  Some learn fast; others learn deeply; still others think broadly and creatively.  Should all these acquire different designations?  "Persons with high intelligence", as suggested by Dr. Wenda Sheard, is a bit cumbersome and is only a bit more descriptive than "gifted". 

I don't know.  Like Shaun Hately, I think labeling is actually helpful.  It gives people an entry into a way of thinking about that individual.  Most people understand that the label is only a beginning, and that it just points to some things that might need to be considered.  Just like "learning disabled", it signals that there is something specific here that needs to be looked at. 

Other blogs referenced:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post and your perspective, Laura. It echoes my own as an adult and our adult experiences echo my childhood and adolescent experiences.

    I've noted elsewhere that "persons of high intelligence" suffers from the same problem as "fast learner" - only a portion of the gifted population is covered, while other aspects of their being are ignored.

    I will likely return to read this again.